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.

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?

Mid-Century Modern South St. Louis Tower Grove East

South Grand’s Mid-Century Modern Bank

by Michael R. Allen

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.

Events South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Rehabbers Tour of Tower Grove East Tomorrow

Please come on this Saturday’s Rehabbers Club tour as we visit two Works in Progress buildings in the Tower Grove East neighborhood.

9:30 a.m.: Tour site #1: 3434 Humphrey St. 63118

Patty Maher is the owner/developer of this all brick home that is for sale for $240,000. She is almost done rehabbing the building and has used green rehabbing techniques and state historic tax credits. The building recently won DeSales Community Housing Corporation’s “Gold Brick Award” in recognition of high quality work happening here.

This spacious home will have four bedrooms, three full bathrooms and an office. Universal design techniques have been applied on the first floor which includes a bathroom and bedroom. Come learn about the work the Patty has done to modernize this beautiful building.

10:30 a.m.: Tour site #2: 2945 Michigan Ave. 63118

David Woodruff and his fiancé Tiffany Ellis purchased their home in May 2009 with the help of a 203K rehabbers loan and realtor Jim Willen.

David searched the city for almost two years to find a property that was roomy, in an emerging neighborhood and what he calls a “livable rehab”. Now, after fourteen months of living in the attic, three general contractors and lots of paint chips, David and Tiffany are still at it, behind pace, but on budget.

The home was built in 1892 as a multi-family residence. David and Tiffany moved stairways and doorways to combine the apartments into a single family home.

David and Tiffany have done their best to re-use and repurpose as much of the home as possible. They’ve drastically improved its energy efficiency by replacing all 22 windows, adding a tankless hot water heater, converting to natural gas, updating the electrical and water lines and will soon add a white painted roof.

Collapse Historic Preservation South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Holding Down the Corner

by Michael R. Allen

Perhaps the most precious architectural resources in our neighborhoods are corner buildings. When the ends of a block are vacant, a street’s urban character takes a huge hit. Empty corners signify distress and disuse. Corner buildings in full use show the world the lifeblood of an urban area, and in vacancy at least carry the promise of renewal to come. If the corner building is commercial the potential is particularly rich: there could be a place of commerce, a generator of city revenues and a point of presence that dampens crime.

To cut to the chase, I have been concerned about the corner commercial building at the northeast corner of Michigan and Arsenal streets for some time now. The building, which dates to 1905, has lost some of its character through relaying of the upper part.  Consequently it is a bit plain, but still sturdy, well-built and suited for a corner store. When I first moved to Tower Grove East last year, the building was already vacant. City records show that the building has been listed as vacant since 2008. Not good.

Then, this summer, the outer wythe of brick on the first floor collapsed.  On July 26, the Building Division condemned the building for demolition.  The only action taken then by owner, Yee Real Estate LLC of Chesterfield, was to prop up the remaining part of the wythe with lumber.  Again, not good.  Tower Grove East is a great neighborhood because it has lost so few buildings, and has few empty corners.  That should not change.

Some relief came this week when Yee Real Estate LLC applied for a building permit on December 29 for stabilization work to rebuild the collapsed masonry.  Hopefully the job is done well and soon, and the building is put back to use.

Attention developers: Just across the street at to the east, the residential building at 3114-16 Arsenal Street remains vacant and for sale. Built in two sections, the building has a dentillated brick cornice and, on the east, flat stone lintels.  These are signs that this building precedes much of the surrounding city fabric.  Indeed the eastern half of the building appears to be a building seen in Compton and Dry’s 1875 Pictorial St. Louis.

Nearby Grant School at 3009 Pennsylvania Avenue would not be completed until 1893.

PRO Collection South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Snow Day on Gravois, c. 1960

Photograph from the Preservation Research Office Collection.

This photograph dates to around 1960 and shows a woman walking north on the west side of snow-covered Gravois Boulevard just north of Cherokee Street. In the background, faintly, the neon-lit blade sign of F.W. Clemens Supply Company can be seen — a sign that remains to this day. Clemens still sells bulk materials like mortar, cement, gravel, minus and sand to contractors and enterprising individuals.

South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Red Brick and Snow

Goodness, does a snowfall bring out the saturated red of St. Louis brick!

South St. Louis Tower Grove East

New Tower Grove East Neighborhood Website

St. Louis’ Tower Grove East Neighborhood — where the Preservation Research Office currently is located — has a new website, built and designed by neighborhood resident Joe Millitzer.

Check it out at

Agriculture Gravois Park Shaw South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Chickens in South City

by Michael R. Allen

Sparing readers of chickens coming home platitudes, I will state that there are a lot of chickens in St. Louis city these days. Urban agriculture in the city is becoming more diversified, and many backyard farmers are adding chicken coops with resident hens and roosters. The coops range from formally-designed to organically-built, small to large. Many are made from wooden pieces found in alleys.

On July 11, Travis DeRousse organized the first “St. Louis Chicken Coop Tour” (this is the first by that name, not the first). The tour included eight coops in Shaw, Tower Grove East, Gravois Park, Marine Villa, Benton Park and Dutchtown. The concentration in a relatively small part of south St. Louis suggests that there are dozens of such coops all over the city. Since most coops are low buildings, and most chickens pretty quiet, neighbors may not even realize what is going on next door or down the block. With over 60 people in attendance on the tour, there seems to be strong interest in building more coops and bringing more chickens in the city — which is a return to historic practice, actually.

The first coop on the tour was Greg’s elegant backyard coop in Shaw.  With vergeboards, ornament and a hinged salvaged window, this is a fine work of architecture.

Cara Marie in Tower Grove East built a coop of wood from alleys, with the different pieces almost striated as horizontal siding.

Travis’ own coop in Tower Grove East is a small, neat raised building.  The problem: his dogs shared the backyard, but not for long.  The dogs killed the chickens.  Chickens need to be protected from dogs.  Some coop owners on the tour spoke of how their cats were safe around chickens, and protected them.  Not all cats are created equal, however.

Just one block down the street from Travis, Sara Kate has what was the largest coop of the tour.  Again, the alley salvage craftsmanship shows.  The shed roof is hinged to open for easy access.

I had to leave the tour at the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP), the fourth stop, but not before peeking in the CAMP coop to see not only a hen but also a duck!  There are certainly lots of possibilities in urban farming.

The contemporary urban coops are just the latest manifestation of chicken-raising in the city.  Old newspapers are full of tales, mostly silly, that illustrate how prevalent chickens were in St. Louis in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  An 1897 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gave a hi-falutin “city farmer” space to describe good practices.  The farmer called for prohibiting chickens in the city so that farms were all-vegetable!

The August 20, 1881 issue of the Post-Dispatch carried the article “The Compton Hill Chickens,” showing that the southsiders of today are really just upholding tradition.  A Mr. Brunaugh of 2744 Lafayette Avenue reported that men were going door to door on Compton Hill trying to sell chickens that they brought along.  The sales ruse included letting the a chicken go, causing a mad dash by the “salesmen” across back yards.  They would capture their hen but also pick up a few others on the way.  “The finest chickens in the city are raised on Compton Hill,” the reporter wrote.

Sometimes chickens led to courtroom drama, too.  The article “Poisoned Fowls Cause of Quarrel” in the October 5, 1904 issue of the Post-Dispatch reported on the curious sudden death of 35 of Mrs. Fox’s chickens.  (There were no limits on number of chickens at that time, and I doubt that today’s chicken farmers have any aspirations to a number as big as 35.)  Mrs. Fox accused next-door neighbor Mrs. Catherine Seher of 2812 Arsenal Street of throwing poisoned bread over the fence.  Justice Kleiber of the Police Court sided with Mrs. Seher, however, after testimony by all parties.  Miss Nellie Seher, daughter of the accused, was a strong witness.  The article notes that Miss Seher “did not use adjectives in her testimony, and was therefore more than ordinarily convincing.”

Rehabbing South St. Louis Tower Grove East

White Roof Coating, Ahead of Summer

by Michael R. Allen

After completing major tuckpointing and chimney rebuilding, we decided to apply a white elastomeric coat to our flat roof this month. This roof was a three-ply modified bitumen roof with a black, heat-trapping emulsion overcoat. The roof was old enough to coat but certainly not getting younger under the toll of ultraviolet rays. A mod-bit roof needs about one year to leech out oils before coating, and ours was well past that mark. Time to coat!

Now why would we go through the trouble of applying a white coat? There are two major reasons:

Energy efficiency and global warming. A white coat can reflect up to 80 percent of solar radiation, reducing overall planet temperature but more immediately reducing building, neighborhood and city temperature. One white roof is small local block against the urban “heat island” effect and many of them can have wide impact. The white roof will reduce the internal temperature and the need for air conditioning, which in turn reduces the electricity usage and so forth. (There is some question about possible heat loss effect of a white roof in winter. At St. Louis’ latitude the sun’s rays are vertical in the summer and at a low slant in the winter, so the available winter solar heat is much less than the summer heat. At other latitudes, a white roof might not be of such benefit as here and points southward.)

Longevity of the roof. An elastomeric coat will block ultraviolet rays that slowly break down asphalt roofing. Coats should be reapplied every 10 years or sooner if needed. With timely reapplication, the coverage can extend the life of the roof to 40-50 years, reducing cost as well as waste of nonrenewable roofing materials.

While the mason had the scaffolding set up, we used his pulley to hoist up the 5 gallon buckets of coating. We used five $72 buckets of Henry Solarflex 287, which completely covered our 1300 square foot roof. When the scaffolding was down, we used a tall ladder for travel to the roof.

Working with a friend, we spent about eight hours washing the roof and applying the coat. Since we had just had masonry work, the roof was dirty and required over two hours of scrubbing. The mod-bit roof dried quickly, however. We applied the coat with a 4″ brush on the parapet sides and 9″ rough rollers on the roof. We avoided a few new flashing repairs made around the rebuilt chimneys.

Most of the roof was covered with two coats, but some areas required three coats. (A one year old roof won’t take this much work). We left a spot near the ladder for exit and came back to finish in a half-hour a day later. Now the roof is too bright to look at, just in time for summer. We’re not big air conditioning users — it’s expensive and not very sustainable, although certainly necessary for a few weeks — so we definitely look forward to the building heat reduction.