Architects Events Mid-Century Modern

Harris Armstrong Lives On

by Michael R. Allen

Instead of sitting at my desk working through lunch on Friday, at the urging of two friends I headed to Webster University to catch architect Andrew Raimist’s slide lecture on Harris Armstrong. While I knew a fair amount about Armstrong before Friday, most of it was through facts gleaned from books and Raimist’s own writing.

Armstrong’s various work spread across the mid-century make so much more sense when explained by Raimist, who has a wonderful mix of true insight and eager passion for his subject. Raimist’s narration against the backdrop of beautiful images projected screen-size make for a compelling hour and for a much more vivid examination of Harris Armstrong than can be found in any other way.

Thankfully, Raimist has published a large amount of his research on Armstrong and an equally vast amount of images. While this is more linear offering than the lecture, these are formidable resources in their own right. After all, few St. Louis architects have bona fide biographers, let alone anyone as intense as Andrew Raimist.

Please visit his websites:

  • Architectural Ruminations (blog)
  • Raimist’s Flickr page (photos)
  • Categories
    Chicago Housing Mid-Century Modern

    Preservation Chicago’s 2007 "Chicago 7" List

    by Michael R. Allen

    Preservation Chicago has released its annual “Chicago 7” list of endangered buildings. Far from a useless cry, the list has always been a measured and prescient examination of true threats to historic buildings of all ages and types. For Chicago urbanists, the list is a rallying cry. For those of us elsewhere, it’s the best reference for preservation issues in Chicago. (It’s also an inspiring model, much like Landmarks Association of St. Louis’ annual Eleven Most Endangered and Eleven Most Enhanced lists.)

    One of the great things about the list is that its creators are flexible in what makes up a list item. Often, an item can be a district or neighborhood and this year has a few larger districts.

    This year’s list features the following buildings:

  • Farwell Building
  • Rosenwald Apartments
  • Archer Avenue District
  • Wicker Park Commercial District
  • Julia C. Lathrop Homes
  • North Avenue Bridge
  • Pilgrim Baptist Church
  • I am delighted that Preservation Chicago is focusing attention on the Archer Avenue district amid Bridgeport’s gentrification boom, which may lead to massive demolition for admittedly urban new construction. And I’m doubly delighted to see anyone champion the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, an early low-rise federally-funded housing project that is a descendant of St. Louis’ Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. Chicago’s loss of the ABLA Homes went largely unmourned, although both the design and construction quality of mid-century low-rise housing projects make them great candidates for reuse.

    See the Chicago 7 list here.

    Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

    Bonetti Looks at St. Louis’ Threatened Mid-Century Homes

    by Michael R. Allen

    In “Out with the Old”(January 14) and “St. Louis Architectural Legacy is Fading Fast” (January 21), St. Louis Post-Dispatch art critic David Bonetti offers a serious look at the current rash of demolitions of mid-century modern homes in St. Louis. He examines threatened and recently lost works by William Adair Bernoudy, Harris Armstrong, Samuel Marx and Isadore Shank.

    It’s refreshing to find that the daily paper’s critic is tackling an important preservation issue. While the onslaught of demolition of all building types continue, there still is a window in which a greater cultural appreciation of mid-century architecture can be forged.

    The critical questions are: Will that appreciation come to pass? And, if it does, will it come too late to make a difference in efforts to preserve more than a handful of examples?

    Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

    Open House at Neighborhood Gardens

    by Michael R. Allen

    On the weekend of October 21-22, 2006, Spanish Lake Development Company held an open house at Neighborhood Gardens to display the results of their two-year rehabilitation project. The event coincided with the annual Downtown Housing Tour. After a long period of rehab and an even longer period of decay, the buildings looked alive again!

    The renovated buildings look much as they did when they opened over seventy years ago. The vision of Spanish Lake Development principals Jim and Dan Dalton was to restore the buildings to their true architectural qualities. Thus, they restored or rebuilt almost all of the original steel sash windows with new double glazing, retained exposed block walls and concrete floors in the stairwells and put ceramic tile over the floors rather than carpeting. The only real change to the buildings were the creation of larger apartments through doubling of the small original units. Mostly, the Daltons have kept the timeless qualities of the buildings — qualities created by durable materials that allowed the buildings to survive dereliction without major damage.

    The project is nearing total completion, but some buildings are already ready for leasing. Unlike the proposed Bottle District across the street, the redevelopment of these buildings has happened on a short schedule, without the Mayor’s smiling support and without huge fanfare. The persistence of the Daltons has taught the city that even a troubled, iconic abandoned place is not too far gone if someone dares to bring it back to life. That someone need not be a famous developer, either — it can be two guys who care. May the “new” Neighborhood Gardens thrive.

    Architecture Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

    Mid-Century Modern Preservation Efforts Require Rethinking Preservation

    by Michael R. Allen

    While preservation battles continue across the St. Louis region, those surrounding mid-century modern buildings will probably dominate the next twenty years of the local preservation movement. Given the economic geography of new construction in St. Louis around the middle and later parts of the 20th century, most of the buildings that will be threatened stand in St. Louis County and other suburban areas (with some exceptions).

    Any preservation effort that will aim to defend the outstanding modernist buildings of this area will need to be pan-geographic. The effort will have to involve individuals and groups comfortable and ready to make alliances into the suburbs, and into Illinois. In turn, new allies will have to be ready to support battles ongoing in the city of St. Louis.

    With the parochial attitudes of many cultural actors here, one may have cause to be pessimistic about the prospect of the local preservation movement trying to save mid-century modern buildings. Of course, even before the bias toward certain political boundaries comes a more pernicious bias against any building not “historic” by the art-historical terms embodied by most local, state and national landmark designations.

    What is needed before too long is rejection of the strictures of profession and political boundaries so that a truly regional effort to preserve all of the valuable architecture of this region can be born. While there are ethical and ecological reasons to favor the dense urban core of the region, culturally significant works of architecture are everywhere. The mid-century buildings tell a different story than the 19th century masonry buildings that are ubiquitous here — one of an optimistic embrace of technology and open space. We all know that story has become tragedy, but certain buildings that are part of the story are aesthetically unique landmarks that are needed in today’s world when we have descended even further into the abyss of suburbanization.

    Time has changed the way in which architectural historians appreciate the buildings of the mid-century era. Now it’s time for the preservation movement to do the same, in St. Louis and elsewhere.

    Media Mid-Century Modern

    Building Geeks Tonight on "The Wire"

    Tonight on KDHX’s The Wire, Claire Nowak-Boyd, Michael Allen and Toby Weiss will discuss current events related to the built environment in St. Louis.

    Topics that will come up: Buildings, St. Louis, blogging, and modernism.

    Topics that may also come up (no promises on this whatsoever): Marilyn Monroe paintings, Government Hill in Forest Park, dead malls, the Chainsaw Kittens, pit bulls, Old North St. Louis, Panorama Lanes, and modernist restroom photography.

    The program airs at 7:30 p.m. on 88.1 FM and online.

    Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern North County St. Louis County

    What We Can Learn from Jennings

    by Michael R. Allen

    Internet happenstance led to my discovery of the website for the Jennings Historical Society. Jennings is a small city in north St. Louis County, located not far from the city limits of St. Louis. While Jennings was incorporated in 1946 and saw rapid growth after the opening of Interstate Highway 70, settlement there dates back to 1839. While the Historical Society’s website isn’t deep in content, its presence and wonderful design suggest that there is an effort going to take an interest in the history of one of north county’s most interesting cities.

    Jennings was instrumental in the development of the shopping mall in St. Louis. Both Northland Shopping Center in the 1950s and River Roads Mall in 1967 were innovative, albeit auto-centric, development projects that fell into vacancy and disrepair before demolition. Northland fell last year for a new big-box strip, and River Roads is under demolition at the present moment for a new subdivision developed by the Pyramid Companies.

    Jennings, however, lives on. While the city faces the same problems as other municpalities in St. Louis County that went from great early suburban development to stangant economies, it could stand to preserve some of its recent past. The suburban development of the 1950s is increasingly the subject of serious research, and its atomic-age modernism seems rather intimately-scaled when compared with suburban development that followed it. Jennings is still the site of 20th century retail, gas station and other commercial buildings that tell the story of the postwar settlement of St. Louis County — as well as older buildings that show the development that the once-rural county supported before highways.

    Historic preservation is needed in Jennings as well as other “inner ring” suburbs. The rush to increase revenues may wipe out a lot of interesting places and buildings there. I hope fellow preservationists look at mid-century suburban architecture as seriously as they do early 20th century urban office buildings. Places like Jennings are very important antidotes to development projects like WingHaven that undercut all sense of place and totally condemn the pedestrian. Jennings developed into a car-friendly place that also retained a specific character. Those of us who despise the suburbs can find things to like about these cities — and our involvement can redirect development efforts from replacement sprawl to urban development that builds on local character. A site like that of River Roads would have been a great place for the New Urbanists who are instead building non-places on the remote corn fields of St. Charles County.

    Downtown Mid-Century Modern

    Inside of the Dorsa Building

    by Michael R. Allen

    The interior of the Dorsa Building (1946) is a cavernous modern wonderland. There are few right angles in the space that Meyer Loomstein designed as the showroom for the Dorsa dress line. On the first level, the space is divided into two portions: a front lobby, accessible from Washington, with a large central open area flanked by offices that open to it. Through an opening at the rear wall of this space, one enters a fantastic auditorium consisting of terraced seating descending along with a curving staircase that leads down to a small stage. Curves are everywhere — in walls, the taper of columns, ceiling insets and in the shape of the stage itself. Plaster on metal lathe is the basic material used to mold the streamline spaces here. Terrazzo floors and stylized doors heighten the appearance. Color once was essential to the presentation of the space, but later alterations not doubt altered the original palette.

    The auditorium was used for fashion shows for many years. The Dorsa company unveiled its new lines here, and also turned over the space to student designers from Washington University.

    Alas, there is no definite future for the space even though the building is being renovated by the Pyramid Companies. Pyramid is leasing the space to a commercial tenant, and favors preservation. However, ultimately the choice to preserve the space will be passed to whomever leases this space.

    Needless to say, the space is the only large-scale intact Art Moderne interior in downtown St. Louis, and one of a handful ever created there. Its preservation would guarantee that the city would retain a space like no other. The uncertainty points the need for redefining local, state and national preservation standards to give architectural interiors protection equal to that of exteriors.

    We thank Paul Hohmann of Pyramid Architects for giving us a tour of the interior.

    After passing through the street lobby, one enters a show room flanked by offices.  Tapered plasterwork hide the building’s original columns.

    Inside of the show room, the curvaceous entrance to the theater beckons.

    Arriving at the top of the theater, one is face with an asymmetrical array of curves and a double-back progression to the lowest level.

    Wedge-shaped mirrors in stylized frames — replete with coquillage at the center top –adorn the walls.  The stage is no simple platform, but a continues to make use of wide parabolic and circular curves.

    The columns in the theater have cloud-like plaster capitals, and the ceiling repeats the motif with recesses.  Once you enter, you pass to the land of dreams — and dresses!

    Every detail seems to be considered by the architect. Even the the view lines between these columns, once governed by a grid, serve as an axis for a Rorschach-like scene.

    Demolition Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Theaters

    Regal Theater Demolished

    by Michael R. Allen

    Franchon and Marco (later Arthur Theatres) built the Regal Theater on Easton Avenue (later named for Martin Luther King) in 1937, with their regular architect Arthur Stauder as the likely designer. Stauder designed the same chain’s Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway, which opened just two years earlier. The 846-seat theater cost $15,000.00 to build, and was an impressive three-story buff-brick Art Deco composition. The first floor was clad in lovely blue marble, enhancing the dreamy atmosphere of the movies, while the upper two floors emphasized the linear geometry of the brickwork. End bays carries alternating vertical bands of two brick tones, while the central section carried zig-zag bands above and below a central checkerboard-patterned area. Inside, the finish was not as exciting. A balcony contained 200 of the theater’s seats, and the restrooms were oddly located on the balcony level.

    The theater closed in 1986. A photograph of the theater circa 2002, when it still had its vertical sign, appears in Eric Post’s book of nighttime photographs, Ghost Town.

    Sadly, the theater never found a new life, and fell into the hands of the city government’s real estate agency, which proved to be a neglectful steward. While the area declined, new development spurred by the demolition of federally-subsidized high-rise housing never included this grand movie theater, which could have provided an excellent community space in a neighborhood lacking many ties to its past. In early 2006, the city had the Regal Theater demolished to make way for a church parking lot expansion.

    Coincidentally, Chicago also had a Regal Theater, albeit one more famous than the one in St. Louis. The Regal Theater in Chicago was also located on a street named for Martin Luther King, but met its demise in 1973.

    Demolition Downtown Mid-Century Modern

    Busch Stadium: Nothing But Rubble

    Photographs by Michael R. Allen

    By the middle of December, only rubble from the above-ground structure of the stadium was left. Wreckers were busy removing this rubble and excavating foundations so that the new stadium could be completed in time for the opening of the baseball season in April 2006.