Downtown Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

Dorsa’s Letters Return

by Michael R. Allen

The stylized letters that spell the name of Dorsa Building at 1007 Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis have returned. Or, rather, replicated brass letters nearly identical to the original now shine bright against the green terra cotta background of the Art Moderne landmark’s first two floors.

Installation of the letters is part of the rehabilitation of the building being undertaken by the Pyramid Companies. The building and its neighbor to the west are being converted into condominiums. Paul Hohmann, chief architect for Pyramid Architects, is the designer of the Dorsa project who has diligently worked to renew the appearance front elevation.

The Dorsa Building facade — literally, this is a facade — dates to 1946, when the Dorsa Dress Company hired architect Meyer Loomstein to modernize the front elevation of their Classical Revival building, which had been built in 1902 from plans by Eames and Young. Loomstein and sculptor Sasch Schnittman devised a streamline slipcover, with a striking green terra cotta base under a cream stucco body that terminated with elegant fluting at the top. The designers further adorned the building with a large recessed terra cotta “spider web,” the stylized brass lettering and three brass fins above the building’s understated entrance.

The result was a true rarity for downtown — a stunning work of Art Moderne commercial architecture that was as colorful as it was smart. The building turned many heads and sold many dresses. Inevitably, the Dorsa fell into disrepair. The upper two fins disappeared, perhaps taking a trip to the scrapyard. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, owner Larry Deutsch removed the spiderweb and later the letters.

Here is a photograph of the letters in 1984 submitted to EoA by Walt Lockley:

Here are the new letters close up (never mind the clashing lamp post):

Now the building’s fortunes are better, although the fate of its sumptuous interior is uncertain. (Read more about the interior in Toby Weiss’ 2006 blog entry “The Dorsa, ‘The Ultimate in Mode Moderne.'”) The new letters are slightly more shallow than the originals, and Pyramid has opted not to return the spiderweb because they need to utilize the natural light that a large glazed opening provides. However, the return of the letters and fins (due to be installed in a few weeks!) at all is laudable. After all, rehabilitation tax credit programs don’t demand that elements of the building missing at the time of rehabilitation be returned. (Witness all of the rehabbed loft buildings whose owners have not returned long-gone cornices.)

The Dorsa was fortunate to have a caring architect. The energy of Loomstein’s design was apparent even before the return of the letters, but not realized so fully. The Dorsa building wanted to sing its name, and had no voice. Now its melody saunters up the facade in modern splendor.