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.
Parks South St. Louis Southwest Garden Streets

Kingshighway Needs a Crosswalk at Tower Grove Park

by Michael R. Allen

In 1902, St. Louis Mayor Rolla Wells appointed a commission to make recommendations for establishing a circumferential boulevard. The commission, led by landscape architect George Kessler, delivered a report calling for a wide and well-landscaped road connecting Carondelet, Tower Grove, Forest and O’Fallon parks, the major north side cemeteries and the north and south riverfront areas. Wells signed an ordinance in 1907 enacting the plan, but its realization was never full. Parts of the Kingshighway system exist, such as the southeast extension along Christy and Holly Hills boulevards as well as the northern memorial parkway from Martin Luther King Drive to Penrose Park.

Yet where Kingshighway was partially or never realized, the road is noisy, sometimes ugly and difficult to traverse on foot. Alas, that is the case at Tower Grove Park. There are traffic signals at Magnolia and Arsenal streets, but no intervening signal or stop sign for the rest of the western length of the park. Residents of Southwest Garden to the west have a tough time walking into Tower Grove Park.

National Register South St. Louis Southwest Garden

Introducing the Shaw’s Garden Historic District

South city’s newest National Register of Historic Places historic district is the Shaw’s Garden Historic District in Southwest Garden, listed by the National Park Service on April 16. The listing follows the listing of the adjacent Reber Place Historic District on the west side of Kingshighway, and makes a large part of Southwest Garden eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. even before listing was completed, developers already starting trying to purchase buildings in the districts for tax credit projects!

The Craftsman style is prevalent in the District, as evinced by these two-family buildings in the 4500 block of Shenandoah Avenue.

The Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association, with Community Development Block Grant funding allocated by Alderman Steve Conway (D-8th), hired Preservation Research Office to prepare both nominations. PRO Director Michael R. Allen and Architectural Historian Lynn Josse prepared the Shaw’s Garden Historic District nomination, which encompasses 18 city blocks and 403 contributing primary buildings.

View Shaw’s Garden Historic District in a larger map

The Shaw’s Garden Historic District represents the fulfillment of the desire of the Missouri Botanical Garden under Director George T. Moore to improve its surroundings through subdivision of property bequeathed to the Garden in the will of Henry Shaw, and the clear vision of suburban development advanced by the Garden’s long-time landscape architect John Noyes. The resulting landscape is a rare realization within the city limits of progressive suburban planning ideals implemented in contemporary landscapes in St. Louis County. An earlier subdivision, the Tower Grove Park Addition (1870), was largely undeveloped when the Garden platted the Shaw’s Vandeventer Avenue Addition north of Shaw Avenue in 1916.

The Tudor Revival-style house at 2605 Alfred Avenue, built in 1923 and designed by Sol Abrahms, faces the Missouri Botanical Garden.
National Register South St. Louis Southwest Garden

Reber Place Historic District Listed in National Register

Looking west through Tower Grove Park's Kingshighway entrance, which aligns with Reber Place.

On March 12, the National Park Service placed the Reber Place Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. Lynn Josse and Michael R. Allen of Preservation Research Office prepared the nomination for the new historic district, located just west of Tower Grove Park. The Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association commissioned the nomination using funding provided by Alderman Steve Conway (D-8th). The project also includes a nomination of a second area in the Southwest Garden neighborhood west and north of the Missouri Botanical Garden. That area is nominated as the Shaw’s Garden Historic District, and final listing is pending.

View Reber Place Historic District in a larger map

Reber Place reflects both the ambitious aspirations of its founders and a series later development patterns based on streetcar access, the presence of industry, and the rise of the builder-developer as a key force in the landscape of middle-class St. Louis. This six-block area, tightly confined between Tower Grove Park and the Oak Hill and Carondelet Railroad, has significant associations with patterns of residential planning usually seen in the successful private places of St. Louis, with rail-oriented suburban development, and with later typical patterns associated with the rise of the builder-developer and the streetcar grid.

Houses in the 4900 block of Odell Avenue.
Washington University architecture professor Austin Fitch designed his family's residence at 4943 Reber Place (1930).

Development began in 1885, when the first contributing feature (Reber Place’s defining central median) was created, and ends in 1957, when the neighborhood’s major institution, Holy Innocents Parish, completed its building program. With the exception of commercial intrusions and parking lots at the northeast and southeast lots of the district, Reber Place is exceptionally intact.

The house at 2721 S. Kingshighway, built in 1889 by F.C. Mueller & Bro.

Margaret Reber platted Reber Place in 1885 on two tracts of land that she had owned with her husband, Judge Samuel Reber. Judge Reber was known in St. Louis as a circuit court judge of good judgment and mild temper. He wrote the well-known (and controversial) majority opinion upholding Missouri’s anti-Confederate test oath at about the same time the United States Supreme Court was striking it down.” Judge Reber died in 1879.

Read the entire text of the nomination here.

Events Southwest Garden

Tomorrow: Southwest Garden Architectural Tour By Bike

Gurney Court in Southwest Garden

Thursday, September 8 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Meet at 4950 Southwest Avenue

Southwest Garden hosts an Architecture Tour by Bike this week, Thursday, Sept. 8, 6 pm – 7:30 pm, led by Harold Karabell. Registration will begin at 5:30. Learn more about the eclectic architecture in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. Meet at 4950 Southwest Avenue. Wear a helmet. The tour group will travel at a leisurely pace. You can register for the event on Facebook. A donation per rider is appreciated.

Events South St. Louis Southwest Garden

Tour Southwest Garden by Bike

Saturday, June 5, 10 am to 12 noon, Architectural Tour by Bicycle of Southwest Garden Neighborhood, led by architectural historian Lynn Josse.

Meet at the Southwest Garden office, 4950 Southwest Ave, at 10 am. Bring a water bottle and wear a helmet.

We’ll have coffee available. The ride is free but small donations to help cover the cost of insurance are gladly accepted.

Organized in partnership with the St. Louis Bicycle Federation

Events South St. Louis Southwest Garden

Walking Tour of Southwest Garden This Saturday

Landmarks Association Sponsors Tour of Southwest Garden Neighborhood Led by Edna Gravenhorst

When: Saturday, November 8 at 10:30 a.m.

Where: Meet at the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association Office, 4950 Southwest Avenue

Contact: Landmarks Association, 314-421-6474


On November 8, Landmarks Association sponsors a free walking tour of the Southwest Garden neighborhood, one of south city’s best-kept secrets. Edna Campos Gravenhorst, author of the new pictorial history Southwest Garden, will lead people down charming residential streets, robust commercial districts and the scene of the famous Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

The tour starts at 10:30 a.m. at the office of the ever-busy Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association (4950 Southwest Avenue), where President Floyd Wright will welcome the crowd and discuss current projects in the neighborhood. Then the tour moves to the Southwest bank where former bank president Ed Berra will provide a tour and tell people about the famous 1953 robbery that was immortalized in the Steve McQueen film The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. After the bank, Edna will narrate a walk to houses ranging from 20th century Craftsmans to 19th century revival-style beauties. The tour will include Gurney and Heger Courts as well as the storefront commercial architecture of the area. Visitors will see all sides of a beautiful neighborhood near the garden.

Southwest Garden was commissioned by the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association in celebration of the associationʼs 30th anniversary. The book is divided into four historical walking tours with twenty sites in each tour. The oldest landmarks in the book are the Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park, the State Hospital, Campbell Plaza and Fire Station 35.

Housing South St. Louis Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Magnolia Square: The Triumph of Mediocrity

by Michael R. Allen

The website for “Magnolia Square,” the development set to replace St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, shows that the development has changed since it was proposed to the city’s Preservation Board in December. For one thing, DiMartino Homes (James Wohlert’s company) has joined with two other companies, Heyde Homes and Prather Homes, to develop the project. Perhaps this move addresses perceived shortcomings on DiMartino’s part.

Most interesting is that, despite intense criticism of the site plan and a supposed effort by the Planning and Urban Design Agency to make it more site-appropriate, the site plan has not changed much. The four lots on January are still unusually large and suburban; the corner lots created have no alley access and all four place the primary elevation of the homes along the length rather than the width of each lot. This layout takes suburban principles and rather awkwardly places them in the city, where such lots are rare and mostly used for grand, large homes. Yet the developers no doubt know that large, wide homes fetch larger prices than city-style shotguns. I should note that the hipped-roof option for the “January Model” of home one can build on these lots looks a lot like the rectory of the church that will be demolished. What gross pastiche!

Other models are called “Marie” and, most silly, “Royal Star.” The Royal Star is a masterpiece of deception, though, and critics should note its innovative form. The Royal Star manages to create a rambling mess of a automobile-centered dwelling featuring a connected three-car garage with — I’m not kidding — shotgun-style parking! This model is designed for a more traditionally-sized city lot, so it is very narrow and long. With the garage in back, it almost stretches from the front yard to the alley, killing that oh-so-sought-after yard space developers like DiMartino like to sell. I guess that’s a privilege of the buyers of the January model.

The Royal Star also has its entrance off to one side of the porch, which is an architectural tendency that enforces the deceptive nature of the model. Not only is it a suburban home trying to disguise itself as a shotgun, but it won’t even make its front door obvious. A true expression of a an entrance is clear to indicate the function of the porch and doorway; this arrangement may assuage concerns for “security” but it robs the home of the beauty of clear functional expression.

There is not much to say about the Marie Model, which is tolerably average. Overall, the design quality is lacking. The materials shown on the renderings are not encouraging. For instance, the graceless bulk of the Royal Star will be clothed in siding on three sides. The brick veneer may harmonize with the neighborhood but is not a very progressive choice of materials. If we have to tear down wonderful buildings to build anew, we should build something greater than what was there before. Here, we could have built modern housing that could showcase contemporary innovation in materials like concrete, stone, steel and other metals, actual brick masonry and glass. With the architectural context of the block very heterogeneous, experimentation would not have been visually inappropriate.

I should also note that the developers are claiming that Magnolia Square is on The Hill, when in fact it is in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. I suppose the target buyers are ignorant of proper city neighborhoods. I will admit that “Southwest Garden” is a contrived identity for this area, but it really is not part of the Hill proper.

Overall, the development offers its only real advance for infill housing in the lot dimensions for the western part of the block. Otherwise, nearly every other aspect is a clumsy urban adaptation of suburban forms. The city should have worked with the Catholic church to issue a Request for Proposals for this block, and allowed for public input before proceeding with this mediocre development. This project is not worth loss of one of the most thoughtful church settings in the city.

Historic Preservation Media Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga

National Trust Covers Plight of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

Houses Could Replace St. Louis Church – Megan Hogan (Preservation Online, February 1)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s online magazine offers this coverage of the proposed demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, featuring quotes from my report for Landmarks Association of St. Louis and from Steve Patterson. I’m glad that they actually care about this historic St. Louis building.

Historic Preservation South St. Louis Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga The Hill

Neighborhood Sentiment on St. Aloyisus Gonzaga Church

by Michael R. Allen

I attended Monday’s meeting of the Southwest Neighborhood Garden Association and listened to many residents speak about the “Magnolia Square” project that calls for demolishing the church. The section of the meeting devoted to the project was conducted as a sort of “town hall” with neighborhood association president Floyd Wright acting as moderator between residents and the assembled crew of developer James Wohlert, Alderman Joseph Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of the neighboring St. Ambrose parish. Eleven speakers spoke against demolition of part or all of the existing church building, one spoke in favor of Magnolia Square and six people asked pointed questions of the developer. Although there was reference to supposed outside-the-‘hood opposition to demolition, it became clear on Monday that residents who are informed largely don’t support demolition. What they would support as reuse is a matter of debate, though. Steve Patterson spoke against demolition and presented an alternate plan that would place several condo units inside the church. Half of the people who opposed demolition reacted negatively to his idea.

Yet condominium conversion is only one possible reuse for the church. While even more unconventional ideas, like office space for a small company or a restaurant, would certainly find no support from the neighborhood, other plans might. I think that neighbors of the church love its beautiful and serene site — and don’t want any use that would generate more vehicle traffic than the church did. Perhaps the church could become a community center or art gallery. I hope that neighbors who oppose demolition and condominiums can suggest a reuse that would be economically feasible.

If the owner of the property had an open mind, such a brainstorming could produce a wonderful compromise that would preserve the church, convent and rectory — I’m not counting on the never-finished original church to be a popular rallying point — while allowing for new home construction on the rest of the site.

However, it’s also clear that Wohlert has no intention of backing down with his plan. He is supported by Alderman Vollmer, who did most of the talking on Wohlert’s behalf on Monday. (Smart move, I suppose.) While the alderman was diplomatic, he also seemed to ignore resident commentary by repeatedly making statements suggesting that demolition was inevitable, even after it was clear that almost no one was buying them.

Vollmer’s answer to the question of whether he would take Ward 10 out of preservation review if the Preservation Board would not reverse its preliminary denial of a demolition permit was only mildly encouraging. He said that he did not want to remove the ward from review, but removal existed as a “last resort.” He also stated later that there was almost no exceptional architecture in Southwest Garden — a neighborhood containing State Hospital, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and many interesting vernacular buildings — and that people moved there for the neighborhood, not for architecture. While I’m sure that his thoughts are more elaborate than they sounded, he came across as crudely disrespectful toward his own ward’s historic buildings.

Wohlert came under fire even from people who don’t think preservation is realistic. Many people asked him about his hideous new house on January Avenue, which is on of the least urban buildings in the city. They wondered whether he could build good-looking buildings, and furthermore if he could sell them (his speculative house only now found a buyer after months on the market). He assured people that he is incorporating every one of the Cultural Resources Office’s recommendations for reworking his project, but did not convince many people of his ability to building thirty-six new homes in an urban context.

The next step will be a meeting of the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee on Monday, January 16 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 of City Hall. The Committee will hear Vollmer’s bill that declares the St. Aloysius Gonzaga block “blighted.” It’s full steam ahead for the project’s backers, even if the residents of Southwest Garden have objections.

Meanwhile, has lauched.