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.
For the Limberg House, demolition is a particularly poignant reminder of the lack of protection for modern architecture in Ladue and other municipalities in St. Louis County. Just one year prior, the residence had been included in the Sheldon Art Galleries’ bus tour of Isadore Shank homes. Dozens of people stood in the home’s dramatic two-story open foyer, climbed the custom stair at the entrance and partook of the living room’s massive, tall brick wall.
Shank’s residential work in the late 1950s and early 1960s endeavored to explore the orientation of public and private spaces with the house, the articulation of those areas through building form and the harmony of masonry, glass and fir elements in exterior expression. Shank was not dogmatic in his approach to projects, and created diversity of layout, roof form, materiality and fenestration.
Shank set the Limberg House into a striking sympathy with its site. Over time, the trees and shrubs around the house provided heavy coverage. This coverage accentuated the orientation of the home’s living spaces away from the front. Although the foyer rose with a bold glass-faced two-story wall at center, which broke the horizontal nature of the house, that element was obscured by a serpentine curved brick wall across the front of the home. This wall nearly hid the doorway itself from the drive, leading to a revelation for anyone approaching the house on foot as the sold wall of reclaimed brick gave way to a very transparent entrance. Small windows at the living room wing reinforced the sense of privacy while also emphasizing the entrance’s exposure of the inner world.
Inside, the Limberg House arranged itself around this large portal, but its open living room, later-remodeled kitchen and other spaces retreated from it. The dining room, a formal space, was set to receive the scrutiny of the outer world, but the rest of the domestic space was protected. A large shared open fireplace drew the dining and living rooms together. Bedrooms were upstairs. Larger windows, including full-height windows one the first floor, faced the ample back lawn.
The Limberg House followed Shank’s exploration of the two-story entrance element demonstrated at the Flance Residence (1958), while also exploring further the form and placement of the brick privacy wall employed at the Cohen Residence (1956). The use of reclaimed brick was common to Shank’s work as well as that of his contemporaries Harris Armstrong, William Bernoudy and others. Yet the Limberg House was a unique work by one of St. Louis’ master architects from the modern era. Its demolition is an unfortunate, yet avoidable, loss for the architectural character of Ladue and for the region.
I took these photographs at the Sheldon’s tour last year; unfortunately, interior photographs were not allowed. Ted Wight posted additional photographs here.