Last week, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks for the second time unanimously voted to rescind the landmark designation for Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (completed in 1975). The vote essentially dooms the innovative concrete-shell modernist hospital building to demolition whenever owner Northwestern University decided to tear it down. Additionally, the vote is an odd smack-down of preservationist pragmatism. Preservationists were not insensitive to the programmatic needs of Northwestern University, and did not hold fast to a you-can’t-touch-this absolutism, but instead started embracing the defiant modern design of our time. Alas, what might have been an outstanding moment for solving a tough preservation problem is now just fodder for preservation theory books. Chicago will not be building on precedents that include an unfairly understudied example from St. Louis, where the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated how important architectural modernism could be preserved amid shifting programmatic needs.
On June 22, 2009, the Preservation Board voted 3-2 to grant preliminary approval to demolition of a landmark work of non-residential modern architecture designed by a renowned architect with a national practice, located in the Central West End Local Historic District. Readers with memories long and short will know that this building was the DeVille Motor Hotel (later San Luis Apartments) at the northeast corner of Lindell and Taylor avenues, completed in 1963 and designed by Charles Colbert, partner in the firm of Colbert Hess Lowery & Boudreaux. Some of the same number will know the arduous struggle by preservationists to get the Archdiocese to reconsider demolishing the curvaceous former motel, which ended up in a lengthy Preservation Board meeting.
Last summer, things were somewhat chaotic for two early buildings by giant firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (now HOK) located on Lindell Boulevard. While the old IBM Building (1959; 3800 Lindell), now Adorjan Hall at St. Louis University, lost its brise soleil, the former Sperry-Rand Building (1956; 4100 Lindell), most recently the St. Louis Housing Authority headquarters, was facing uncertainty. Things have changed — just a bit.
Now the Sperry-Rand Building is on the market listed at a little over $1.1 million. That price might be low enough to be in “tear down” range in some cities, but in St. Louis that seems to be a price that might encourage buyers who would retain the building. Whether those buyers would retain the building’s character is another question.
George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum had only been in business as partners for one year when the Sperry-Rand Building opened its doors. Admittedly the firm would reach greater heights than this modest three-story business block, but its form and minimal treatment remain elegant. Furthermore, the Sperry-Rand Building offers a great combination of urbanistic traits: the building maintains the ample Lindell Boulevard setback, which gives that street its monumentality, while opening its first floor with large full-height windows and its floor level near sidewalk level. In short, the first floor could be adapted to retail use quite easily, adding activity on a corner close to emergent redevelopment on Laclede and West Pine avenues.
As an early work of a major firm, and part of the reconstruction of Lindell Boulevard through Modern Movement architecture between 1939 and 1977, the Sperry-Rand Building is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s historic context will become even clearer as the Cultural Resources Office and its consultant completes the development of contexts for non-residential Modern architecture in the city. That project, including a survey, is underway and will be completed in 2013. Already known is that the building is one of at least 37 Modern buildings built between Grand and Kingshighway on Lindell at a time when the city was struggling to enliven its core. Corporate office buildings like the Sperry-Rand were signs of needed investment, and their confident Modern architecture reflected optimism.
The Sperry-Rand Building also offers ample parking in back on a lot shared with the former Easter Seal Society Building to the west (1960), also for sale. That space could be used immediately for its function, or built out with additional construction and structured parking. Someday, we can hope, the Lindell Marketplace will be dramatically reconfigured to appropriate scale and density. The wreck of 3949 Lindell Boulevard will soon be rebuilt. Sarah Avenue has gained several establishments. This corner building is a key connector, built in an adaptable urban form. Perhaps higher density will rise around it, but there is nothing amiss with the building’s scale. This is a small gem that needs to shine again.
The loss of the apartment building at 3949 Lindell Boulevard (rebuilt in 2009 after a 2007 fire) after a devastating fire on Monday has raised questions about lightweight construction’s fire resistance. Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson has questioned whether the city can stand the risk of allowing the construction of buildings like the lost apartment building, which had an open attic with only drywall partition fire stops. The roaring fire quickly ate these thin, flammable stops, and raced across the top of the building in a matter of minutes.
The fire chief’s concerns are appropriate. Although no lives were lost, the construction of 3949 Lindell Boulevard clearly was not adequate to resist what started as a small fire on the fourth floor. The wake of the fire might lead to revisions to the city’s building code reminiscent of past changes that have shifted away from requiring fireproof masonry construction. In 1961, the city created its first code that permitted exterior wall systems — “curtain walls” — to not include any masonry. Subsequent revisions have modified provisions in concert with both changes in building technology and the desires of developers who wish to lower constructions costs while shortening building times.
Monday’s fire brought to mind the impact of another disaster on Lindell Boulevard. On September 27, 1927, a major tornado raced northeasterly through the city. Damage on Lindell Boulevard stretched from Vandeventer Avenue west to Taylor avenue, and many buildings were destroyed completely while others were badly damaged.
After the Auto Club of Missouri’s adopted headquarters in the former Columbian Club at 3917 Lindell Boulevard burned in 1975, the organization sought to construct a new headquarters. The leadership decided to relocate the headquarters to a site on Mason Road at Highway 40 in west St. Louis County. However, the Auto Club — an affiliate of the AAA — decided to retain its long-time Central West End site for a new member services office and automobile diagnostic center.
The April 1976 issue of Midwest Motorist reported that the club had hired Sarmiento Architects, led by designer W.A. Sarmiento, to design a new 7,500 square-foot office building as well as an 18,000 square foot diagnostic center in an existing garage to the west (built in 1967). Construction was estimated to cost $500,000. According to H. Sam Priest, president of the Auto Club of Missouri, the facility was to be “the largest and most complete of its kind in the territory.” The club served Missouri, southern Illinois and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.
The article in Midwest Motorist included bullish quotes on the new facility from Mayor John Poelker, St. Louis University Chancellor the Rev. Paul Reinert and Washington University Chancellor William C. Danforth. All three welcomed a new facility in what was seen as a key area linking the university campuses and downtown St. Louis. Indeed, Lindell Boulevard was a major thoroughfare that was actively rebuilt between 1939 and 1977. At least 34 new buildings were built there between Grand and Kingshighway in that period, in addition to several major re-cladding projects. Most of the new and redesigned buildings were in Modern Movement styles. (Take a self-guided tour of mid-century modern architecture on Lindell here.)
W.A. (Wenceslao or “Wence”) Sarmiento had already left his mark on Lindell Boulevard. The Peruvian-born designer had served as chief architect for the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation from 1952 through 1964. In that capacity, Sarmiento designed the Chancery of the Archdiocese of St. Louis at 4445 Lindell Boulevard (1963). That distinctive building made use of steel, plate glass and thin-shell concrete to articulate a circular form. That form allowed for placement of a two-story open rotunda around which offices were arranged. The exterior challenged the tenets of the International Style by encasing the steel columns in shaped cladding, applying geometric metal grilles over the glazing and placing the space-age structure on a podium of ashlar-bonded rusticated limestone. Yet the building retains a classical austerity.
For the Auto Club of Missouri’s new building, Sarmiento again explored the application of classical formal principles to a rounded building form that symbolically adopted the shape of the national AAA logo. The one-story building was elliptical in shape, and placed at an angle on the site so that the main entrance faced Lindell Boulevard on a southwest diagonal axis. The northwest face of the building was largely unarticulated, save a drive-through window, but the main face was drawn out as a temple front with a colonnade of columns supporting an entablature and projecting cornice. Of course, the columns were of no pure order, but geometrically derived tapered concrete members. Likewise, the entablature and cornice elements were squared off, abstract concrete elements. Behind the colonnade, the wall was glazed with mirrored glass that rose the full height of the wall plane. All of these elements concealed the raw expression of building form, giving it stylistic characteristics common to the New Formalism of the 1970s.
Sarmiento’s detailing did not stop at the building entrance. Inside of the Auto Club’s building, the form of the building revealed its logic. The elliptical form allowed for a large main lobby with seating ringed by a curved bank of stations for various Auto Club agents. The design evoked Sarmiento’s acumen at bank design, but also was purely functional for the building’s purpose. Inside, Sarmiento chose to have each column rise into a lighted ceiling vault. Descending from each vault were thin mental bands that joined to clad each column. Again, the architect avoided the purely functional expression for ornamental flourish. (One ornamental landscape element that was never built was a series of metal fences of interlocked circles on the lawn.)
The Auto Club of Missouri’s building is now known as the AAA Building and retains its original function. The Department of Motor Vehicles’ station inside of the lobby draws many people into this iconic modernist building. Yet the AAA of Missouri, successor to the Auto Club, wants to sell the building to a CVS affiliate company that would demolish it for a new chain drug store. Not only would demolition destroy a significant work of architecture, it would diminish the long historic association of the AAA with the site. How either of those things honors the history of the Auto Club of Missouri and the AAA is beyond the grasp of this writer.
The Preservation Board will consider demolition of the AAA Building as a preliminary review on Monday, June 25 at 4:00 p.m. (Meeting agenda here.) The meeting takes place at 1520 Market Street, in room 2000 on the second floor. Public testimony is welcome, either at the meeting or by e-mail to Board Secretary Adona Buford at BufordA@stlouiscity.com.
As buildings go, the former Scudder Motor Truck Company Building at 3942-62 Laclede Avenue is not particularly lovely, or very well-known. No matter, because the building’s transition from the last days of carriage production to the St. Louis’ early and roaring automobile age has earned it a place in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service listed the Scudder building on April 24. Preservation Research Office prepared the nomination for the building’s owners, F H & C LLC.
The Scudder Motor Truck Company Building significant for its commercial history and association with transitions in the local automobile industry. The building meets the registration requirements for Property Type: Automotive Dealerships and Retail Businesses and for the Property Type: Service Stations established in the Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF) Historic Auto-Related Resources of St. Louis, Missouri. (An MPDF allows for buildings that support broader contexts to received National Register listing when they would be ineligible on their own. Such is the case here.) Carriage-related buildings adapted to serve the automobile age are rare in St. Louis, but the nominated building made that transition and continues to be in use by an automobile-related enterprise.
In 1908, the Haase-Bohle Carriage Company built a new carriage factory at 3958-62 Laclede Avenue (listed permit address) designed by the architectural firm of Mathews & Clarke. The Haase-Bohle Carriage Company was then located at Eighteenth and Pine streets downtown and the company and its predecessor McCall & Haase Carriage Company had been manufacturing carriages since the 1870s. In 1908, Charles Haase was president and Frank G. Bohle was vice president. The company’s new plant was favorably reported in The Carriage Monthly‘s November 1908 issue. The journal reported that Haase-Bohle would build “a large and modern factory, on an admirable site” and that the building “will have excellent shipping facilities, and all modern conveniences for the handling of goods.”
In 1918, the Scudder Motor Truck Company, a dealer of Service brand delivery and fleet trucks moved into the building. The company operated a dealership and repair shop, and lured co-tenants offering related services for both Service and other types of trucks. W.L. Armstrong’s tire shop is shown at this address in a 1919 advertisement, and the Local Auto Paint Company appears at the address in city directories from 1923 through 1933. These businesses occupied the building simultaneously, and may have had financial interconnections. At the least, their services all would have appealed to clients that owned delivery trucks.
The Scudder Motor Truck Company sold and provided repair services to delivery trucks, and frequently took out illustrated advertisements in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. These advertisements feature images of Service delivery trucks and the brand name “Service” emblazoned diagonally. That brand was the trademark of the Service Motor Truck Company of Wabash, Indiana, which manufactured delivery and repair trucks for industrial buyers.
Scudder occupied the building as a truck dealership and service shop, a tire shop and an automobile painting shop through 1937. From that year through 1952, the Falstaff Brewing Company used the building as a garage and maintenance shop for its delivery fleet. The period of significance begins when the Scudder Motor Truck Company opened its dealership in the building and ends in 1952 when the Falstaff garage closed. In 1958, Bumper and Auto Processing of Missouri occupied the building as a shop for processing and re-plating of automobile bumpers. That use, under current tenant United Automotive Products, Inc., continues to this day.
Text adapted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination. Read the full text here.
In June 2006, the St. Louis Business Journal reported the news that Highland Homes had placed the two-story residential building at 4557 Laclede Avenue under contract. At the time, the late 19th century two-flat housed the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Highland Homes planned to demolish the building and construct a six-story, 32-unit condominium tower estimated to cost $10 million to build. Unit prices would have started at $200,000.
Highland Homes’ website made the extravagant claim that the new building would be the greenest building in town: “4557 Laclede building combines innovative design based on recycled and sustainable materials with high efficient systems. This environmentally friendly approach makes 4557 Laclede the first LEED™-certified building St Louis.”
Urbanists heralded the increase in population density in the Central West End that the building’s residential units would bring. Champions of urban design cringed at the clumsy design of the tower, and some preservationists even furtively examined moving the threatened building. In the end, however, bankers made the decisive move.
In April 2007, Highland Home announced that the deal had fallen through, and that they would not seek to demolish the building at 4557 Laclede Avenue. While there was talk of another developer looking to revive the interest in the site, ultimately the value of the old building was higher. Today, the building at 4557 Laclede sports a for-lease sign.
The advertisement is just one of the signs that recession makes likely — at least momentarily — the preservation of existing buildings. Highland Homes’ proposal for the site proved unrealistic for the city’s economic circumstances. Continued use of the building as office space, without major rehabilitation, alternately is viable at present. Preservationists won’t always enjoy this sort of fortune, so the challenge remains translating the inertia of economic forces into a broader cultural argument about cultural heritage.
Part of that cultural heritage consists of fine buildings like the house on Laclede Avenue, with its slate-clad turret and human-scaled buff face brick offering infinitely more delight and connection with tradition than the EIFS and concrete of the once-proposed replacement. Yet another part of that heritage is economic sense. St. Louis has never been a city of excess, and our built environment reflects that. Yet when we again aspire skyward in the Central West End, no doubt the question of preserving this little building on Laclede Avenue will again be asked.
The twists and turns of mid-century modern preservation in the last three weeks have been heartening. Let’s recap: since the end of June we have witnessed St. Louis University chipping away at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s IBM Building (1959) at 3800 Lindell, developers trying to green-light demolition of the old Schwarz & Van Hoefen-designed Phillips 66 gas station at 212 S. Grand (1967) and CVS quickly and almost quietly testing the waters of demolishing the W.A. Sarmiento-designed AAA Building (1977) at 3925 Lindell. The last two have generated a lot of public protest as well as the open concern of Mayor Francis Slay.
Many preservationists have expressed some version of “they can’t do this” or “how could they even think about it”. Fortunately mid-century modernism has reached a level of wide acceptability that, even if the three aforementioned buildings fall, will save dozens in the long term. Yet things have not always been this way for modern architecture here, and St. Louis retains the burden of having one of its most indelible recent-past architectural events being the destruction of innovative modern architecture.
Whoa — this writer just heard the mad dash of his readers! Of course, the phrase “Pruitt Igoe” is not one that enters into the mid-century modern dialogue alongside mentions of pleasant-named ranch house subdivisions and Jetson-modern round commercial buildings. Hyphenated public housing names are more likely to be denigrated in preservationists’ discussions of postwar urban renewal policy. The homes, offices, gas stations and diners of the middle and upper classes get the praise, the scholarship and the activist defense that modernist dwellings for the poor may never get.
Alderman Terry Kennedy represents the 18th Ward that includes the AAA Building. Today he sent this statement.
I just want to correct some erroneous reporting recently made in the media. I do not support the demolition of the AAA building in the 18th ward located at Lindell near Vandeventer. Several news stories have reported this without ever speaking to me. I told CVS representatives, who are interested in establishing a store at this locations, that they must meet with our neighborhood association(s) close to this location, present their plans and receive their support before I can support the project. There are many aspects of the CVS proposal that I have concerns with but I am willing to be guided by the thoughts and ideas of the majority of our association members on this issue.
I have been willing to do those things that are consistent with already established planning for this portion of Lindell. This included the change of zoning of the Enterprise Leasing Office from “C” multi family to “H” commercial to be consistent with the other parcels owned by AAA and the other parcels on Lindell. This zoning change proposal was recommended by the City Planning Office and is also recommended in the Mayor’s Strategic Land Use Plan created over four years ago which I supported.
I welcome the interest CVS has in our area and think that there are benefits to having one of their stores in our community. However, before this can happen CVS must meet our residents vision for the area and address our concerns. Until then, I am open to discussing their ideas, giving advice and am willing to work with them where I can.
For years Toby Weiss and I have been giving tours of and writing about the unique concentration of mid-century modernism on Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Kingshighway. This significant concentration of modernism has sustained some losses and currently is enduring threats to both the IBM Building (1959, Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum) and the AAA Building (1976, W.A. Sarmiento). However it remains the city’s strongest collection of non-residential mid-century modern design.
Modern STL, on whose board both Toby and I serve, has now published a beautiful two-page self guided tour of Lindell Boulevard that includes information about each of the street’s mid-century modern buildings as well as a brief essay that I wrote providing an overview of modernism on Lindell. Modern STL board member Neil Chace generously donated his talent to design the guide. Download it here and then go for a lovely walk down Lindell!