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.

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.)

Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Lewis and Clark Branch Library Threatened

by Michael R. Allen

In my capacity as President of Modern STL, I just sent out the following call to action.

As we near the November 6 election, the demolition threat to the Lewis and Clark Branch remains. (Read up on the issue here.) Landmarks Association of St. Louis placed the Lewis and Clark Branch on their 2012 Most Endangered Places list this fall, and the press has run a slew of articles highlighting the building’s significance and possible fate.

Still, the St. Louis County Library will not pledge to take way demolition as an option for the Lewis and Clark Branch under its proposed $108 million facilities plan. Director Charles Pace has recommended a study for reuse be done, but at the moment anyone who supports the St. Louis County Library bond issue may be supporting destroying one of the region’s finest Modern buildings.

Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Architect Robert Elkington’s House

by Michael R. Allen

The Robert Elkington House. Photograph by Ted Wight.

Since the summer, the mid-century modern residence designed and occupied by architect Robert Elkington has sat on the market for sale. But now, the house is under contract — and its future is as uncertain as it was before, at least to anyone who is not the buyer-to-be. Located at 1520 Carmen Road in Manchester, the house was completed in 1948. As Ted Wight notes on his blog, the well-kept and dramatic design, the 3.56-acre site and the $250,000 price made the house both a bargain and a worry. The realtor who listed the house included the dreaded phrase “tear down” in the marketing, and with a large site and a low price there is a real possibility that the sale will bring the end of the home.

Ladue Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

The Schweiss House: Bernoudy-Mutrux’s Parallelogram Dwelling

by Michael R. Allen

The Schweiss House, located at 4 Daniel Road in Ladue, is one of two diminutive houses on geometric modules completed in 1952 by the master modern firm Bernoudy-Mutrux. The other house is the triangular Pinkney House in Columbia, Missouri. (The firm’s Simms House, also from 1952, is based on a parallelogram grid but is not a small house.) William A. Bernoudy and Edouard J. Mutrux’s partnership had formed in 1946 and would last until 1965, with Henry Bauer added as partner in 1955. Together, the pair explored the use of parallelogram and triangular modular layouts for Modern Movement homes both small and large. The partnership’s work in applying geometric modules was inspired partially by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Usonian Houses, which include the Kraus House at Ebsworth Park (1949-1955) that dramatically employed a cross plan of parallelogram grids. As with the Kraus House, here the clients would do much of the construction work themselves.

Photograph of the floor plan.
Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Garden Chapel Work Day on Saturday

From Modern STL:

Garden Chapel photograph by Michael R. Allen.

The Garden Chapel (Church of the Open Word) 1040 Dautel just north of Olive in Creve Coeur is planning a outdoor workday on Saturday, July 14, starting around 6:00 a.m. until noon depending upon the heat and weather.

Garden Chapel photograph by Michael R. Allen.

The Garden Chapel — which hosted our May lecture on St. Louis County religious architecture by Esley Hamilton — is a small but significant work of mid-century modern ecclesiastical architecture designed by the firm of Schmidt & Black and completed in 1958.

Garden Chapel photograph by Michael R. Allen.

The planting area near the entrance has become overgrown with weeds. Three large dead pine trees have been removed. We desperately need help getting large weeds out and small trees cut down and good small trees trimmed. Any and all help will be appreciated!

For more information, contact David Baumgartner at

Demolition Ladue Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Isadore Shank’s Limberg House Demolished

by Michael R. Allen

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 architects’ 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 region’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.

Demolition St. Louis County

Brownhurst and the Logic of the “Campus”

by Michael R. Allen

Brownhurst awaiting its demise.

Last week, St. John Vianney High School demolished the venerable Brownhurst mansion in Kirkwood. The demolition was no surprise, given that the Marianists had set September 9 as the date for a “serious” buyer who would relocate the large house. The terms of the order were not met, although there was a chance for preservation more serious than anyone expected.

Although Brownhurst had sat vacant for 22 years on the Vianney campus, suffering neglect, and although the Marianists pushed a rather difficult demand that any buyer relocate the house, an anonymous philanthropist stepped forward. This person would have given $2 million toward renovation of Brownhurst as a non-profit incubator — a gift that seemed to reconcile the Marianists’ concern that there was no feasible or fundable reuse of the house and the Kirkwood Landmarks Commission’s steadfast efforts to save Brownhurst.

Yet the Marianists rebuffed the offer, and set Brownhurst on a path toward demolition. The Shingle Style house, built in 1890 for Daniel Sidney Brown, is now just a memory to its generations of admirers. Even to the very end, the house showed that demolition was a wasteful and willful act – the solid stone masonry, intact original shingles, porch columns and sash and countless bits of the graceful character of the mansion were defiant reminders of the solid beauty in our midst.

Brownhurst’s architect remains a mystery, according to architectural historian Matthew Bivens, whose research on the house has been extensive. Those who have destroyed the house, on the other hand, are well-known. While their actions are reasonable within the framework of maintenance of the private school campus, the underlying framework deserves scrutiny.

Vianney’s mission is education, not expansion and preservation of protected land. Yet its stewards have placed their real estate ahead of their mission and stewardship of the larger values of their society. Brownhurst was a work of architecture that was of value not just to Kirkwood but to the region. Upon purchase, Vianney ought to have embarked upon a plan to either do right through ownership, or to find a party that could.

Instead, the school invested in the rest of its campus, and let a local landmark decay to a severe point. Then, at the eleventh hour, the school cast aside a generous and impressive offer to allow the community to maintain Brownhurst. Here the school’s mission – education, which includes imparting the traditions of art and history – would suggest that preservation was more important than concerns about the “campus.” After all, a campus is just malleable land, while a beautiful building is a tangible and visible reminder of the potential of the human mind.

Alas, in this day and age, educational institutions seem more intent on amassing and protecting real estate than in ensuring that their missions are enjoined to the values of their communities. Whether Brownhurst “served” Vianney would have been a decent question had Brownhurst been a pole barn, but given the house’s historic and architectural pedigree, utility ought to have been only a secondary consideration. If our region’s institutions subsume great architecture to the myopic logic of use, the preservationist’s task is clear: preventing these works from ever being owned by institutions who judge commitment to community, culture and heritage by the crude standard of momentary utility.

Ladue Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Two Houses by Isadore Shank

by Michael R. Allen

Two weeks ago, the Sheldon Art Galleries kicked off the St. Louis end of National Preservation Month with a tour of four houses designed by Isadore Shank. Shank (1902-1992) was one of St. Louis’ most masterful designers of Modern buildings, and his career produced many significant residences, apartment buildings, office buildings and even a city hall. Shank and his colleague Jim Auer also laid out the Graybridge subdivision in Ladue.

Siegel House (1956), 5 Sherwyn Lane in Ladue.

Shank’s residential legacy was well represented by the Sheldon’s selection of Isadore Shank’s own house (1940), the Siegel House (1956), the Limberg House (1960) and the Kraus House (1977). The range of dates shows the evolution of Shank’s engagement of masonry (including recycled brick), wood elements, natural light, the open plan and site placement. Although interior photograph was not allowed, the exteriors demonstrate well Shank’s search for harmony between built and natural environment as well as interior and exterior worlds. (Ted Wight has posted interior photographs of the Shank House here.)  Here we present two of the houses on tour built just four years apart, the Siegel and Limberg houses.

The entrance to the Siegel House.
Neon North County Signs St. Louis County

“We Knead Your Dough”

Those who love vintage neon signs, good donuts AND puns really love the Country Inn Donut Drive-In sign at 9426 Lewis and Clark Boulevard (just north of Jennings Station Road).