Fifty-two years ago, Charles Limberg and Suzanne Shapleigh moved into their new home at 22 Fordyce Lane in Ladue. Their two-story home spread out horizontally across a sloping site largely disrupted by construction. Red brick, plate glass and fir provided a rich material palate for a work of modern architecture designed by Isadore Shank (1902-1992), an architect whose work already had included several significant modern buildings in and around St. Louis.
Today, the house is gone, except for elements that have been lovingly salvaged by the architectsâ€™ sons Peter and Stephen. The new owners of the Limberg House had it torn down this month. Wrecking equipment destroyed landscape elements that almost concealed the home. The glass shattered, the mortar was ground out for brick salvage and much of the house was smashed and crushed.
The tragic end of the Limberg House is symptomatic of the plight of significant mid-century modern houses in Ladue. Ladue may have the regionâ€™s finest collection of significant large modern homes, but it lacks any historic preservation ordinance whatsoever. Owners can demolish homes, no matter how important they are. In 2006, the Louis Zorensky Residence off of Warson Road bit the dust. Two years prior, the neighboring Morton D. May House fell, despite its status as the work of Los Angeles-based modern master Samuel Marx. The architectural heritage of Ladue could very well be temporary, in the absence of dedicated owners. A for-sale sign may well be an early obituary.
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 task force elected to explore reducing the towersâ€™ 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.
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 nationâ€™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.
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.
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 donâ€™t know what they will be at this time.” Pruitt-Igoe was not dead yet.
The Soldiers’ Memorial was completed in 1938 as the centerpiece of Memorial Plaza, a municipal landscape devoted to St. Louisans who sacrificed their lives in World War I. Designed by Mauran, Russell & Crowell with Preston J. Bradshaw, the building offers an angular, modernist reduction of a classical Greek temple form. This building and its military museum anchor a historic civic landscape, but public awareness and financial stability have been elusive in recent years.
Now the National Park Service is studying acquiring the Soldiers’ Memorial, which the City of St. Louis has owned since construction. Should the city convey a public building long maintained by local taxpayers to the federal government? Will the National Park Service be able to increase attendance and improve the curatorial practices of the museum? These questions are now on the table.
Thursday, members of the public will have the chance to offer comments on the National Park Service study of acquisition and management of the Soldiers’ Memorial. The following is taken from an announcement posted this week by Ruth Heikkinen, Project Manager, Soldiers’ Memorial Military Museum Special Resource Study:
The National Park Service was directed by Congress in Public Law 110-229 to evaluate the Soldiers’ Memorial as a potential unit of the national park system. For a site to be recommended as a potential new park unit, it must meet the criteria for national significance, be a suitable and feasible addition to the park system, and NPS must be found to be the best option for management. Studies that evaluate these criteria are called special resource studies (SRS).
Public input is an important part the of the SRS process, and we invite your attendance at our public meeting at the Memorial on March 15th from 5-6:30pm (see Meeting Notices at left for more details). We also invite your comments on the Draft SRS (to be posted by March 14th, 2012 …).
The business district on South Grand Boulevard between Arsenal Street and Gravois Road showcases the great range of twentieth century architectural styles, forms and materials employed in St. Louis. From the vintage Standard station at Grand and Connecticut, through blocks of two-part commercial structures and up to the tower of St. Pius V Roman Catholic Church, South Grand has a splendidly polyphonous architectural character. Yet there are few mid-century modern buildings in the mix, showing how little demolition visited the district after its early build-out.
South Grand’s mid-century modern landmark remains the diminutive bank building at 3150 S. Grand, right at Juniata Street on the east side. The stark minimalism of this building, built by the Hamiltonian Federal Savings and Loan Association in 1961, contrast with the classicism prevalent in the terra cotta that adorns buildings across the street, and with the contemporary design of the Commerce Bank to the north.
This is the fifth part of a nine-part series on the evolution of the Gateway Mall, that ribbon of park space that runs between Market and Chestnut streets and from the Jefferson National Expansion memorial westward to Twenty-Second Street downtown. This article began its life as a lecture that I delivered to the Friends of Tower Grove Park on February 3, 2008, and was published in its entirety in the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley chapter in Spring 2011.
Selection of Eero Saarinen and Dan Kileyâ€™s plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial design in the 1948 design competition drew planners’ attention to eastern downtown. In 1954, the architectural firm Russell, Mullgardt, Schwarz & Van Hoefen published a rendering of an eastern park mall running from the Civil Courts and terminating at the new Memorial. The block between Third (now Memorial Drive) and Fourth Streets would be landscaped by the National Park Service as part of the Memorial and named Luther Ely Smith Square. The firm’s rendering was the first time that the idea of extending the downtown park system to the east had been considered.
The rendering by Russell, Mullgardt, Schwarz & Van Hoefen coincided with creation of the western blocks between Fifteenth and Eighteenth streets between 1954 and 1960. Those blocks joined existing Memorial and Aloe plaza blocks to form a mall-like line of parks from Twelfth Street (later Tucker Boulevard) west to Twentieth streets. The new Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Luther Ely Smith Square shaped an eastern terminus for the larger park project that would soon be named the Gateway Mall.
Yet the Civil Courts Building and the Old Courthouse were obstacles to a continuous park mall. Still, the rendering of formally symmetrical park space joining the existing Memorial Plaza and park mall at the west to the Memorial at the east was immediately popular. Anticipating timely completion of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, downtown business leaders wanted to reconstruct eastern downtown with a modern built environment worthy of a major international landscape.
On January 14, 2011, Harris Armstrong’s Stonebrook (1959) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This article is based on the author’s section of the nomination; Andrew Raimist contributed sections on Armstrong and his residential work not included here.
Near the tiny village of Antonia in Jefferson County, Missouri, just north of Highway M and hidden in the forested hills, is Stonebrook. This small house is an excellent, unique work designed by St. Louis architect Harris Armstrong but whose origin is equally due to naturalists Kemps and Eva Kirkpatrick. Armstrong (1899-1973), whose reputation as a master of Modern architecture is well-established nationally, designed the house for the Kirkpatricks after they purchased the Stonebrook Forest in order to protect its wooded wildflower preserve. Due to the compact size, limited budget and design economy, Stonebrook was a singular achievement for the master architect. Yet Stonebrook’s design principles are also found in Armstrong’s larger, more costly residential designs.
Overall, Stonebrook is a very simple wooden house evocative of rural Swiss and Swedish residences. The house departs from Armstrong’s documented body of Modern residential designs in size as well as extent of owner involvement in design and construction. The Kirkpatricks had purchased the land to protect Stonebrook Forest and needed to live on the property for financial reasons. Their limited budget of $20,000 was first rebuffed by the great architect but quickly seized as a challenge. Stonebrook shows the same deliberate attention to design and sensitivity to site as his larger residential designs.
We are delighted that when thousands of people are exploring mid-century modern architecture across the United States, St. Louisans will be part of the national scene!Â St. Louis will stand alongside such well-known bastions of modern architecture as Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Detroit.Â It’s about time that the city that launched an architectural revolution in airport terminal design, built the nation’s most iconic modern monument and supported the careers of designers like Harris Armstrong, Eric Mendelsohn and William Bernoudy is included.
DOCOMOMO has invited ModernSTL to participate in the 5th Annual DOCOMOMO US National Tour Day. Our contribution to this American celebration of the Modern Movement is â€œGateway To Modernism: Modern Architecture Tour of St. Louis City & County.â€
This is a chartered bus tour from 9 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 8, 2011.
The tour, narrated by ModernSTL board members Toby Weiss and Michael R. Allen, will highlight outstanding examples of mid-century modern architecture in the Metro St. Louis region, driving through and stopping at spiritual, commercial and residential sites. The highlights will be a tour of architect Harris Armstrongâ€™s Ethical Society Building (1962) led by architect (and Armstrong scholar) Andrew Raimist and a tour of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaumâ€™s Priory Chapel (1962) with a special guest.
Space is limited to 100 people, and reservations are required. $25 per person. Get your tickets here.
Despite the rain and cold, a small group of students, news outlets, and supporters — including the buildingâ€™s original architect, Richard Henmi — gathered at the former Del Taco saucer this afternoon to hear current plans for the building from developer Rick Yackey and Alderwoman Marlene Davis. The news was good â€“ with the help of Klitzing Welsh Associates, an architectural firm specializing in historic rehabilitation (including the mid-century modern Washington Avenue Apartments at Tucker and Washington), Yackey will restore the saucer back to its historic 1967 appearance to accommodate two national tenants.
While reluctant to state which ones, the developer said he is in negotiation with chains of a far “higher caliber” than the buildingâ€™s former occupant, but which would include “food and coffee” amongst their offerings. Simple renderings showed the saucer’s original rounded storefront restored in place of the current drive-thru to expand the interior to 4,800 square feet. Yackey also plans to rework the surrounding, which will hopefully include improving access from Grand Avenue and Forest Park Boulevard. And while the renderings failed to show outdoor seating beneath the saucer’s cantilevered roof, he said that a patio is definitely part of the plan.
Yackey is seeking Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credits for the project so all renovation plans will go through the State Historic Preservation Office. This means the building will be in good hands, and that all alterations made to its exterior will be in keeping with its historic appearance. These will surely include the now painted-over clerestory windows wrapping around the saucer’s rear which are not reflected in current renderings. Apart from this temporary oversight, we can hope to see a restored and fully occupied saucer next year — ideally, according to Yackey, by March 2012 when the new Grand Avenue bridge is set to open.
When asked, architect Richard Henmi, who designed the saucer in the mid-1960s while an associate with the firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen, replied, â€œI think itâ€™s good. I like it. It pretty much keeps the original intent of the building.â€ In light of renderings which essentially show the saucer returned to the same striking design he envisioned almost fifty years ago, there wasnâ€™t much more for him to say. But hopefully, come next year, weâ€™ll all being saying much more than that as weâ€™re riding our bikes, walking our dogs, and strolling our kids to have lunch and cup of coffee at the coolest mid-century modern patio this side of the Mississippi. And for St. Louis, that’s saying a lot.
We are getting closer to knowing what the flying saucer will look like in its new life. On Wednesday, September 14 at 6:00 p.m., in front of the beloved building itself, at 212 S. Grand Boulevard, developer Rick Yackey will hold a press conference. Yackey is expected unveil the awaited renderings of what the former rehabilitated Phillips 66 gas station at Council Plaza will look like in its new life as a retail building.
We can expect an adaptive reuse plan that includes an addition to the building that adds enough space to create two spaces for tenants. Perhaps we will even get a slice of information about the new tenants. Hopefully the plan includes making the corner of Forest Park Boulevard and Grand Avenue, which lacks sidewalks at its intersection, more pedestrian friendly and safer for residents of Council Plaza to use.
At the least, we will see the concept for reviving one of the city’s most beloved mid-century landmarks. Rick Yackey has embraced one of the region’s largest preservation upswells in recent years. A renewed flying saucer not only will provide an example of successful adaptation of a difficult purpose-built building, but testament to the power of public engagement of the built environment.
The modest two-story modernist office box located at 1400 S. Third Street south of downtown doesn’t evince its deep and important connections with historical forces as powerful as the development of atomic energy in the United States, St. Louisâ€™ postwar effort to retain its manufacturing workforce and the mid-century modern architectural practice of a renowned engineering firm. Yet the red brick Nooter Corporation Building marks the intersection of these forces, at least through the administration of a company at the forefront of them. Here was the building that housed not the fabricators but the conjurers — those who dreamed of fitting an old boiler company into the mid-century mission of transforming America into modern nation.
Following World War II, the Nooter Corporation entered into a rapid period of growth through involvement as a supplier and erector of process vessels to the emergent nuclear power industry as well as the established chemical, petroleum, food and defense industries. Nooter embarked on a major expansion of its plant in 1947 and by 1957 the corporation decided to build a new corporate headquarters suitable for its prominence. In 1959, administrative and engineering offices moved to the building.
From this office, engineers devised plans for the construction of a reactor vessel for the worldâ€™s first atomic energy plant and the worldâ€™s first use of titanium, tantalum and zirconium in reactive vessel construction. From 1964 through 1973, Nooter successfully applied for 13 patents, marking a major period of invention for the company. Nooter had not applied for a patent since 1954 and would not apply again until 1978. So the harmless little building in a tired old part of an ancient American city was actually an intellectual powerhouse from which ideas about new ways to make energy were born. Perhaps that is not surprising, since our buildings are often quiet keepers of great stories that may not initially seem to be linked to our own daily lives.