Downtown Mid-Century Modern PRO Collection

Building the General American Life Insurance Company Building

by Michael R. Allen

Among the collections of the Preservation Research Office is a stock of amateur photographs showing changed in the St. Louis built environment at the last century’s middle point. Our collection draws from many anonymous urban gazers who took to the streets with cameras between 1935 and 1980. Toward the end of the chronology come the photographs of big late modernist buildings like the Bel Air East (1964; Hausner & Macsai), the Laclede Gas Building (1969; Emery Roth & Sons), Council Plaza (1965-1969; Schwarz & Van Hoefen), Pet Plaza (1969; A.L. Aydelott) and the General American Life Insurance Company Building (1977; Johnson/Burgee).

The General American building rises in the late 1970s. Undated photograph. Source: Preservation Research Office Collection.

As the transfer of Laclede Gas from one downtown building to another sparks debate about the use of tax incentives to shuffle the downtown deck, we offer some views at the origin of the General American building. At the time of the building’s completion in 1977, the General American Life Insurance Building was a symbol of downtown corporate pride — the sort of pride that would have been wounded knowing that the building would require massive subsidy to be reused only 36 years later.

Old downtown meets new downtown, 1977 style. Source: Preservation Research Office Collection.

The General American building followed the heels of the city’s wishfully-triumphant attempts at creating a monumental corporate landscape around the Gateway Mall. City leaders yearned to make the Gateway Arch the focal point of a green swath framed by high-style office buildings that enshrined both the virtue of companies keeping their headquarters downtown and the ambitions of the city to build great buildings once more. General American’s headquarters fulfilled both, as did subsequent buildings along the mall path in their own more subtle ways. The mall itself proved to be the most challenging ingredient in the landscape.

Planes converging at Eighth and Walnut Streets during construction. Source: Preservation Research Office Collection.

In 1964 (the city’s proud bicentennial year), the city designed 42 blocks of downtown St. Louis as the “Civic Center Redevelopment Project” to be a new face of the city’s civic self. The project was created to realize the recommendations of the 1960 document A Plan for Downtown St. Louis, which outlines an intensive reconstruction of downtown’s eastern and southern ends. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial landscape, where the Arch was nearing completion, was the primary impetus. The envisioned east-west park ribbon between Market and Chestnut streets was the second. By 1975, over $300 million in tax-abated development projects were complete in the area. Public subsidy’s roots in downtown development now extend to the origin of buildings potentially being subsidized in our era.

Bluebirds of happiness fly over a new park mall surrounded by corporate office buildings in this 1960 rendering from _A Plan for Downtown St. Louis_. Kurt Perlsee drew this perspective based on the plan’s recommendations.

Johnson/Burgee’s building would by far be the most impressive built in downtown for years to come; perhaps it has yet to be surpassed. The pair’s switch-cut of essentially a three story building into two cylinder-joined triangles killed the glass box. As CORTEX continues to produce ground-hugging, boxy buildings seemingly afraid of offending anyone’s taste, we should be examining the way in which the General American building transformed what could have been a dull low-rise office building into a sculptural work every bit suited for an important downtown site.

Philip Johnson and John Burgee flank General American President Armand C. Stalnaker as they examine a model of the new headquarters building in 1977.
Philip Johnson and John Burgee flank General American President Armand C. Stalnaker as they examine a model of the new headquarters building in 1977.

When the General American Building was fresh, Nory Miller wrote that its components created
“a series of clear architectural pieces in locked combat with each other.” Johnson/Burge essentially twisted the Miesian glass box, defying an architectural era divided between reverent homages (Yamasaki’s World Trade Center, SOM’s Sears Tower) and heavy geometric abstraction (Roche & Dinkeloo’s Ford Foundation Building, Aydelott’s Pet Plaza in St. Louis). One year before the St. Louis building opened, Johnson/Burgee saw their ceremonial decapitation of the glass box, Pennzoil Place, completed in Houston. Johnson would won the 1979 AIA Gold Medal for his work at Pennzoil place.

Geometry — and material, with the red brick element — in conflict?

The General American building was a smaller break from modernist stricture, but not an insignificant one. General American’s completion in 1977 garnered critical acclaim from St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic Robert W. Duffy, who wrote that the “one of the most spectacular buildings to be built in St. Louis in years, and what is regarded as one of the most spectacular buildings to be opened in the United States in 1977.” In subsequent years, however, historians have not given the General American building a high rank in the Johnson/Burgee canon.

Looking at the building from inside of Citygarden at Eighth and Market streets.

When Melinda Winchester presented the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the building at the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Places in 2007, the nomination caused a stir. Council members faced with a rather young building debated whether St. Louis possesses a fine example of the combined geniuses of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, or whether this was one of their minor works unworthy of the national designation before its fiftieth birthday. Ultimately, the building entered the National Register in 2008 (with an exceptional significance consideration), when it was 31 years old.

The entrance, looking into the soaring cylindrical atrium.
Postmodern is doubled in the reflections of the Metropolitan Square (1989; HOK) and St. Louis Place (1983) buildings on the glass lobby wall at the General American Life Insurance Company Building.

Today, the General American Life Insurance Company Building stands as testament to earlier civic optimism and corporate conviction in downtown’s future. The building preceded a small boom in construction that partially fulfilled earlier hopes for the Gateway Mall. Edward Larrabee Barnes’ 1010 Market Street (1981) and HOK’s One Bell Center (1987) maintain the trajectory set by Johnson/Burgee, while the Robert L. Boland’s Gateway One on the Mall (1985) is a glaring mediocrity. The architectural tenor of the Gateway Mall was improved tremendously a few years ago when Citygarden opened diagonally from the General American Building. Whatever happens to the tax increment financing proposed for the General American building, it remains one of downtown’s most inimitable recent landmarks.

We offer grateful thanks to our former intern Christina Carlson for scanning the General American construction photographs.

Abandonment Downtown

Downtown St. Louis Has a Secret Ballroom

by Michael R. Allen

The Hotel Jefferson as it appeared in a 1912 issue of The Mirror.

The relocation of St. Louis University’s School of Law into a transformed building at Tucker and Pine streets has helped Tucker Boulevard regain some its lost title to being downtown’s most important north-south street. Students and faculty circulate around what was once one of the city’s most tragic and downright ugly modernist boxes, giving Tucker Boulevard hopeful human energy. New cafes and restaurants suggest that the law school could have a catalyst impact.

Should the footsteps of the repopulated species of the Tucker pedestrian march toward Washington Avenue, they will pass by one of the street’s proudest achievements, the neoclassical mass of the Hotel Jefferson. Located between Locust and St. Charles streets, the old hotel is punctuated by climbing bay-window appendages and up-top truncated floral ornament that once cradled rounded windows. The Hotel Jefferson proclaims an architectural imperiousness befitting its origin as a hotel built for the visitors to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.

In 1928, ahead of the Depression, the hotel developers built a major addition to the hotel designed by Teich & Sullivan of Chicago. Teich & Sullivan redesigned the lobby of the original Barnett, Haynes & Barnett-designed building, creating an overlook to the first floor lobby encircled by balustrade. The mezzanine level became the home of two new major public spaces in the new addition.

The Hotel Jefferson today, better known by its last name, The Jefferson Arms.

Boarded-up base keeps pedestrians from glancing into its hidden inner mysteries — but hopefully not for long. Those who know the building for its final use, a warren of cheap studio apartments called the “Jefferson Arms,” might not suspect there are any mysteries lingering beyond untold mortal affairs (best left untold). Wrong. Inside of the old Hotel Jefferson is a lost golden dance hall, left nearly unaltered for 85 years and locked off from the tenants of the Jefferson Arms. (Still, one long-gone former tenant once told me over a drink at lost Dapper Dan’s across the street that he had found the way into a “gold ballroom.”)

A 1928 Globe-Democrat advertisement for the Gold Room at the Hotel Jefferson.

The old hotel’s biggest secret is the Gold Room, whose floor has rested from dancers’ feet for decades. The Gold Room is one of the vestiges of the Jefferson’s late Jazz Age remodel. Today, the lobby sports just a few traces of its 1928 look, including white marble staircases hiding out in the dark, unlit interior. The overlook was covered over after the 1950s, when the hotel briefly operated as a Sheraton. The public spaces read as cross between the would-be mid-century urban streamline and 1980s economical apartment styles. The marble stairs lead to the mezzanine level, where the grandest space in the Jefferson can be found, untouched by all of the modern changes that robbed the interior of complex beauty.

The Gold Room is labeled “Banquet Hall” on this 1928 floor plan that appeared in Hotel Monthly in September 1929.
One of the entrances to the Gold Room on the mezzanine level.

The Gold Room is a gently baroque artifact, with paneled and mirrored plaster walls, gold-painted accents, undulating balconies, and a ponderous crystal chandelier. Corinthian pilasters set against the walls provide a note of classicism to the space, but not one overtly staid. This room is a room set for fantastic happenings, not business luncheons. The Gold Room is also large: underneath its two-story ceiling, the room could accommodate as many as 1200 people, according to hotel brochures. Although the 1928 floor plan for the hotel has it labeled as a “Banquet Hall,” and it hosted many large dinners, the original design anticipated its use for dances — and the floor is a dance floor.

Does a swan song for the good old days play in the Gold Room today?
The Gold Room floor has attained a layer of broken plaster bits, and piles of discards.

For almost four decades, the Gold Room served thousands of people through many large and lavish events. Debutantes came out annually at the Veiled Prophet Dinner in the Gold Room into the 1950s. Eventually, however, the Gold Room was shuttered to wait for a new era’s users. Planned renovation of the Hotel Jefferson by the Pyramid Companies — one of the building’s recent mysteries — came and went. The Gold Room will have to await new plans to return to its formerly busy social schedule. Meanwhile, inside of the dim interior of the Jefferson, the golden splendor of the hotel ballroom looks barely different than it did when the the city’s elite were celebrating the admiring gaze of the entire world.

When will we next dance in the Gold Room?
Demolition Downtown

Wreckers Arrive at Cupples 7

by Michael R. Allen

As a dry heat settled across the downtown streets yesterday, cloaked by lilting cloud cover, workers from Spirtas Wrecking Company descended upon the Cupples Station warehouse known as Cupples 7. At the end of the business day, two red trucks and a Bobcat were parked behind the fence as workers took the sure steps toward setting up a full-scale demolition site.

The scene at Cupples 7 yesterday afternoon.

The city’s own application for demolition (number 506242; application date, May 22) has not yet been approved by Building Commissioner Frank Oswald. Thus the machine wrecking of Cupples 7 won’t start immediately, but the portent of a start date renders the facts mere trivia. Demolition looms.

On Twitter, a dizzying exchange between a principal of Vertical Realty Advisors, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Treasurer’s adviser (and father) Virvus Jones and Preservation Board Chairman (and Francis Slay’s campaign manager) Richard Callow was either surface-level shimmer of real negotiations or just a diversion for bored urbanistas at their desk jobs. In a thread on my Facebook wall, Virvus Jones made it clear that any savior of Cupples 7 will have to assume the Treasurer’s contract to buy the building’s mortgage from Montgomery Bank (the pay-it-forward albatross left by former Treasurer Larry Williams). Apparently Vertical Realty Advisors is not offering to do that.

When city officials made the call for last-minute proposals for Cupples 7, they should have clarified that parties would need to buy that note. As I wrote in the St. Louis Beacon last month: “What sort of offer will the city actually entertain now? Without a formal RFP to answer, the anecdotes offered in the mayor’s press release don’t offer developers specific details sought by the city.” And of course, amid the city’s talks of sustainability the fact that $1.7 million in public funds can be used to demolish a building but no public dollar can be found to stabilize one is atrocious. Mayor Francis Slay should take the lead on changing that; his own Sustainability Plan recommends that he do so.

Of course, local preservationists have known that the eleventh hour was coming for this building at least since the Preservation Board denied demolition in 2011. The gap between feasible rehab financing and the full cost of repairing the masonry treasure designed by Eames & Young has been our collective problem. Once upon a time — a time still within some memories even — Landmarks Association of St. Louis had a “Revolving Fund” used to purchase, stabilize and rehab houses in Soulard, Hyde Park and fragile neighborhoods. The fund ended a long time ago, but the need did not. If Cupples 7 falls in the next few weeks, the goal of establishing a new preservation fund could be one thing that rises in the wake. We don’t want to be in this spot again.


The Real Cost of Demolishing Cupples 7


Today the St. Louis Beacon published a commentary by Preservation Research Office Director Michael Allen entitled “The Real Cost of Demolishing Cupples 7”. The article raises several questions, including:

Why can’t the city offer a comparable amount to the demolition funds in escrow for stabilization? The Building Division can’t come in and work on a building not owned by the city, but St. Louis Development Corporation could structure a deal where some money from another sources was available.

At a time when Great Rivers Greenway District has had to go to voters for a sales tax increase, why does the city need more publicly owned green space to maintain? South downtown has more holes than buildings, and does not need another empty space. The walk to Busch Stadium should be activated with retail and activity, not fenced grass.

With Cupples 7, the city is looking at spending almost $2 million in tax dollars to create a fenced lawn where a historic building once stood and remove a property from the tax roles. The venerable warehouse might not be the biggest loss — city government’s ability to protect economic assets and sense of place hang in the balance.

Adaptive Reuse Downtown Historic Preservation

This Building Matters #6: Cupples Station Building 7

Media attention on the Powell Square demolition ought to point us toward a historic warehouse we can save: Cupples Station Building 7 or “Cupples 7” at 11th and Spruce Streets. Built in 1907 and designed by Eames & Young as part of an 18-building complex, the historic warehouse is the last of the surviving buildings to stand empty. The city of St. Louis now controls the building. We asked Andrew Weil, director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, about the status and the potential of a building whose architecture inspired the design of the current Busch Stadium.

Downtown Parking Preservation Board

More Parking Lots in Downtown St. Louis: Unacceptable

by Michael R. Allen

The red arrow marks 1105-9 Olive Street. The letter P denotes all surface and structured parking in the vicinity.

Yesterday the St. Louis Preservation Board unanimously voted to withhold preliminary approval of Larry Deutsch’s plan to demolish the historic building at 1105-9 Olive Street and replace them with a surface parking lot. Deutsch’s attorney, former alderman and City Counselor Thomas Connelly, attempted to divert consideration of the ordinance criteria with unrelated arguments about the viability of downtown development, tenants’ demands for parking spaces and the loosely-documented structural condition of the building’s east wall.

Downtown Preservation Board

Part of Music Row Threatened

by Michael R. Allen

The building at 1107-09 Olive Street before Maurizio's Pizza closed.

With demolition threatening the building at 1107-09 Olive Street, a look back at the history of the building shows that the building is part of the important “Music Row” cultural district on Olive Street between 10th and Tucker. Today, the narrow buildings on these two blocks that conform to the traditional city lot size share space with larger buildings like the Laclede Gas Building (1911, Mauran Russell & Crowell) and the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Printing Plant at 1111 Olive Street (1942, Russell, Mullgardt, Schwarz & Van Hoefen). Historically, the encroachment of these big buildings has threatened the little ones, but today the supposed parking needs of the Laclede Gas Building, owned by storied downtown real estate developer Larry Deutsch, is the threat.

Downtown PRO Collection Riverfront

Riverfront Rodeo

Riverfront Rodeo. Source: Preservation Research Office Collection.

So, once upon a time, after the riverfront blocks were cleared (by 1943) but before the Merchant’s Exchange was demolished (1959), there was a rodeo where the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is now located. the Exchange is located in the background right of the photograph, at the corner of Chestnut and Third (now Memorial Drive) streets. After demolition, the site was a parking lot. In 1982, the Adam’s Mark Hotel built a new building on that site.

This photograph is one of many amateur photographs in our collection, and is undated. If any readers know more about the rodeo shown in the scene, please post in the comments section!

Columbus Square Downtown Neon Northside Regeneration

Does the Vess Bottle Belong in the Bottle District?

by Michael R. Allen

The Vess Bottle, viewed from the north.

Now that the “Bottle District” — that mass of spread gravel north of our football stadium — is poised to become part of the Northside Regeneration project, perhaps it is time to evaluate the fate of the Vess bottle sign that gave the now-merged project its name. Dan McGuire of McGuire Moving and Storage, the longtime former occupant of a nearby historic warehouse building at Sixth and O’Fallon streets, invented the Bottle District trope in 2006 to market an ambitious mixed-use high-rise redevelopment project designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The Libeskind plans are long gone, and now developers Larry Chapman and Paul J. McKee, Jr. are trying to market a now-cleared site between O’Fallon and Cole streets west of Broadway. What the bottle has to do with the new project is unclear.


Chain Drug Stores from Indianapolis in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The storefront at 616 Washington was home to Thompson's Restuarant when this photograph was taken around 1950. Preservation Research Office Collection.

CVS’ announcement that it has abandoned its quest to demolish the mid-century modern AAA Building on Lindell Boulevard comes nearly one century after the first time St. Louis learned that an ambitious chain drug store from Indianapolis was looking for sites here. The August 1914 issue of The Pharmaceutical Era reported that Indianapolis-based Hook Drug Company was opening a store at 616 Washington Avenue and intended to become St. Louis’ first drug store chain. Hook Drug Company was a relatively new company, having been founded by pharmacist John A. Hook in 1900. Hook and partner Edward Roesch served a German-American neighborhood in Indianapolis in a corner shop, but had added another eleven stores in that city by 1912.

Yet Hook Drug never opened the Washington Avenue store or any others in St. Louis. For some reason, the chain backed away from entry into this market. Hook Drug Company would grow as a prominent chain in the Midwestern market, with stores branded as “Hook’s Drugs.” By 1985, Hook’s was purchased by Kroger, and entered into a series of sales until the chain went defunct after a 1994 purchase by Revco. In 1997, CVS purchased Revco, and converted many Hook’s stores into CVS outlets.

Walgreens on the fourth floor of St. Louis Centre, 2006.

St. Louis had no want for drug stores. In 1914, at least 28 St. Louis drug stores had multiple locations. The first chain drug store, a Walgreen’s, would not open until 1926. Walgreens entered the market with force, opening stores at 500 DeBalievere, 6100 Easton, 515 Olive, 360 N. Skinker, 514 and 725 Washington and 5501 Pershing. Indianapolis-based CVS opened its first store in St. Louis in 2010.

Later, the building at 616 Washington was demolished for the St. Louis Centre, which opened in 1985 with a Walgreens store inside the shopping mall. That store closed in 2006. Today, St. Louis Centre has been reconstructed as a parking garage with ground-level retail named the MX. Rumors surfaced that CVS was looking at the MX building for a downtown store, but so far has not signed a lease.