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.

Demolition South St. Louis Southampton

For Sale, Cheap: Hole In Ground Where Historic Movie Theater Once Stood

by Michael R. Allen

The Avalon Theater under demolition, December 2011.

Lately, the unkempt stretch of dirt — not shown here, too bleak for the holiday season — where the Avalon Theater once stood has sported a for-sale sign with a slapped-on price of $125,000. That price seems to be missing one zero, compared to where the price for that parcel stood in 2009:

Avalon Theater Site Pricing

2009: $1,000,000 (with building and unrealistic asking price)

2011: $249,000 (with building)

2013: $125,000 (without building)

According to the 2011 demolition permit, the demolition cost $27,500. That non-deferred expenditure removed $124,000 for the sales price, and who knows what really from the final sales price. In 2012, when the building fell, many rejoiced that an “eyesore” was coming down. Yet today the demolition seems economically questionable.

Available: Economic asset.

The economics of demolition are simple: removal of buildings almost always decreases the worth of a property. The years of having the building listed at an artificial price, the years of city officials not taking reuse proposals seriously, the expenditure of city time and money to get the building demolished — all add up to reducing the parcel value and lowering revenues to city government.

Demolishing the Avalon Theater has already reduced the property taxes on the parcel:

Avalon Theater Assessed Valuation

2011: $111,700 (with building)

2013: $80,300 (without building)

If the city of St. Louis wants to be “open for business,” as elected officials often claim, it must retain assets that drive economic activity. Demolishing the Avalon Theater was a step in the wrong direction for South Kingshighway.

Historic Preservation South St. Louis

Better Late Than Never: Mothballing the Pevely Dairy

by Michael R. Allen

Returning from trips out of town, I found that St. Louis University’s medical school had finally started mothballing the old Pevely Dairy Building. One year ago I wrote that Pevely was still usable and that the university — a huge asset to the city, after all — could become the hero. Perhaps the university’s post-Rev. Lawrence Biondi era starts with redirecting the future of the landmark dairy building.

Mothballing in progress.

Two months ago, the university began tackling the derisive junk piles called “Mt. Biondi” by disgruntled medical students and sneering urbanistas. Today, the crunched concrete and steel are gone, along with their strangely alluring presence as rouge Goldsworthy-style urban sculptures. The city of St. Louis pressured the university to comply with basic laws on open storage of building rubble, after over one year of letting everything slide.

Boarded-up & cleaned up.

St. Louis University’s work for the Pevely Dairy is best described as “mothballing”: work to secure the building against rain and destructive elements. Plywood is covering the windows. Workers have neatly laid concrete block in place of missing or broken glass block on the ground floor. One is struck by the care of the work, which goes beyond means needed to secure a vacant building. That is why I call this work mothballing: it suggests that the university is preparing the building for reuse at a later time, when forces may align better.

Across the sea of spilled brick and concrete stands the first day of the rest of the university medical center’s life.

The university’s ability to demolish the historic dairy building, designed by architect Leonhard Haeger and completed in 1917, is legally over. The Planning Commission granted the university the right to demolish the building only if it could secure a building permit by December 2012. For over one year, the brick sentinel at Grand and Chouteau has stood vindicated, at least as far as permission to kill it off is concerned.

To the south, the two-story Missouri Belting Company Building, designed by Otto Wilhelmi and completed in 1911, stands privately-owned. The pair of industrial buildings are secure and usable, with floor plates that are easily adaptable to a wide range of uses. At the sidewalk, at least on Grand, the buildings are humane and approachable. They are ready for renewal and changes that could make them even more connected to their context.

Two usable buildings standing at the ready: the historic Missouri Belting and the Pevely Dairy buildings.

Perhaps loss of most of the Pevely complex opens a possibility unforeseen by preservationists and Biondi’s administration alike two years ago: the chance to use two buildings as cornerstones for an urban-scaled, mixed-use project. The proposed ambulatory care center must be built elsewhere, due to a variety of issues related to the site conditions. Thus there remains no reason to wreck the older buildings, or to hold them as precious artifacts. The time to carry them into the new century, in which the city is growing again, has arrived. May Biondi’s successor seize the chance to creatively engage remaining economic and cultural assets, while building a real neighborhood around the university’s growing medical school.

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.

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.
Bohemian Hill South St. Louis

Painted Brick Aside, Bohemian Hill Rehab is Good for the City

by Michael R. Allen

The building at 1717 S. Tucker Boulevard.

1. We don’t like to see anyone paint brick (paint traps moisture and leads to deterioration of the bricks and mortar).

2. We don’t like to see anyone demolishing historic houses on Bohemian Hill (which happened as recently as December).

3. We are pleasantly surprised that a Bohemian Hill house is being rehabilitated on the same street face that just lost a building.

4. Yet we are pretty sure that Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, a city agency, is on auto-pilot with its attempt to destroy the remaining historic buildings of Bohemian Hill.

5. We strongly doubt that clearance of Bohemian Hill will result in the creation of anything but low-wage jobs, or in sales tax revenues that are meaningful once the cost of tax increment financing and other incentives are deducted.

6. We know that the creation of rehabilitated and infill housing units on Bohemian Hill helps the city gain residents, increase property tax revenues and visually improve an area that connects downtown to the south side.

7. Therefore, we forgive the brick painting at 1717 S. Tucker.

South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Slow Modifications, Historic Preservation and the Closure of St. Elizabeth Academy

by Michael R. Allen

View of St. Elizabeth Academy looking southeast from St. Elizabeth at Pestalozzi avenues.

The impending closure of Catholic girls’ school St. Elizabeth Academy revisits territory hotly debated in Tower Grove East two years ago, when the Academy threatened to demolish parts of its historic campus to make itself more marketable. The Board of Directors of St. Elizabeth Academy and its tireless, persistent President, Sister Susan Borgel, were facing the reality that the very existence of the 131-year-old institution was threatened. A possible counteract was to demolish all of the buildings on the campus save a 1957 wing on Arsenal Street, and build contemporary facilities that other Catholic schools like Nerinx Hall and Rosati-Kain were able to provide. After careful consideration, the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association formally opposed the demolition, but also pledged to assist the Academy’s efforts to sustain itself should preservation of its historic buildings be part of the plan. The crux of historic preservation again surfaced: do we first preserve buildings or communities of people that support buildings? Should cultural resource laws protecting buildings be bent when historic institutions’ futures are on the line?

Bohemian Hill Demolition South St. Louis

Nothing Sustainable About Bohemian Hill Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northwest at the house located at the corner of Soulard and Tucker avenues in 2004.

On November 19, the Building Division issued a demolition permit for the historic house at the northwest corner of Soulard Avenue and Tucker Boulevard on Bohemian Hill. The Building Division paid over $7,000 for the demolition as part of routine city demolition package for condemned buildings. This house was condemned for demolition in August 2007 and its owners were AWOL. Yet the house was likely to go to Sheriff’s land tax auction in 2013, and could have been purchased by a rehabber for less than $2,000.

Gate District Planning South St. Louis

Out of Place Or Right At Home? Either Way, Allowable Under St. Louis’ Zoning Ordinance

by Michael R. Allen

The new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue. Out of place or right at home in the Gate District?

With change coming to the Sixth Ward aldermanic seat, perhaps it is timely to consider the new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue in the Gate District. While the Gate District’s reconstruction has led to many new houses built with non-urban forms for a net decrease in the historic density of the neighborhood, none of the houses built since the Duane-Plater-Zyberk-authored master plan was adopted in 1991 have been quite as, uh, non-urban as this recently-completed one-story house. The house’s floor heights are far too short for it to complement surrounding building stock (which admittedly is somewhat depleted), its width occupies three lots and thus starts an imbalance in the rhythm of its street face and its setback from the street is excessively deep for Lafayette Avenue. The problem isn’t style or age, because there are two new houses across the street that work well enough for the urban setting.

Demolition South St. Louis

Signless and Separated, Pevely Dairy Building Still Reusable — and SLU Can Still Be the Hero

by Michael R. Allen

The Pevely Dairy Plant office building after the sign removal.

Perhaps right now the Pevely Dairy Plant office building at the southwest corner of Grand and Chouteau seems like the back half of the Titanic, shorn from the rest of the ship and poised to sink out of sight. On October 9, the city watched a distress call when the “P” from the neon sign on the roof fell crashing to the ground. Quickly wreckers from Ahrens Contracting removed the center of the sign and all of the letters, leaving the sign looking punched out. The west side sports a mangled hole, and the rest of the site is covered in rubble. Pevely’s death warrant already was signed by the city’s Planning Commission, which offered a Kevorkian comfort in its stipulation that the National Register of Historic Places-listed corner building could not fall until owner St. Louis University had obtained a permit to construct a supposedly equally meritorious new ambulatory care center.