Central West End Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern National Register

Momentary Reprieve for Two of Lindell’s Modern Buildings

by Michael R. Allen

The view here might exist for awhile longer. Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that CVS’ plan to demolish the three buildings at the southwest corner of Sarah and Lindell avenues is off. CVS no longer plans to pursue purchase of the buildings. Observers had seen a conspicuous for-sale sign go up in front of one of the buildings a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the market is the strongest preservation force. Of course, the market will be up again, and financing for new construction on the sites of these buildings could be easy to obtain. Thus what happens next is important. These three buildings are attractive, usable urban buildings.

On the corner, at 4100 Lindell, we have Hellmuth Obata Kassebaum’s Sperry-Rand Building (1956), most recently the home of the St. Louis Housing Authority. The minimalist modernism has a lot of potential for commercial or retail space.

The small building next door at 4108 Lindell, originally home of the St. Louis Society for Crippled Children, dates to 1960. This is a supporting player in the cast of local modern architecture, but handsome in its own right. The St. Louis Housing Authority also owns this building.

The final building, located at 4120 Lindell Boulevard, is a two-story Colonial Revival office building from 1937 much larger than its front elevation suggests. The setback may not meet the urbanist formula, but the density of site use is pretty solid. However elegant, the Colonial Revival buildings on Lindell are admittedly not as architecturally significant as their modern brethren.

The modern buildings form an architectural context recently demonstrated in the successful listing in the National Register of Historic Places nomination of the at 4630 Lindell. Not all of the modern buildings on Lindell can be listed individually. Clearly, however, the modern buildings on Lindell as a group have sufficient significance to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places under a multiple-property cover. That action would make it easier for interested owners to list their buildings and be eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. Then, the market might be more than a momentary ally in preservation efforts.

Central West End Historic Preservation Housing

Want a Robinson in Your Historic District?

by Michael R. Allen

Strong lines, pronounced modern styling, a narrow, low form and neutral coloring (save the orange section) draw one’s eyes to the house at 4237 McPherson Avenue in the Central West End. Inside, spaces flow into each other, and the compact front elevation dissolves into a voluminous open floor plan. This modern house, built last year, is like few other in the city.

While the modern design is worthy of our consideration alone, the siting opens all sorts of possibilities — and questions for residents of of historic districts. See, the house is not one of a row of new houses, like those found in the old Gaslight Square two blocks to the north. See, 4237 McPherson fits in between two historic revival-style homes. That siting is deliberate.

Anthony Robinson designed and developed this house, and is planning to build more on blocks in the eastern end of the Central West End. Nicknamed the “Robinson,” the architect’s contemporary town house primarily will fill gaps in parts of the Central West End that have seen substantial building loss. The “Robinson” offers a fresh way to introduce a new house into historic context.

Perhaps these houses aren’t totally fresh; modernists experimented with slipping streamlined designs into the city in the twentieth century. The commercial and apartment architecture of Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Kingshighway contains many examples of minimalist, geometric design smack-dab next to ornament-heavy mansions and apartment buildings. That mix works, but it’s not widespread in St. Louis. Anthony Robinson comes nearly fifty years later doing the same in the Central West End’s side streets. His designs are new, but there is a fine precedent for his work.

Robinson’s first realized modern home design is located across the street from the house at 4237 McPherson. Built a few years earlier, this home shares much in common with the house across the street. Still, there are key differences. There is a projecting vertical pier next to the entrance, that rises up through the roof line. The second floor porch is cantilevered, not built over the first floor.

Both houses finely balance the emphasis on height the narrow form brings with horizontal lines reminiscent of the Prairie School. However, these houses break from even the infill tradition on this block. The 4200 block of McPherson has seen a lot of loss and some rebuilding in the last 15 years. There are a number of Italianate-inspired townhouses on the block built by the Pyramid Companies in the 1990s. Just as Robinson’s distinctive design has a signature look, Pyramid’s townhouses are readily identifiable as that company’s work.

Many residents of historic districts across the city would probably rather see a Pyramid — or something similar — than a Robinson next door to their historic home. Most of our city’s local historic district ordinances mandate attempts at architectural imitation and curtail original design. A “model example” is required in many cases, although often designs proposed borrow freely across “model examples” for hybrid designs. The result of these ordinances has been some very strong replica houses and a whole lot of really weak ones. The Pyramid houses are fairly simple, but they don’t really resemble any houses built in St. Louis during the 19th and early 20th century.

The 4200 block of McPherson, however, is located in the Central West End local historic district. The Central West End historic district’s standards, which date to 1974 and were written by Donald Royse and Carolyn Hewes Toft, expressly encourage quality contemporary architecture while discouraging historically imitative design. As we can see, both types of design have been built under those standards.

Attempts at historicization of new housing often have a negative impact in a historic district, because the new houses offer mongrel specimens of historical styles found in the neighborhood. One of the biggest problems is the replication of historical elements using cheap modern materials and factory-ordered pieces. Improvisation was the lifeblood of builders in our past, and new “historic” homes don’t carry that tradition forward. Houses like the “Robinson” do.

Future local historic districts in the city have the chance to allow some design flexibility. In areas of St. Louis where there is a lot of vacant land, allowing truly original design in historic districts is logical. The truth about local historic districts under St. Louis preservation law is that citizens can adopt a wide range of design standards, from minimal to thorough. The aspirations of today’s architects and builders can even be accommodated.

Central West End Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

Lindell’s Modern Buildings Should be Protected

by Michael R. Allen

My latest commentary for St. Louis Public Radio aired this morning; listen to or read it here.

Central West End Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

CVS Proposal Threatens Two Modern Buildings on Lindell

by Michael R. Allen

Here is the site at Lindell and Sarah avenues in the Central West End that discount and drug store giant CVS is targeting for a new store. The site encompasses two historic buildings from our recent past that would be obliterated for a low-density big-box store with a drive through lane. Domino effect is evident: Walgreens is just a block west on a site where the mid-century Cinerama fell for the chain-store box. CVS wants to follow suit, but its aim is at a prominent corner, and three buildings with higher merit and reuse potential than a movie theater.

There seems to be major concern about the design on the part of the West Pine/Laclede Neighborhood Association, whose boundaries encompass the sites. Earlier, the neighborhood group was opposed based on a terrible site plan that CVS has since replaced. This month, the group voted to continue discussions.

At stake is the fate of two buildings whose individual densities are separately greater than the single building that will replace all three. While not completed, the forthcoming Central West End Sustainable Development Plan will likely include provisions discouraging the development of low-density uses on major neighborhood streets like Lindell. Thus, preservation is aligned here with larger planning goals.

The building at 4100 Lindell dates to 1956 and is one of the first works by then-new firm Hellmuth Obata and Kassabaum (HOK). Built as the regional office of typewriter giant Sperry-Rand Corporation, the building is most familiar to St. Louisans as the headquarters of the St. Louis Housing Authority. The Housing Authority relocated last month to a new building on Page Boulevard.

The Housing Authority building definitely has individual architectural significance. As an early work of HOK, the building is a key part of the development of a body of work that has international significance. The building itself is a fine essay in minimalism. This city has few true examples of modern “glass boxes” and this is one of them. The International Style roots are evident in the ample glazing, neutral colors, and the vertical I-beams that frame the recessed windows. This is a class act, and a fine corner anchor.

To the west, at 4108 Lindell, is a modest modern work. Built in 1960 for the St. Louis Society for Crippled Children (think Easter Seal), this building is a fine supporting player in the mid-century carnival on Lindell Boulevard. There are 30 modern movement buildings on Lindell between Grand and Kingshighway out of 32 built between 1941 and 1977. Not all of these buildings are tied to great architects or original expressions, but all are integral to an overall composition unlike any other in the city. Where else do we have such abundant mid-century architecture interspersed with the high-style architecture of the Gilded Age and early 20th century? Alas, our decision-makers are just a generation too close to the birth of these buildings to appreciate their significance.

To the west sits a for-sale building that might be more conventionally assumed to be “historic.” However, the Colonial Revival office building that once housed Places for People has more in common with its forward-looking neighbors than Independence Hall — this building dates to 1948 and is part of the wave of new construction on Lindell that took place after World War II. Some developers stuck with the tried and true rather than embrace new design. Either way, the results are splendid.

Today, we are the stewards of this development. The significance of the modern buildings is just starting to be explored by historians. Yet the contrast between the recent demolition of the San Luis Apartments and $9 million rehabilitation of the Hotel Indigo show the divergent paths of owners of these buildings. Perhaps architectural significance will be better appreciated by future generations, but even today we see that these buildings are much better for the urban street scape and Central West End planning goals than a drug store box.

Central West End Demolition

Ettrick Apartments Under Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Demolition of the Ettrick Apartments at Forest Park and Euclid avenues is now underway. The Preservation Board approved demolition in July (see “Medical Center Creeping Into the Central West End”, July 26). Workers removed the limestone name plaque shown at left earlier this week.

Central West End Demolition DeVille Motor Hotel Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern Salvage

All of the San Luis is Not Lost

by Michael R. Allen

This week, the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation accepted the donation of two of the light posts from the San Luis Apartments (originally the DeVille Motor Hotel) at 4483 Lindell Boulevard. Here’s a case where cooperation transcends conflict: Friends of the San Luis board member Jeff Vines saw the posts removed and contacted Tom Richter at the St. Louis Archdiocese. Richter promptly agreed to the donation and made arrangements with Building Arts Foundation President Larry Giles for pick-up.

The light posts are headed to the Foundation’s Conservatory in Sauget, Illinois, where they will live on alongside parts of the Century Building, the Ambassador Theater and countless other lost St. Louis buildings. As a board member of both the Building Arts Foundation and the Friends of the San Luis, I thank the Archdiocese for their assistance in preserving a small part of the modern motel!

Central West End Demolition Mid-Century Modern Preservation Board

Rabe Hall and Preserving Minor Mid-Century Modernism

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, the Preservation Board by voice vote unanimously approved demolition of the St. Louis College of Pharmacy’s Rabe Hall at 4520 Forest Park Avenue in the Central West End. The Cultural Resources Office (CRO) recommended approval of the demolition permit, which was reviewed because the 17th Ward is covered by the city’s preservation review program. The demolition will clear space for — don’t hold your breath — surface parking. However, the College is the land to the Washington University School of Medicine and development of the site is likely. Much new construction has taken place on this block in recent years.

The western elevation of Rabe Hall.

Preservationists quietly conceded this loss, due to several factors. For one thing, the San Luis Apartments battle took a lot of activist work, and captured a lot of the will to stand up to a powerful institution over a modern building whose architectural merit has yet to be widely realized. People saw a “done deal” and let it lie.

Column near the entrance of Rabe Hall.

The timing of this post, I suppose, places me in the majority camp. However, I think that the demolition of Rabe Hall raises questions about the Cultural Resources Office and Preservation Board’s treatment of mid-century buildings.

Rabe Hall is not exactly a masterpiece. In fact, historian Esley Hamilton points out that the greatest significance with Rabe Hall is that it occupies part of the site of Grape Hill, estate of Edward Bates. The building dates to 1964, when Town House Apartments West, Inc. took out a permit to build a 64-unit apartment building. The cost was $401,000 and the architect was Bert Luer, about whose work little is recorded. The final occupancy permit dates to December 17, 1965 — not even 44 years ago. A 1977 building permit shows the owner as Washington University, making the conveyance cycle elliptical.

There are some charming features on Rabe Hall, especially the unique tapestry brick wall sections. The striking white columns and balcony walls are a fine contrast to that brick. Unfortunately, the yellow panels on the recessed walls replaced a more open fenestration that gave the building a more attractive look.

My point here is that Rabe Hall is not very old, its architectural pedigree is minor, and its design is not especially refined. Yet it is a handsome minor work of its period, has not outlived its functional life and is part of a cluster of modern buildings around the intersection of Forest Park and Taylor. The proposed use of the site is parking, not a new building.

What should CRO and the Preservation Board do in cases like this? We will get more chances to refine the approach, but it demands careful attention. Our proximity to the date of construction for Rabe Hall blinds many of us to later significance. Also, we are a ways off from developing a strong preservation approach to minor and workaday modern buildings, although historians have started to recognize the collective significance of districts of these buildings.

Across the street from Rabe Hall at 4545 Forest Park once stood the Parkway House Motel (1962), now demolished, and at 4511 Forest Park, a medical office building (1961) designed by California architect J. Richard Shelley. That office building raises the same questions as Rabe Hall. The one change, of course, is that now it is the last minor modernist work on the block. Strike three?

One block east on the south side of Forest Park is a building owned by Washington University more clearly worthy of protection. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers Workmen of American Local 88 built the building at 4488 Forest Park in 1957. The renowned modern master Harris Armstrong designed the $100,000 clinic.

The two-story building expresses great architectural originality, is the work of a master and is over 50 years old. Clearly, there is eligibility for both City Landmark and National Register of Historic Places designations. I would expect CRO to deny any demolition permit for this building. A strong individual work, the building benefited from the presence of modern buildings its construction encouraged. Most of that context will be gone soon.

Central West End Events Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

Wreck Out!

This Thursday, Off Broadway hosts the Anti-Wrecking Ball, a joyous evening of entertainment for a worthy cause. Great bands and burlesque performers have contributed their talents to help raise money for legal fees needed for the Friends of the San Luis to appeal a circuit court judge’s ruling that citizens have no standing to appeal the actions of the St. Louis Preservation Board.

We seek to overturn that ruling for future benefit. While the San Luis Apartments is lost, there will be future battles and citizens deserve full rights in each one of them. Join us Thursday to have great fun while building necessary financial resources.

Central West End Demolition DeVille Motor Hotel Mid-Century Modern Preservation Board

San Luis Column Spacing, Partitions Were Not Limiting

by Michael R. Allen

Even before the Building Division issued the demolition permit for the San Luis Apartments (originally the DeVille Motor Hotel), interior demolition began. That work showed anyone who passed by that the assertion by the St. Louis Archdiocese that the building’s tiny, “prison-like” (as one staff member put it) rooms impeded rehabilitation was false. The room partitions crumpled at the strike of the Bobcat, and their removal had no structural bearing.

Moreover, demolition showed us that the the DeVille’s column spacing was far more generous than represented by the Archdiocese. The photograph above shows that the columns on the wings were located only on the sides of the concrete floor plates. Once the partitions were removed, we all saw wide open floors that could be configured any way a developer wished.

Look at that generous open space between the columns, and the ample ceiling height. There were many possibilities for reuse. At the Preservation Board, the Archdiocese and its architect Dan Jay gave the impression that the column spacing and motel-sized rooms were fixed limits to the future use of the building. Not so.

Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern Preservation Board

Why the Friends of the San Luis Continue

by Michael R. Allen

On July 27, Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker, Jr. dismissed the Friends of the San Luis‘ petition for injunctive relief. The petition sought to stop demolition of the San Luis Apartments so that the Friends could file an appeal of the Preservation Board’s approval of the demolition. Dierker not only dismissed the case, but did so on the basis that the Friends had no legal standing to bring forth a preservation appeal under the city’s preservation laws.

So, the building is gone and the case dismissed. Why are the Friends of the San Luis still fighting?

If left unchallenged, Judge Dierker’s ruling could set case precedent that citizens and advocacy groups lack the right to appeal decisions of the Preservation Board. Since the Preservation Board and its enabling laws govern the entire city, all citizens are affected by the decisions of the Board and deserve the right to appeal on procedural grounds.

Why would the Friends of the San Luis care about the right to appeal? Didn’t you want to save one building?

True, our organization was formed to advocate for a specific building. Yet our ability to do so was undercut by Dierker’s decision. The members of the Friends of the San Luis are active in other preservation matters in which the right to appeal is essential. If people have to go to court to prove our right to participate on every matter, concerned citizens won’t be able to actually fight for our city’s historic buildings. We must legally clarify that right to protect citizen preservation advocacy.

Okay. What’s next?

We will file an appeal of Dierker’s ruling to the Missouri Court of Appeals on the basis of his narrow definition of who has appeal rights. That appeal must be filed within 30 days of the ruling. Then, the Missouri Court of Appeals will schedule its hearing.

What if you lose at the Missouri Court of Appeals?

We could appeal further to the Missouri Supreme Court. However, if the St. Louis preservation ordinance’s right to appeal is not clear enough to withstand appellant judicial review, then there is a bigger problem than one judge’s point of view. Then we will know that the ordinance itself needs more clear language protecting citizen right to appeal.