Housing Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Harwood Hills: A Preservation Challenge

by Michael R. Allen

I provided this essay for the brochure that was distributed at Modern STL’s Harwood Hills House Tour on May 19, 2013.

The brochure used to market Harwood Hills epitomizes the claims that drove St. Louis’ mid-century suburban expansion in its subtitle: “contemporary design in a natural setting.” Influences as wide as Mies van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Cliff May’s California ranches and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses widely influenced modern ranch houses built in St. Louis County in the 1950s, with a uniting principle being minimalism in design set against largely untouched natural sites. Builder Burton Duenke, developer of Harwood Hills, embraced these principles again and again in developments that include Arrowhead, Ridgewood and Craigwoods. Collaborating with architect Ralph Fournier for most of these projects, Duenke built some of the County’s strongest enclaves of mass-produced residential modernism. Today, Duenke and Fournier’s collaborations are widely held to be the finest examples of “subdivision modernism” in the region.

The cover of Harwood Hills’ original brochure.
The Westerly was one of Harwood Hills’ five model houses.

The designs found in Harwood Hills meld the California ranch aesthetic — the long, low forms with low-pitched gable roofs — with the open planning found in Wright’s small houses as well as larger homes by William Bernoudy, Isadore Shank and others. The Skylark seems to be appropriated from the streets of USONIA, while the larger two-level Fairways sits nicely among designs by Shank and Harris Armstrong. Fournier’s influences are wide, but his authorship is evident. Each of the homes in Harwood Hills has a resolute economy of plan that produces extremely balanced and proportional forms. Harwood Hills’ houses endure because they advance the classical principles of architecture eternal instead of simply copying dominant modern forms. The “cookie cutter” stamped out other houses, but none here.

A house built from “The Fairways” model. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.
A renewed interior at one of Harwood Hills’ beautiful homes. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Leaving detailing to owner discretion led to a polyglot vocabulary here; not every house is modernist in exterior treatment. Still, even decorated houses have spare bodies emphasizing horizontality and material over style, and the plans are as modern as any else here. The genius of Fournier’s planning is evident in the provision of large, open living and dining areas, attached garages, open utility space that could later be finished, and (in the two-level designs) space for future expansion. Moreover, each house is emphatically tied to nature through ample windows in the public rooms and provisions for patios that allowed nearly year-round outdoor living. All of these characteristics are sought after by families today, making the demolitions here all the more strange.

Modernism in St. Louis County

World War II slowed American construction considerably, but immediately after the war the nation entered rapid suburban growth. The victorious nation threw itself into remaking itself, giving itself a new image for new times. Mass construction spurred by the 1948 federal home loan guarantee program allowed for the triumph of modernist design in St. Louis County.

Another example of “The Fairways” that makes use of brick. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

According to architectural historian Eric Mumford, “by the mid-1950s, modern architecture had become the norm in St. Louis” with construction especially high in St. Louis County. This reflected the national acceptance of Modern architecture. Webb writes that “in the 1950s, most progressive architects took modernism for granted—it was Local interest in non-derivative design was not widespread before the war, when most new houses built in St. Louis County were built in revival styles. However, after the war architects in America began to implement the influence of the International Style, the Prairie School and other modern schools of architectural thought.

A more traditionally detailed house based on “The Skylark” model. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.
Minimalism and a strong connection between indoor and outdoor spaces typify this Harwood Hills house. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

The hallmarks of new design were minimal detailing as opposed to referential ornament, asymmetry as opposed to formalism, use of mass-produced hardware and building materials as opposed to custom-built items. The Modern Movement had roots in early twentieth century designs that, according to historian Esley Hamilton, “rejected the popular historical styles of the time, in fact the whole idea of styles.” Mid-Century Modern Architecture in St. Louis County: Outstanding Examples Worthy of Preservation includes 35 houses built between 1935 and 1961. According to Hamilton, interest in Modern architecture in St. Louis County began in the 1930s and dwindled in the 1970s. By then Harwood Hills was fully developed.

The Teardown Threat

Teardowns in Harwood Hills have led to new homes of radically different scales and styles. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Today, preservation of Harwood Hills raises some challenges in local policy that are yet unresolved. In suburban neighborhoods across the nation, the current crisis is known as the “teardown.” Speculators or homeowners have targeted mid-century ranch houses because of their large, naturally-attractive lots and the stability of their surrounding areas. Armed with a questionable rationale — that these houses are too “small” or “inefficient” – and the support of the real estate community, those who tear down mid-century modern homes often remove more than just one building. In St. Louis, famous “tear downs” include Samuel Marx’s spectacular International Style residence for Morton D. May (1941), lost in 2004.

However, most lost Modern houses are noted less in their individual removal but in their cumulative absence. This impact mirrors national trends. For instance, reports from California last year suggest that Eichler houses are at risk for mass disappearance in Palo Alto and elsewhere. From Tulsa to Philadelphia, small modern houses that compose leafy, human-scaled places are falling for often over-sized and insensitive new buildings. Of course, houses are only part of ongoing deliberations over how to protect the nation’s vast array of modernist buildings and structures. To date, the easy consignment to rubble of major works by designers like Richard Neutra and Bertrand Goldberg gives one pause. Protecting ranch houses by regional architects and homebuilders is an even taller order – but one that holds communities together.

Juxtaposition in Harwood Hills. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Tear downs actually are not that different from waves of demolition that have damaged historic neighborhoods in the city. Across St. Louis, houses have disappeared one at a time until entire block faces barely resemble anything historic. However, in the city usually demolition leads to vacant lots while in the County demolition leads to incompatible new houses. Both rob historic landscapes of their integrity. Demolition can disqualify neighborhoods from attaining historic district status at the local or state levels. Without such status, regulating demolition and using historic tax credits are impossible – making it likely that more will be lost. Teardowns can lead to dismissal of vast areas of important modern residential architecture because the general appearance is no longer visually cohesive.

The Skylark model.

At Harwood Hills, there’s still a chance to stem the tide despite what has happened in recent years. The start to all preservation efforts is education, which is why this year’s house tour is significant for the neighborhood’s future. However a vital second factor is legal protection of the remaining historic houses. Until Des Peres enacts a historic preservation ordinance, there will be no local demolition or design guidelines. Lest one judge Des Peres harshly now, consider that only nine of St. Louis County’s 91 municipalities have any preservation ordinances and that there is no regulation in unincorporated areas. Harwood Hills’ plight is not isolated, but sadly is part of the norm.

The Harwood Hills brochure’s end page extols its convenient suburban location.

Harwood Hills reminds us that we are not doing enough to create frameworks that protect our abundant and ever-beautiful modern residential fabric. Fournier’s designs are eminently rich with details and concern for siting, natural light, layout and material harmony. These traits are not exhausted by today’s concerns for energy efficiency and modern kitchens and bathrooms. Instead, Fournier’s designs have a resilient vocabulary that can and should be adapted by new owners. Harwood Hills could be at the forefront of raising County preservation standards to the level of design seen in its threatened resources.

More Harwood Hills photos are online here.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Old North

Step Away From the “Like” Button And Write A Check Already: Brickstarting a Rehab in Old North

by Emily Kozlowski

One of these things is not like the others. 1316 North Market Street, at left, needs help.

Here is a chance to actively participate in preserving a part of St. Louis. Old North Saint Louis
Restoration Group (ONSLRG) recently bought this three-story, brick structure at 1316 North Market from the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). In 2005 there were vacant lots on either side of the building. Today, there are newly built homes surrounding it. Preserving this building would retain the urban past of the block and maintain the positive momentum that the community has been building in the area.

Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

As Long As Someone Wants to Live in It

by Michael R. Allen

In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden champions the study and preservation of common urban vernacular housing as the best way to record the lives of most Americans. “Most can be learned from urban building types that the represent the conditions of thousands or millions of people,” Hayden writes. Yet Hayden finds that scholars are more interested in simpler rural and exotic urban types (the mythic flounder house is our local intrigue-builder). To some scholars, Hayden observes, “the best vernacular building will always be the purest, the best preserved or the most elaborate example of its physical type.”

Hayden’s observations can be counterbalanced by emergent material culture studies that widen the architectural history of cities beyond the showiest (prettiest?) vernacular buildings and those whose owners seek official landmark or National Register status (regulatory vehicles that enhance but do not replace cultural appreciation). Objectification of domestic architecture is far simpler using pure examples — we who practice architectural history can then shift the focus onto style, form and material so as to avoid messier discussions of class, race, use, power and alteration. Yet much housing production historically in St. Louis and other cities came through mass building practice. One of those practices was alteration by later, lower-income owners often strapped for cash and in search of a cheap fix.

The building at 1426-28 N. Grand Boulevard in 2007.
Demolition Housing North St. Louis Vandeventer

Depletion, 4205 Page Boulevard

by Michael R. Allen

On February 3, the Building Division issued a demolition permit to Transformation Christian Church and Outreach Center for the house at 4205 Page Boulevard in the Vandeventer neighborhood. No doubt the church needs the land for a noble purpose. No doubt also that the house was in good condition at demolition. And no doubt at all that one less house in Vandeventer is one less family in north St. Louis. Buildings fall, people scatter.

Demolition Housing Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Not the Day Modernism Died, Not Even the Day That Pruitt-Igoe Died

by Michael R. Allen

Forty years ago today, demolition work started at the conjoined Pruitt and Igoe housing projects. On March 16, 1972, the St. Louis Housing Authority took down half of building A-16 in the Pruitt side of the project through an explosive blast. This was followed by a larger blast that took down all of double-module tower C-15 on April 21, 1972. These two spectacular demolition events led to the ultimate decision to demolish all of Pruitt-Igoe’s remaining 31 towers in 1976 and 1977. Yet on March 16, 1972, the St. Louis Housing Authority was not attempting to kill modernism, high-rise public housing or even Pruitt-Igoe. Instead, the Authority was trying to save these things.

In early 1972, the St. Louis Housing Authority created a task force of local and Department of Housing and Urban Development officials to examine physical interventions that might alleviate the problems at Pruitt-Igoe. The biggest challenge then was vast oversupply of housing units. Fewer than 400 of the over 2,800 units in the 33 towers was occupied. The St. Louis Housing Authority was faced with a need to reduce the unit count and eliminate vacant buildings in order to improve conditions for occupied buildings. Yet the fractional rent collection on the complex made solutions difficult to finance.

The locations of the three towers slated for blast, amrked on a 1959 U.S. Geological Survey photograph of the Pruitt and Igoe projects.

The task force elected to explore reducing the towers’ heights to four stories — a somewhat ironic move given that early plans had called for a low-rise development. The 1947 city Comprehensive Plan had advocated low-rise garden apartments on the site, and architect Minoru Yamasaki’s first concept for the project consisted of four and six story buildings. The St. Louis Housing Authority, under the leadership of Director Thomas Costello, elected to experiment with reducing floor heights.

However, recognizing the surplus of buildings and the need for experimentation, Costello successfully sought HUD permission to demolish three buildings in the project. These demolitions would allow for experimentation in demolition techniques to assess value engineering of the floor removal, and they also would allow the Authority to create a park in the center of the project. At one point, the Authority even explored retaining the rubble from the wrecked buildings as a sort of bizarre landscape feature.

The south face of a vacant single-module tower at Pruitt-Igoe. (Source: State Historical Society of Missouri.)

On the morning of March 16, 1972, Costello obtained a building permit for demolition of three towers, to be taken down by explosive blast. The St. Louis Housing Authority selected three towers at the center of the project, along Dickson Street (the only east-west public thoroughfare on the site, and the dividing line between the Pruitt and Igoe projects). The Authority chose towers A-16 and C-15 south of Dickson, and tower C-3 north of Dickson. C-3 would never be demolished by blast. The towers chosen included one of the 180-foot-wide single module towers, A-16, and two 360-foot-wide double module towers, C-3 and C-15. The Authority estimated the cost of demolishing the three towers at $12,000. Over $35 million in bonded construction debt was still owed on Pruitt and Igoe.

The St. Louis Housing Authority hired Dore Wrecking Company of Kawkawlin, Michigan, to conduct the demolition. St. Louis wreckers had never worked with large-scale explosives. Dore Wrecking in turn subcontracted the explosive work to a colorful firm in Towson, Maryland, named Controlled Demolition, Inc. Jack Loizeaux founded Controlled Demolition in 1947, and the company had experience using explosive methods to take down many buildings around Baltimore. The well-publicized Pruitt-Igoe blasts would make the company famous. Controlled Demolition would become the nation’s top firm for explosive demolition, and its future projects would include the Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit, the Kingdome in Seattle, and parts of Yamasaki’s World Trade Center in New York.

Building A-16 collapsing on March 16, 1972.

For A-16, Controlled Demolition planned to take down only half of the tower by blast. There was electrical equipment in the basement that the St. Louis Housing Authority wished to protect, so the other half would be taken down by crane and wrecking ball. Controlled Demolition placed specially-designed dynamite sticks into holes drilled in the building’s concrete upright columns. The detonation would start at the base of the building, to weaken its support, and travel upward.

On March 16, the demolition event was set for 1:30 p.m. At that time, officials postponed it to 2:15 p.m. That time arrived, and wreckers realized that the blast machine had accidentally went along for a pick-up ride to Lambert International Airport. John D. Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition, professed embarrassment at the less than punctual start of demolition. Yet the delays allowed for the blast to start after 3:00 p.m., when Pruitt School sent its elementary students home for the day. The students flocked to the demolition site.

Looking east down Dickson Street in December 2011. The sites of A-16 and C-15 are at right, while the site of C-3 is at left.

The blasts were heard as muffled gunshot-like sounds, and rather than send out a distress call, they were almost easy to miss. Upon the end of the blasts, the west half of A-16 collapsed in a rising clod of debris. Notable was that the building had lead paint used inside, and there had been no abatement. The slabs pancaked into a pile that would require hand wrecking to remove. Building A-16 was only 17 years old upon demolition, and its reinforced concrete structure was resistant to blast.

At the end of demolition, officials were confident in the methods of Controlled Demolition, and scheduled the second and more spectacular blast for April 21. Yet Thomas Costello told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[t]his is only the first step, and there are many more to go. We don’t know what they will be at this time.” Pruitt-Igoe was not dead yet.

Abandonment Housing Hyde Park

Frame House, North Florissant at Newhouse

by Michael R. Allen

Nearly every day I pass by this lonely two-story frame house at the northwest corner of North Florissant and Newhouse avenues in Hyde Park. While this stretch of North Florissant has its gaps, the east side is a nearly-continuous line of flats, houses and storefronts. Pietkutowski’s is not far. Yet this house stands alone at the intersection. Original weatherboard siding peaks out from failing rolled asphalt siding that mocks red brick (note the faux keystones on the front elevation!). Above, the slates on the mansard roof are in place, shedding water as they should. The side entrance is covered by a Craftsman-influenced open hood, a later addition marking stylistic changes since the nineteenth century when the house was built. Many frame houses in Hyde Park have been lost, and few have the solid and straight lines of this one. Yet I suspect one day my travels will take me past its grave-site, mud marked by bulldozer tracks.

Housing North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

The Spectre of Pruitt-Igoe

by Michael R. Allen

In May 2010, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan visited the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Afterward, he shared his thoughts with St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Eddie Roth. Roth produced a lovely short video combining many striking images from the Post archive with Donovan’s comments. Donovan’s statements about the Pruitt-Igoe legacy are smart and eloquent, although his insistence on the wisdom of demolishing all American high-rise public housing is questionable.

One thing that all interpreters seem to agree upon is the complexity of Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy. The differences lie in whether the design itself could have been salvaged and made to work. Rampant dismissal of the design has led to a strong and largely unquestioned narrative about the causal relationship between high-rise apartment buildings and the conditions of poverty. With almost all of the towers in this nation gone, we seem to be faced with a culture of poverty only stronger and wider than when Pruitt-Igoe’s last tower was opened in February 1956.

To learn more about the history of Pruitt-Igoe, attend one of the upcoming screenings of the wonderful documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Screenings are scheduled for Thursday, June 2nd at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 4th at 12:00 noon, both at the Tivoli Theatre.

Housing Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Standing By Yamasaki

by Michael R. Allen

On April 24, after a tornado struck Lambert Airport, the New York Times published the article “Struggling St. Louis Airport Takes a Shot to the Chin, but Recovers.” While many St. Louisans quibbled over the symbolic image of the city encapsulated in the adjective “struggling” (applied to only the airport), I found a less immediate semiotic matter of interest. Namely, the article was accompanied by a striking color photograph of Lambert Airport’s iconic main terminal (1956) in the background behind architect Gyo Obata, who directed the project for the firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber. Obata is the last living link to the firm and its renowned principal Minoru Yamasaki, and his presence in the photograph of a boarded-up, weather-beaten terminal conveys strong pride in its design and concern for its future.

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes about the punctum, that part of a photograph’s meaning “that pierces the viewer.” The punctum is subjective, and may diverge from any obvious or intended symbolism in an image. In that New York Times photograph, showing the architect’s watch over a damaged part of Yamasaki’s modernist legacy, I quickly noticed my punctum, a place not represented directly in the photograph but so immediately present in my mind: Pruitt-Igoe.

Image of the Pruitt Homes under construction from the 1955 catalog of the Stephen Gorman Bricklaying Company, which was the masonry contractor for the project. Courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.
Housing Midtown National Register

The William Cuthbert Jones House, A Midtown Gem

by Michael R. Allen

The William Cuthbert Jones House.

The William Cuthbert Jones House, located at 3724 Olive Street, is a rare example of a 19th century town house that not only survived the decline of Midtown but has also retained substantially its historic character with few alterations. The limestone-faced two-story brick house in the Italianate style was designed by architect Jerome Bibb Legg in 1886 for William Cuthbert Jones, a prominent attorney and criminal court judge.

The house is a good representative example of both Legg’s many client-driven house designs and of the sort of residences that were built on Olive Street in the 1880s. Compared to larger houses on more prominent streets in the Midtown neighborhood, houses on Olive were relatively smaller and less ornate. The house is also noteworthy as one of a handful of extant local works by Legg, who took on much work elsewhere.

Events Housing North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Groundbreaking for Modular Homes in St. Louis Place