by Michael R. Allen
Word on the street says that the owners of the Gentry’s Landing apartment building have scuttled the plans to “re-skin” the building and demolish the adjacent three-story office building for a new condominium tower. Looking at renderings that someone posted to Urban St. Louis, I am relieved. The old plan was a travesty of brick veneer, EIFS and European pretense — dominant tendencies of the style I’ll call post-postmodern (because that sounds as ridiculous as examples of the style look).
The new plan is to rehabilitate the existing buildings, completed in 1967 as part of the Mansion House Center project designed by Schwarz & Van Hoefen. While certainly not an original work of modern architecture, and flawed from an urban-functionalist standpoint, Mansion House managed to achieve the simplicity of form and material as well as drama of site that typifies good modernism. Over forty years later, the buildings maintain a graceful occupancy of the site just west of the Arch grounds. In the face of one of the hardest modernist acts to follow, they don’t take the stage — they are a part of it. Sometimes, architecture need not make a huge point about anything. Sometimes, it needs to provide visual support for something else — another building or a natural setting. As a lesser contemporary example, Mansion House provides excellent visual support to the Arch as well as that excellent little essay of a building, the Peabody Coal Building.
Of course, Mansion House does manage to make one innovation: the rooftop of its attached parking garage (actually the biggest drawback since it creates a blank wall facing the Arch)
is landscaped as a contemplative garden. The garden is one of downtown’s best hidden assets, and a great use of what would otherwise be a wasted and rude parking deck. Also, Mansion House has steadily provided affordable apartments in the heart of downtown. In 1966 and in the condo-crazed 21st century, this service is much needed.
Split ownership at Mansion House forestalls preservation planning. Still, perhaps one day the other owners will make some wise choices, including making more of the garage roof.