Mid-Century Modern PRO Projects South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Modernism in Motion on South Grand: The Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association Building

by Michael R. Allen

Grand Avenue soon will feature two striking examples small modernist buildings imaginatively adapted for food-based businesses (the “flying saucer” at Council plaza hopefully needs no introduction here). South Grand’s lone glass box, the Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association Building, is set to become a second location of Dave Bailey’s popular restaurant Rooster. Construction is now underway.

One of Preservation Research Office’s favorite 2013 projects: getting this building listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Bailey’s project is utilizing historic tax credits, and as part of the process Preservation Research Office prepared a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the one-story former savings and loan building. Those who pass by the International Style building, or park in its lot before heading to Mangia late at night, might be surprised by its architectural significance.

The Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association Building was one of the area’s few glass box financial buildings. The large windows and elegant form caught the attention of Dave Bailey while scouting a south city location for Rooster

The Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association Building is an outstanding local example of the application of International style design ideas applied to a small neighborhood savings and loan association building. Completed in 1962 and designed by the local partnership of Winkler & Thompson, the building differs from other financial institution buildings of the time for its embrace of the classically-influenced school of modernist design advanced nationally by Mies Van De Rohe among others.

Many local financial institutions turned to the styles of the Modern Movement between 1940 and 1980, but most embraced either eclectic modernist approaches or traditional styles. In the city of St. Louis, where construction was fairly modest in the early 1960s, there is no stylistic peer to the Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association Building.

The International style influenced several major recladding projects downtown, including two for banks. The First National Bank of St. Louis reclad six buildings on Lo45 (shown here). Sverdrup & Parcel and Bank Building & Equipment Company were the architects of the new facades.

The architecture of financial services companies changed along with the larger trends in American commercial architecture. Amid the Great Depression came strong federal regulation of banks, savings and loan associations and securities exchanges. At the end of World War II, with GIs returning from the war to start new lives, banks, trusts and savings and loan associations saw a new customer base. As they sought to grow, these institutions embraced architectural modernism as a way to promote a more transparent and welcoming image than earlier classical buildings had done.

The Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building (1954) designed by SOM heavily influenced financial services architecture in the United States, but not much in St. Louis.

The national tone for new financial services architecture was partially set by the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company’s new branch on Park Avenue in New York (1954). Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building was an “all glass display case for banking” in the words of its architect.

The W.A. Sarmiento-designed Jefferson Bank and Trust Company Building (1956) is an example of local designers’ less dogmatic modernism.

In St. Louis, however, there are few examples of glass banks. Partially this is due to the design practice of the dominant bank architecture firm in St. Louis, the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation (BBEC). BBEC’s chief designer after 1952 was W.A. Sarmiento, whose modernist practice embraced the International Style only as a reference for works – the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company Building (1955) being best-known — that explored curvature, including round and elliptical forms, variation in masses and roof forms with no reverence for the flat roof, and even the introduction of ornamental elements.

The First Security Bank Building (1961), designed by Rather & Roth and located on Kirkwood Road in Kirkwood, was built as a glass hat box of sorts.
The First Security Bank Building today, with replacement glazing and cladding substantially altering its original appearance.

At the start of the 1960s, financial services architecture in the St. Louis area likewise was notable bereft of the glass box. The First Security Bank Building (1961; extant but altered) in Kirkwood, designed by Rathert & Roth, is a 78′ diameter circular building with glass walls behind pilotis under a shallow domed roof. The Security Mutual Bank built a new drive-in facility (1960; demolished) at 13th and Olive streets downtown, with the main component a brick box surrounded by segmental brise soleil of concrete block.

Rendering of the The Public Service Savings and Loan Association Building (1962), designed by Kenneth Wischmeyer.

The Public Service Savings and Loan Association Building (1962; extant), designed by Kenneth Wischmeyer, is designed as a three story brick mass with a projecting heavy proto-Brutalist concrete grid on its main elevation. Yet by the middle of the decade city directories would be full of advertisements placed by banks and savings and loan associations with photos of modern drive-in “auto bank” additions and new buildings; the Mercantile-Commerce Bank at the corner of Grand and Lindell boulevards went so far as to advertise itself in 1963 as “Midtown’s most modern bank.”

The International style influence is apparent in the United Postal Savings Building (1962; Kromm, Rikamaru & Johansen) at 18th and Olive streets.

At least three 1960s financial services buildings in the St. Louis area came close to embodying the tenets of the Miesian box. One was the Hamiltonian Savings and Loan Association Company Building. Another is the Missouri Savings Association Building (1966; Smith-Entzeroth; extant but greatly altered) at 10 North Hanley Road in downtown Clayton, Missouri. The one-story building sat on a podium and consisted of a floating concrete roof set on four corner columns above a plate glass curtain wall. The building has been remodeled beyond recognition. The other is the diminutive United Postal Savings Building (1962; Kromm, Rikamaru & Johansen; extant) at 18th and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis. With walls of polished granite contrasting with plate glass walls at its main entrance corner, the one-story flat-roofed building embodied the formalism of Miesian design if not the purity of the “glass box.”

In 1961, the Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association hired Winkler & Thompson – a firm whose output included no other modernist works — to design its new headquarters branch on South Grand Boulevard adjacent to its existing location. By then, the neighboring Tower Grove Bank located on the block to the north had clad its two-story Beaux Arts 1912 building with a Modern Movement slipcover in 1953.

The Tower Grove Bank Building before its slip-cover was added. Built in 1912, the building stood where the Commerce Bank branch now stands adjacent to the new Rooster restaurant site.
The Tower Grove Bank Building before its slip-cover was added. Built in 1912, the building stood where the Commerce Bank branch now stands adjacent to the new Rooster restaurant site.

The new building replaced a pair of two-story commercial buildings with apartments above. The city issued a permit to demolish those buildings on January 28, 1960. Hamiltonian’s construction permit dates to May 26, 1961, and reports a construction cost of $12,500.00. Hoel-Steffen Construction Company, with its office nearby at 3023 Pestalozzi Street, was general contractor and Belt & Given served as mechanical engineers.

The one-story building is surrounded by red brick walls on the two elevations not visible from the street, tying the building with local masonry tradition. These walls flank two glass-walled elevations comparable to the design of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building in New York seven years earlier. The construction announcement article boasted that the glass walls “reach from floor to ceiling and provide an open, clear view of the interior.” Such transparency served multiple purposes: to attract business, to assuage fears of robbery and to put the building in league with the most modern trends in architecture.

The main lobby is a transparent, open space — perfect for Rooster’s dining room!

Hamiltonian embraced the automobile as well as the surrounding community with the new building. The 23-car parking lot offered another element of modern convenience. Dave Bailey plans to embrace instead the convenience of outdoor dining, which will replace the asphalt pad. At the east end of the south elevation is a wing that encloses a stairwell leading down to a basement area that contained a large meeting room that Hamiltonian made available to community organizations. Use of the building clearly was good for the visibility of the institution.

Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association occupied the building until its merger with Home Savings of America in 1981. After 1981, the Roosevelt Savings & Loan Association occupied the building until it was purchased by Mercantile Bank & Trust Company. Mercantile Bank operated a branch bank in the building until the late 1990s. Mercantile Bank sold the property to Commerce Bank, then the occupant of the former Tower Grove Bank building to the north. Commerce Bank leased the building to the St. Louis Public Library, which temporarily moved the Carpenter Branch Library there during renovation and expansion. Upon the Carpenter Branch Library’s re-opening in 2003, the building became vacant.

The essence of the building: perpendicular angles, repeated manifold through the convergence of contrasting materials.

The preparers of the Tower Grove Heights Historic District excluded the Hamiltonian building from the district boundary, a common omission for modern works not considered to “belong” with older neighborhoods. In 2007, the City Treasurer came close to issuing bonds for a South Grand parking garage that would have occupied the Hamiltonian site. Thankfully, the march of time has built appreciation for the steel and glass business temple. South Grand’s varied streetscape includes other examples of modernism, ranging from St. Pius V’s 1950 recladding to vitrolite (shiny structural glass) storefront cladding.

The new Rooster will occupy a building that emphatically ties the business district to the best currents in mid-century modern design in St. Louis — design as materially rich and spatially ordered as any of the brick and terra cotta buildings that define the streetscape.

This article is based on the National Register of Historic Places nomination, which includes contributions from Lynn Josse and Lydia Slocum.

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.

Mid-Century Modern National Register PRO Projects Shaw

Thurman Station: Where It All Began For Me

by Dave Brownell

The National Park Service placed “Thurman Station,” the former Standard Oil station at Thurman and Cleveland avenues in Shaw, in the National Register of Historic Places on July 23. Preservation Research Office prepared the building’s nomination for new owners who are converting the building into the home of The Social Affair, a catering business, small market and cooking class facility. Literally as soon as listing was official, crews were at work converting this long-vacant neighborhood into a active part of Shaw’s economic life. We received this article while awaiting listing.


When friends visiting from St. Louis brought this internet article to my attention, my thoughts quickly turned into a little reminiscing:

This relic of a Standard Oil station turns out to be the very place, fifty-two years ago, where I grew from being a Car Fan into a Car Guy. From my sixteenth birthday until I qualified for a commercial driver’s license at eighteen, this is the place where the boy became a man. And reading and reflecting on the renewal plans in 2013 is when the man becomes a boy once again.

This corner gas station is where my father (and much of the surrounding Shaw neighbors) would drive a car for a weekly “two Dollars, Regular” experience in buying gasoline. In the late fifties, bars and taverns outnumbered gas stations three to one, so there wasn’t a lot of competition nearby. John Wolf, a very young looking Korean War veteran, was the station’s proprietor. John noticed that Pop’s cars were almost always very clean. He asked how my father managed it and was told “the Kid does it, mostly without asking.” John mentioned that he could use such a talent around the station, especially on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, when there were too many customers who wanted their cars washed and serviced in time for the weekend. Pop told me to go down and make official what I had been doing for our neighbors for several years, saying that I might even dare to ask for a dollar an hour, a big jump from the seventy-five cents I got for washing and sweep out a neighbor’s car. A dozen or so of these folks had trusted me with their cars and keys, beginning about age fourteen, to keep their cars clean, so here was my chance to enter into the big time as a professional.

John Wolf hired me that summer afternoon and my education began the very next morning. He showed me how to quickly and efficiently wash a customer’s car, starting with a hose at the roof, working down, with the wheels done last with a separate sponge. Five minutes per car was his goal and maybe an hour for “Simonizing” if the sun was not too hot and direct. I clearly remember that first “professional” car wash was a new 1960 Chevy Impala 409 hardtop with a four-speed. The crew-cutted owner watched me carefully position his treasure without stalling it before cleaning its new white paint back to a factory shine. This guy, with his beautiful car, continued to became a weekly wash customer, so I must have done well while under intense observation from both client and boss.

Within the first few days John taught me how to “count up” change, deal with the new Addressograph credit card imprinter, handle the cash register, pump gas, check oil and tire pressure without prompting, and sell a new set of Anco wiper blades or Atlas tires to those who needed it. Teaching me how to measure the underground gas tanks with a long wooden pole and then reconciling fuel delivery amounts took a bit of patience. A week later I was putting cars on one of the two lifts, changing oil, sucking oil out of Chevy canister filters, and pumping grease into several dozen fittings on the average car. All of this had to be done with a smile and more than a bit of hustle. On slow days, I did things like painting the curbing with white paint and every Saturday night, before the station was finally closed for the weekend, the lube bays were scrubbed and mopped clean for a Monday opening. John entrusted me with the keys to his 1940 Ford coupe “parts car” and the International tow truck that seemed to hate me and anyone but John on its first attempt to start each day. Ever resourceful and frugal, John developed a system where we’d drain the last drops from the emptied fiber oil cans, eventually collecting a stew of fresh oil, enough to give us a “free” oil change for each of our personal and station vehicles every month!

A few weeks before my summer vacation job was to come to an end, John trusted me enough to be left in charge while he took a week’s vacation with his family. Little did I know that his former boss, who had trained him in much the same way at about the same age, had been asked to drive by or stop in, posing as an customer, just to see how I was doing. Apparently, I did just fine because my job was extended almost another year as after-school work.

If this station someday makes it onto a list or historical registry, it will represent, for me, a personal landmark for kind and patient mentoring. John Wolf was among the youngest children from a baker with a large (17?) family and shop less than a block away. By being among the youngest, he must have learned the value of instructing and encouraging someone younger and did it very effectively. These days, all of my five children have picked up a treasure of automotive tips learned at this station. Passing on some of the automotive and interpersonal skills I picked up that year is perhaps the best way a Car Guy knows how to say thank you.

Dave Brownell ( is president of the Corvette Club of Atlanta, Georgia.

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.

Mid-Century Modern Shaw South St. Louis

The Streamlined Standard Service Station in Shaw

by Michael R. Allen and Emily Kozlowski

Thurman Station as it looks today.

Preservation Research Office’s latest project was a sheer joy: preparation of a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the streamlined Thurman Station gas station in the Shaw neighborhood. Thurman Station is an automobile service station at 2232 Thurman Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri built by Czechoslovakian-born franchisee Alois F. Mulach in 1940. Built from the 1930s Standard Oil Company design prototype, the building exemplifies the standard oblong box, porcelain enamel-clad gas station form that was developed at the height of Streamlined Moderne gas station design. The Thurman Station is an excellent showcase of changing gas station design trends in mid-20th century America.

Between 1930 and 1950, modernist design strongly influenced American gas station architecture. The economic depression of the 1930s resulted in deteriorating gasoline sales. In response, new larger stations were built to house more services (like repair service and tire changing) and allow sales of more goods (like tires). The changes increased services and products kept stations competitive. This business tactic brought about the idea of the “common” gas station — always near and usually in close proximity to another station.

The entrance to the shop and office at Thurman Station. Soon the plywood will be removed.

The introduction of new services in subsequently competitive gas stations influenced a new building style. Traditionally, gas stations had hip or gable roofs, but new stations were constructed with completely flat roofs to stand out from the rest. The new gas stations used more glass plate and took away nearly all exterior decoration. Walls were built with brick or stucco, painted with color schemes that matched their company’s logo design. With a clean and bare look, the new gas stations stood apart from any former designs previously used. Built for function and purpose, this particular design became simply known as “the oblong box.”

Sherman Perk occupies the former Copeland’s Service Station in Milwaukee (1937). Copleand’s was built according to the same Standard Oil plan as Thurman Station, but originally clad in masonry instead of enamel panels.

Streamlined industrial design and modern car culture influenced car manufacturers as well as service stations. Designer Walter Dorwin Teague developed an early and influential “streamlined” design for The Texas Company (Texaco) in 1934. Teague’s prototype had curved corners and eye-catching, simple green and red details. Soon other national companies instructed designers to follow suit. Socony-Vacuum Company (now Mobil Oil) hired prominent industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to develop streamlined buildings. Most stations featured a flat roof, minimal details, the use of porcelain metal panels and a rounded corner with inset office and retail area.

Walter Dorwin Teague’s patent drawings for a Texaco gas station (1934).
Model of Norman Bel Geddes’ famous standard design for Socony-Vacuum service stations (1934).

Building materials were intentionally chosen for service station buildings. Porcelain enamel metal tiles, for example, conjured a modern feeling, while remaining durable, impervious to most damage, easily cleaned through simple washing and as shiny as a new automobile. By the end of the 1950s, however, porcelain enamel service stations began to be remodeled. A common alteration was the removal of the tiles and transformative remodeling based on popular ranch-style designs popular in suburban residential design.

Context: Looking southeast from the intersection of Cleveland and Thurman avenues.

Although located within the Shaw Historic District (a certified local historic district), the gas station was “non-contributing” due to its age. The Shaw Historic District’s period of significance ended in 1937. Preservation Research Office thus prepared a single nomination using the context of the Historic Auto-Related Resources of St. Louis, Missouri Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF) written by Ruth Keenoy and Karen Bode Baxter in 2005. Already approved at the state level this month, Thurman Station awaits final listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Thurman Station’s future entails a historically sensitive rehabilitation designed by Craig Shields of Resitect. The porcelain panels are set to shine once more. The owners will use the space for a catering business that will demonstrate the adaptive reuse potential of just one of the city’s vacant oblong box gas stations.

Laura G. Jablonski aided in editing this article, which is derived from the nomination.

Mid-Century Modern Midtown Pruitt Igoe Urban Renewal Era

Mid-Century Modernism, Race and Equality: Two St. Louis Landmarks

by Michael R. Allen

The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the questions of the values we want to live by – rather than merely of how we want things to look.
– Alan de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

In 1956, two small one-story buildings were completed around the downtown area. One was designed by a renowned modernist designer for a growing financial institution, while the other was a modest building built by a family-owned business. Yet both buildings were modern in style, and, more importantly, built amid rapid and often conflict-laden demographic changes around the city’s commercial core. These commercial outposts would become most significant for association with the city’s struggles for racial and social equality. Today these two buildings speak of the contradictions inherent in mid-century modernism: the remaining beauty of design and the unacknowledged backdrops of overt racism and economic strife.

The Jefferson Bank and Trust Company: dual icon of architectural modernism and the local civil rights movement.

Yet neither building sports a plaque, and one most likely will be demolished. Both are keys to showing the story of the city’s social justice struggles in the recent past. While businessmen perched at desks in modern office towers downtown, and families enjoyed sunlight from large banks of windows in their latest Eichleresque ranch in St. Louis County, thousands of St. Louisans fought for the same opportunities. Modernist architecture sometimes was the backdrop there as well, as two very different buildings show.

The Jefferson Bank and Trust Company Building: W.A. Sarmiento Meets CORE

Earlier this year, the Cultural Resources Office kicked off the citywide St. Louis Modern architectural survey (conducted with assistance from Portland-based Peter Meijer Architect PC and modernista Christine Madrid French) by publishing an image of the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building at the southwest corner of Jefferson and Market streets. The architectural symbolism was double: the building is both the work of one of St. Louis’ most important modernist commercial designers and the site of one of the city’s most significant (and complicated) civil rights demonstrations. That the project would be visually marked by a building connected to both aesthetics and social unrest bodes well for future local scholarship in modern architecture.

The corner entrance of the building has been altered, but the form is intact.

The striking modernist bank building is the work of celebrated architect W.A. Sarmiento, in his capacity as chief designer for Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America, and was completed in 1956. The building was the second home of a bank that started on a site three blocks north and moved to its present home on Market Street in 1977. When the new bank opened on April 2, 1956, the press reported that it was the first new bank building in the city completed since 1928. The unknown veracity of that claim does not diminish the fact that Sarmiento’s hand places the building among the region’s finest modernist works.

Wenceslao A. Sarmiento, born in Peru, started designing for the prolific Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America in 1949. By 1952, Sarmiento was chief of design and had reoriented the company’s design practice toward a brand of iconic, playful modernism that drew inspiration from work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Oscar Niemeyer, Harris Armstrong and other less-than-doctrinaire designers. Sarmiento eschewed the functionalist conventions of the International Style, and even introduced ornament to his designs through lettering, grilles and other elements. Sarmiento is a peer to Edward Durrell Stone and others nationwide breaking from academic modernism. In St. Louis, Sarmiento’s work includes the IBEW Local #1 Headquarters (1960), the Chancery of the Archdiocese (1963) and the AAA Building (1976, designed through his subsequent solo firm).

Ahead of the contract for the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building, the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation felt the pains of the postwar building economy. Remodeling projects outnumbered new buildings ten to one in 1952. However by 1956 the firm had 35 new projects, including substantial new construction projects. These trends reflect trends across St. Louis in which postwar modernism’s first major commercial wave consisted largely of remodeling and recladding projects.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch heralded the new bank building upon completion in 1956.

For the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building (incidentally built after demolition of the St. Louis Coliseum of 1908 designed by Frederick C. Bonsack), Sarmiento conjured a planar sonata of sorts. The main entrance, now bricked in, was located at the corner under a prominent sloped wall plane that joined a dramatic back-sloped roof plane over the office areas. This was offset with a roof plan of diverging slopes on the west side of the building, where the lobby was located. As prominent as the pronounced roof forms were the eight drive-up banking windows underneath projecting flat roofs. The building’s materials bridged the gap between resolute modernism and local building culture: local red brick, metal and stucco. The price of construction was reported at $650,000.

The bank building viewed from the northwest, showing the rear roof profile.
The Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building viewed from the southeast.

Implanted in a space age building, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company’s assets grew future-forward, from $22 million in 1955 to $52 million in 1963. The context for the building changed greatly as well. The city cleared the 97 block Mill Creek Valley district to the south starting in 1959, changing the entire context of the area from a historic African-American neighborhood to a monumental corporate and institutional park. The massive Pruitt-Igoe housing project had opened to the north in 1956, fostering changes in surrounding blocks. All of a sudden, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company was central to the storms of struggle and radical urban surgery. The corner of Washington and Jefferson was no longer a placid spot for business, but ripe with potent unrest as palpable as the lines with which Sarmiento endowed the building.

In 1963, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) led demonstrations against Jefferson Bank and Trust Company over the bank’s dismal record in hiring and promoting African-Americans to professional positions. While other banks were equally complicit in these patterns, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company stood in a historically black neighborhood and held state and city funds (including public employee pension funds). CORE’s leaders thought that pressure on the bank could lead to withdrawal of public funds.

One of the early demonstrations at Jefferson Bank and Trust Company in summer 1963.

CORE demonstrations in summer 1963 quickly led to an injunction from the St. Louis Circuit Court. On August 30, 1963, 250 demonstrators gathered and marched into the bank singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome” in defiance of the court order. Nine demonstrators, including future Congressman William L. Clay, Marion Oldham, Norman Seay and others, were arrested and late sentenced to jail time. Other demonstrators were arrested on October 4 and 7 following more demonstrations. The demonstrations raised public awareness of racist bank practices, but failed to achieve the result of getting the city to remove funds or immediate bank changes. Many people served jail terms, and activists became divided over the tactics and strategy used.

The outcome of CORE’s efforts galvanized more radical young activists who widely viewed the failed demonstrations as the result of timid traditional activism. New paths were forged in the wake of the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company demonstrations. Percy Green II denounced the “battle fatigue” of older CORE leaders and founded the Action Committee to Increase Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) in 1965. Green soon after would shake up the city by attempting to scale another modernist landmark, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch. That iconic work of architecture bears the scars of inequality in construction job hiring, the target of Green’s protest.

The lack of an identifying marker or official City Landmark status for the Jefferson Bank building is unfortunate. Then again, in the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood to the south not a single marker stands to commemorate the African-American experiences there. Only on Locust Street is there a sidewalk plaque, marking the childhood home of poet T.S. Eliot. The refusal to acknowledge these African-American history sites brings to mind the words of Norman Seay when interviewed in 2010 about the Jefferson Bank protest.

The one plaque around Mill Creek Valley marks the location of T.S. Eliot’s birthplace.

When in 2010 St. Louis Beacon writer Linda Lockhart asked if racism was still alive in St. Louis, Seay said yes — with a sobering qualification: “It’s sneaky. It’s subtle.” Interest in preserving modernist architecture in St. Louis and elsewhere has largely deflected the messy strands of design and race. Urban renewal and its landscapes are largely panned by preservationists, and the social injustice decried. Yet modern architecture’s complexities extend far beyond obviously contested sites. Struggle is as worthy of commemoration as is exemplary design — because both are integral components of the architectural battleground of postwar St. Louis.

The Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Station: A Modest Monument

Across Cass Avenue from the forest marking the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, at 2411 Cass Avenue stands a little building with a sun-catching tapestry of modern brick on its front wall, and plain concrete blocks on its sides and back. The Richardson family built the building in 1956 and opened a delicatessen that no doubt benefited from the arrival of some 12,000 residents at the brand new public housing complex. Yet the little building would play a more significant role in the life of Pruitt-Igoe, albeit briefly.

The Pruitt-Igoe Neighborhood Station at 2411 Cass Avenue as it appears today.

The Urban League of St. Louis assumed operation of St. Louis’ anti-poverty program in September 1965. With funding coming through the Human Development Corporation, the Urban League opened four “neighborhood stations” to serve districts in north St. Louis identified as having high concentrations of poverty. These districts were Wells-Goodfellow, Easton-Taylor, Yeatman and Pruitt-Igoe. Today, with the exception of the mostly-cleared Pruitt-Igoe district, the areas are still among the city’s poorest and most in need of social services.

Map of neighborhood stations and other facilities that appeared in the Urban League of St. Louis 1966 Annual Report.

The Urban League leased the Richardson delicatessen from 1966 through 1969. During those years, the building was the Pruitt-Igoe Neighborhood Station. There, the Urban League offered an array of services including job training and placement, sex education, tutorial programs, Head Start and health classes. By 1965, Pruitt-Igoe’s woes were dire. The 33 towers already had a vacancy rate of more than 25%, and the remaining residents were nearly all African-American and among the city’s poorest. Still, residents had moxie. The people who used the Pruitt-Igoe Neighborhood Station established an advisory committee and helped the Urban League reach more residents and find private resources not included in the anti-poverty program’s annual public grant.

Social workers counseling Pruitt-Igoe residents at the Neighborhood Station. Source: 1966 Annual Report, Urban League of St. Louis.

Panacea for Pruitt-Igoe’s ills was not even remotely possible, but stopgaps were. In the little brick-faced building on Cass Avenue, the Urban League tried to help residents do the best that they could – with limited funding and limited resources. In the end, the Neighborhood Station was not enough, and when it closed drastic measures were in the works for Pruitt-Igoe. The Model Cities program went into effect nationwide, and the city of St. Louis chose a big part of north city including Pruitt-Igoe for federal funds that — had they been sufficient and steady enough – might have cleared and reshaped the area. Model Cities briefly assumed the Cass Avenue building as an office.

Inside of the Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Station in 2008. Despite the loss of the roof, the concrete block structure is intact.

Where planners next dreamed of utopian solutions to address the dystopian realities of north city, today one will find no traces. Today, the little building is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC, which purchased it after it had long gone vacant. The four walls are strong, but the roof structure forms a wooden mess inside. Paired with the adjacent Grace Baptist church, founded by Pruitt-Igoe residents and utilizing a former neighborhood grocery store, the Neighborhood Station building is a key fragment of St. Louis’ housing crisis. I am not the first to state that the small building would make a fine Pruitt-Igoe museum. At the least, it stands silently testifying to the social realities of modernism.

The Neighborhood Station awaits an uncertain fate. Meanwhile, Grace Baptist Church is rehabilitating the building visible in the background for use as a community center.

To understand mid-century St. Louis, we must peel off our filters that privilege high-style modernism and the lives of the middle and upper classes. Our Sarmiento-designed landmarks lose a lot of context without the backdrop of Pruitt-Igoe and homegrown modern buildings like the Richardson deli. The vagaries of time, use and memory dispel any notion that we can save all. Yet as we evaluate what parts of architectural epochs are worth keeping, let us not forget sites of struggle and sites built through poverty. Until the city has vanquished racial and economic barriers, these landmarks tell us as much about ourselves as do the valuable, colorful and sophisticated modernism seen in designs that include Jefferson Bank.

Central West End Chicago Historic Preservation Hospitals Mid-Century Modern The Ville

Diagnosing the Future: Modernism, Medicine and Historic Preservation

by Michael R. Allen

Prentice Women’s Hospital, ready for demolition.

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.

Mid-Century Modern This Building Matters

This Building Matters #5: Modern St. Louis (Citywide MCM Survey)

Yesterday, the Cultural Resources Office held a public meeting on the ongoing citywide survey of non-residential mid-century modern architecture. Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley started the meeting with a talk that included slides of the handful of St. Louis non-residential Modern buildings already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including Pet Plaza and the Nooter Corporation Building. The list is far too small given the wide cultural acceptance of the mid-century modern era.

Part of the public meeting included ranking a list of 40 buildings prepared by Peter Meijer Associates, the architectural firm that is working on the survey project. The 40 buildings and comment forms are online here. Public input will lead to a list of 25-30 buildings recommended for City Landmark designation.

Some of yesterday’s meeting can be seen in this video.

Architects JeffVanderLou Metro East Mid-Century Modern Missouri North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe South St. Louis Southwest Garden Wellston

The Mid-Century Modernism of Marcel Boulicault

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis architect Marcel Boulicault’s name probably is unfamiliar to you, but a few of his works will draw an “ah ha!” or two. Boulicault is a designer whose contributions to Modern architecture in St. Louis are largely unheralded, but that needs to change. Boulicault (1896 – 1961) is best known for an obtrusive and despised addition to the St. Louis State Hospital, the Louis H. Kohler Building, which stood directly in front of William Rumbold’s domed 1869 County Asylum building. Boulicault also designed the building that became St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters, a major state office building on Jefferson City and other prominent works. Then, there is his patented electric tooth brush — which we will discuss in a moment. Boulicault’s buildings were creative, colorful (and a bit jazzy) but also purposeful — the best mid-century combination.

Highly-idealized rendering of the Kohler Building at St. Louis State Hospital — the flip side of what would happen. Source: Missouri State Archives.
Bridges Fountain Park Martin Luther King Drive Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis St. Louis County

Finding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The city's Land Reutilization Authority owns the vacant building at 4553 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Greater Ville.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Bridge at sunrise. Photograph from Wikipedia Commons.

Our city’s enduring legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consists of the renamed Veterans Memorial Bridge (built 1951, renamed 1968) and the several-miles of combined Franklin and Easton avenues (renamed in 1968). The bridge is ever-functional and well-maintained, but the street honoring America’s greatest twentieth century political leader generally is a poor testament to the man. No matter how many miles of fresh concrete sidewalks and pink granitoid old-fashioned street lights go up on Martin Luther King Drive, the street’s condition generally is depressing, and most of its miles lack even basic beautification measures like street trees. (Of course, that street named for the slave-owning founder Thomas Jefferson is not much better off in many stretches.)