Architecture Central West End DeVille Motor Hotel Historic Preservation Media

DeVille Still Shines

by Michael R. Allen

My latest commentary for radio station KWMU aired this morning and is available in transcript form on the station website: DeVille Still Shines

Architecture Central West End Infrastructure

Kinloch Telephone Company Delmar Exchange

by Michael R. Allen

People driving down Delmar Boulevard may not known the history of the building pictured above, which is located at 4400 Delmar (southwest corner of Newstead & Delmar). With its hipped roof, almost Gothic window profiles and prominent entrance, the building may look like a church or social hall of some kind. In fact, currently the building is home to the New Tower Grove Baptist Church. Yet underneath the layer of white paint and the exotic style lies an intriguing but somewhat mundane building.

This building is the Delmar Exchange of the old Kinloch Telephone Company. At the turn of the twentieth century, St. Louis had two major telephone companies: Kinloch and Missouri Bell, which eventually secured a statewide monopoly. Kinloch served the entire city and St. Louis County; the company built four “exchanges” in the city where calls were repeated and switched to local lines. Kinloch survives as the name of a north county municipality near the airport, but little else. Kinloch’s last company headquarters stands downtown at the northwest corner of 10th and Locust streets, with its brick and terra cotta covered in a 1950s concrete skin. That building became the Farm and Home Building in the 1950s.

The architect of the repeater and switching building is Isaac Taylor, who also designed the first downtown headquarters on Seventh Street, served as chief architect of the 1904 World’s Fair and design numerous important downtown buildings. The building permit for the Delmar building dates to April 14, 1902, with the cost listed as $30,000 and Edward Steininger as contractor. A second major permit issued July 16, 1923 reports $20,000 in repairs with Southwestern Bell as the applicant and Steininger as contractor. The station had been subsumed when Bell purchased Kinloch Telephone Company earlier that year.

Architecture Central West End Historic Preservation Local Historic District Mid-Century Modern

Next Step: Parking Lot?

by Michael R. Allen

I vowed to not describe the building replacing the Doctors Building at Euclid and West Pine, but here I go. Given the impending possibility that the San Luis Apartments building will be demolished, the demise of the Doctors Building is telling. The mid-century modern design of the Doctors Building was poorly appreciated, and news of its replacement through construction of two 30-story towers was welcome news to many people.

Yet the towers will never be built. The Mills Group couldn’t make the financing work for its grand plan. Demolition proceeded, and the substitute plan emerged. What we have here is a building completely out of its league. Unable to compete with the fine architecture of the Central West End, this building’s design resigns itself to mediocrity. Rather than try to be fresh, the architects employed the same design tricks keeping the St. Charles County metroplex building on up. There’s the base of stone veneer (that is stone, right?), the dark brick above, the mangled quotations from other styles.

There are pointless differentiations of the wall plane through setback, despite the fact that both Euclid and West Pine are fairly straight at this intersection and both have decent pedestrian traffic. In fact, the rendering suggests that the building’s west wall actually steps away from the street. While dramatic in the exaggerated corner perspective drawing, such a move is hardly appropriate to the street wall of Euclid.

At the top, the building’s wall goes white in some attempt to imitate stone. Oddly, there is no cornice. Rather, the walls recess to create private balconies. The pedestrian’s eye, however, may be diverted to the prominent corner clock tower, rising a full story above the roof. Instead of selecting an elegant human-scaled clock integrated with the building, the architects have stuck this over sized timepiece on top. Perhaps the goal is to smother the building’s flaws in the manner restaurants heap grated cheese atop bowls of wilted iceberg lettuce. Trouble is, people will be looking at this building from the ground level — not from a spot inside of an invisible Forest Park Hotel. People will spend more time looking at whatever stone will clad the base than at the clock.

I know that I should count my blessings — the Doctors Building’s obscene parking lot will be subsumed by an actual building and there won’t be a giant vacant lot for years. I suppose that under some circumstances I could lull myself into thinking these blessings outweigh all other concerns. After all, that line of acceptance is doing well for St. Charles County.

Yet I can’t fool myself. The building replacing the Doctors Building is downright inappropriate for any historic neighborhood in the city. This building is an affront to the dignified architecture of the Central West End, and its construction shows a carelessness that could erode decades of hard-achieved acceptance of high standards there. Such a climate benefits the Archdiocese’s short-term plan to level the San Luis without any planned construction. Do we want to find out what the step is from bad building at Euclid and West Pine to a new parking lot on Lindell?

The worst step following this blunder would be loss of another large building for an even lower use — a parking lot. The Central West End never attracted a lot of mid-century architecture, but what it got fits into the context with grace — unlike some of our contemporary structures. What happened at the Doctors Building should not be the start of backtracking on design standards in the Central West End, but a rallying point for their assertion.

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

Landmarks Statement on San Luis Apartments

The Board of Directors of Landmarks Association has issued a statement supporting rehabilitation of the former DeVille Motor Hotel (San Luis Apartments). Read it here.

Architecture Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

The Doctors Building: An Obituary

by Michael R. Allen

Streamlined and sleek, sophisticated and subtle – these are attributes of the Doctors Building at the northeast corner or Euclid and West Pine. The Modern Movement medical office building has offered a hint of space age glamor to the Central West End for nearly fifty years. Nestled among elegant Renaissance Revival apartment buildings, art deco storefronts and minimalist contemporary condominium buildings, the modernist tower provided just the right balance to the mix of jazz age architecture. Think of the Doctors Building as a minor bop number in a sea of buildings that span a range of jazz period from ragtime to tonal. The Doctors Building is that smooth, modern breakthrough that plays back to its predecessors without upstaging them and that teaches its successors a thing or two.

Too bad that’s all ending before our eyes. The Doctors Building is under demolition as I type. I wish I could report that the proposed replacement is worth the urbane environment of the Central West End, but that simply is not the case. We’re discarding modern jazz for contemporary pop drivel.

We are losing a building that is almost a time capsule from our recent past. Some would assert that the 1950s was an age of conservatism, forced conformity or destructive Cold War politics, but that view neglects to account for the cultural production of the era. How did the Beats, jazz music, streamlined industrial design and modernist architecture fit into the rubric of Joseph McCarthy and Leave It To Beaver? The answer is “not well.” More surely, the arts that persisted in the 1950s were cool and subversive of other tendencies. Artists were taking the tools of regimentation — the straight line, the machine — and turning them into expressive instruments. The best work of the 1950s plays on the tension between conformity and rebellion.

The Doctors Building straddles that fine line itself. After all, this is a medical office building — a tool of discipline and science. Yet the envelope is almost sensual — warm orange brick, window groups punctuated by aqua aluminum panels, a shiny granite base with quintessentially modern anodized aluminum details including an upward-curved canopy. Each elevation of the building is different, and on the east side wide projecting bands of brick that wrap the corners makes the wall plane sculptural. The pattern runs down the center of the Euclid Avenue elevation, marking the entrance. The tall form of the building gives way to two-story sections on the east and north, providing contrasting elements at different scales.

Of course, however attractive, the Doctors Building is no master work. It’s a minor modernist accomplishment that benefits greatly from its context. As the only tall mid-century building on Euclid, the building stands out in ways it might not had further development occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The building avoids the swagger of Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, falling into the background. It’s a really cool but not very showy B-side from an artist no one remembers no matter how many times they hear the name.

The building permit for the building is dated January 1955, with cost of the 11-story building estimated at $900,000. The architect was a little-known designer named Paul Valenti, who taught in the School of Architecture at Washington University from the 1940s into the 1960s. This author knows of no other work by Valenti, and has searched mostly in vain to glean biographical details. The two-story section on Euclid dates to a permit issued in July 1955; Wells and Wells, Inc. is listed as engineer on this section as well as the tower. The two-story section to the east corresponds to a permit issued in August 1961; E. Donald Goret was the architect. Erstwhile Millstone Corporation was the developer and builder of the building and its additions.

The building originally had that one distinguishing mid-century flaw: adjacent parking as part of the building design. The original adjacent small surface lot on West Pine took on its own life and grew as the owners tore down a few houses to make an unsightly large lot that inadvertently created a wonderful view in which one can see both the Doctors Building and that 1929 art deco landmark, the Park Plaza Hotel.

With the huge parking lot, the Doctors Building site proved irresistible to developers during the recent hyperactive swing in the market. The Mills Group proposed demolishing the elegant building and replacing it with twin 30-story towers of ridiculous bulk and exaggerated detail. Jazz would have been replaced with buildings that reminded me of overwrought sappy love ballads. Then the market downturn set in and the project fell apart. Unfortunately, another plan emerged – demolish the building and replace it with a shorter new building. The new building is best left without description — its designers’ strained attempts at referencing historic details like quoins and a clock tower would only be remarkable if not already tried on thousands of suburban branch banks around the country. Alas, we lose the Doctors Building for something that doesn’t even forge a relationship with the Central West End. Sophistication falls to smugness. A minor pleasure gives way to a minor travesty. Hopefully the jazzy architecture around the new building will be enough to drown out the intrusion.

Central West End Demolition Granite City, Illinois Historic Preservation North St. Louis

Demolition Threats All Over Town

by Michael R. Allen

Vanishing STL alerts us to the possibility that the Washington University Medical Center may demolish the Shriners’ Hospital and Central Institute for the Deaf buildings.

Meanwhile, Curious Feet notes two impending demolitions: a large storefront building at Page and Kingshighway in St. Louis and an old bank building in downtown Granite City.

Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation

Washington University Medical Center Plans to Demolish Ettrick Apartments

by Michael R. Allen

According to an article by Tim Woodcock in today’s West End Word, the Washington University Medical Center plans to demolish the historic Ettrick Apartments at the northwest corner of Euclid and Forest Park in the Central West End. The historic apartment building was built in 1905 and designed by A. Blair Ridington.

The demolition is part of a campus expansion plan that hinges on zoning overlay legislation sponsored by Ald. Joseph Roddy (D-17th).

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

Modern Motor Hotel in Central West End Faces February Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Here is the building now known as the San Luis Apartments, located at 4483 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End. Just west of the Cathedral, the building is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis and used as apartments for the elderly. The Archdiocese plans to demolish the building in February for a surface parking lot despite no pressing problem with the apartments, which are generally loved by residents for their excellent location. Residents are being relocated to many different places, none of which is as transit accessible — an important criterion for older people who do not drive.

The news of the Archdiocese’s plan surprises many Central West End residents who are aghast at the idea of creating a surface parking lot facing well-traveled Lindell on the same block as the elegant Cathedral. Many are astounded that the Archdiocese would proceed to demolition without any plan for future development of the site, leaving a gaping hole for an indefinite period. The Central West End Association and Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th) have yet to make official statements on the proposed demolition. However, oppositional voices are stating to cry out. Last week, the West End Word ran a letter to the editor from STL Style‘s Randy Vines.

Real estate moguls Harold and Melvin Dubinsky working with Paul Kapelow took out a building permit for a motor hotel on September 25, 1961, with construction estimated at $2.75 million. New Orleans firm Colbert, Lowery, Hess & Bouderaux designed the curvilinear, E-shaped modernist hotel. On July 3, 1963 the hotel building was granted an occupancy permit and shortly afterward opened as the DeVille Motor Hotel. The hotel was part of a national boom in “motor hotels” located in urban areas. Hoteliers sought to revive urban markets by building multi-story hotels with ample covered parking on lower levels. Many had bars, including popular tiki lounges. These buildings employed modernist styles to symbolize their cleanliness and newness as well as their utility. One could park right in the hotel and avoid walking city streets carrying luggage — no doubt a concern in the dark days of American urbanism, and perhaps still. Designers are better at hiding the parking in today’s urban hotels, but the idea of integrated parking, lodging and dining remains the same.

The design of the San Luis Apartments is strange and cool, if not cutting edge. The curved smooth white concrete towers cloak services while providing textural contrast to the aggregate body of each wing. The parking is recessed enough that it does not overpower the building; recessed walls on the first floor actually minimize its presence. The bays of aluminum-framed windows on the sides of the central, taller section and end of each wing are balanced by the ribbons on the inside walls of the wings. What could have been the tired bulk of a typical motor hotel — like the Howard Johnson by the airport — is relieved through division of the building into a series of forms of different height and footprint. This is no thoughtless slab. In fact, the modern lines interact quite well with the later and more accomplished Lindell Terrace (built in 1969 and designed by Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum) across Taylor Avenue to the west.

Unfortunately, due to recent age, the San Luis Apartments are not considered a contributing resource to the Central West End Historic District. Thus the building is not eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. However, the buidling is included within the boundaries of the Central West End Local Historic District so there is legally-mandated preservation review of the demolition.

Academy Neighborhood Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation Hyde Park Local Historic District North St. Louis Preservation Board South St. Louis West End

Preview of Monday’s Preservation Board Agenda

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Louis Preservation Board meets Monday at 4:00 p.m. at the offices of the Planning and Urban Design Agency on the twelfth floor of 1015 Locust Street. Meetings typically last three hours.

Here are some highlights from the agenda:

Preliminary Reviews

5594 Bartmer Avenue: The proposed demolition of a beautiful and rare Shingle Style house appeared on the Preservation Board agenda two months ago and was deferred pending study of the reuse potential by the staff of the Cultural Resources Office. Staff has written an excellent report on the building condition and reuse feasibility based on a thorough site visit; read that here. Staff recommends denial of the permit and exploration of a National Historic District for Bartmer Avenue. This house and its neighbors fall outside of any historic districts that would enable the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits.

2300 Newhouse Avenue: The proposed new construction of six frame homes with attached garages in the western edge of Hyde Park manages to add yet another absurd faux historic design to the architecturally mongrelized neighborhood. Here we have brick fronts with shaped parapets imitating 20th century buildings that can be found in Hyde Park, but there is a twist: the parapets are actually gable ends on a front-gabled building! The sides and rear show the pitched roof and reveal the illusion the front barely conceals. Furthermore, the developer includes attached garages and has not submitted a site plan showing setbacks. Staff recommends denial as proposed.

Appeals of Staff Denials

5286 Page Avenue: The appeal of staff denial of a demolition permit for the two-story commercial building at the southeast corner of Page and Union has been on the agenda for months, always being continued at the request of the owners. Another continuance is possible. The building is a contributing resource to the Mount Cabanne/Raymond Place National Historic District and the last remaining commercial building at a prominent intersection degraded by a Walgreens across the street. Staff urges upholding their denial.

4218 Maryland: The unlawful alterations made to this house transformed it in disturbing ways: rebuilt bizarre porch, new cheap door and sidelights that don’t even fit the opening, alteration of brick pattern and color on front elevation and removal of two front bay windows and replacement with flat openings. Yikes! Staff recommends upholding their denial.

Appeal of Preservation Board Denial

2013-15 Park Avenue: The builder of infill housing in Lafayette Square wants to amend earlier plans to face the side elevations with brick and instead face them with vinyl siding. Staff recommends upholding their denial of this request, and wisely so. Here we have strong neighborhood support for a strict local historic district ordinance that expressly prohibits sided primary and secondary elevations. One expects Lafayette Square to be the last local district where vinyl siding should be approved; the neighborhood is both bellwether and inspiration for the power of local district ordinances to shape attractive neighborhoods. (The Lafayette Square standards can also be an example of the the blind spots of such ordinances, but not regarding the use of vinyl siding.)

Central West End Fire

Wicke Auto Body Building Burns

by Michael R. Allen

One of the two historic buildings occupied by Wicke Auto Body in the Central West End burned this afternoon in a spectacular blaze. The 1920s-era one-story brick garage building with steel bow-truss roof is located in the 400 block of Newstead just south of Olive Street.  Television station KMOV has raw footage here here.

(Thanks to Andrew Faulkner for the alert.)