Downtown Mid-Century Modern

Inside of the Dorsa Building

by Michael R. Allen

The interior of the Dorsa Building (1946) is a cavernous modern wonderland. There are few right angles in the space that Meyer Loomstein designed as the showroom for the Dorsa dress line. On the first level, the space is divided into two portions: a front lobby, accessible from Washington, with a large central open area flanked by offices that open to it. Through an opening at the rear wall of this space, one enters a fantastic auditorium consisting of terraced seating descending along with a curving staircase that leads down to a small stage. Curves are everywhere — in walls, the taper of columns, ceiling insets and in the shape of the stage itself. Plaster on metal lathe is the basic material used to mold the streamline spaces here. Terrazzo floors and stylized doors heighten the appearance. Color once was essential to the presentation of the space, but later alterations not doubt altered the original palette.

The auditorium was used for fashion shows for many years. The Dorsa company unveiled its new lines here, and also turned over the space to student designers from Washington University.

Alas, there is no definite future for the space even though the building is being renovated by the Pyramid Companies. Pyramid is leasing the space to a commercial tenant, and favors preservation. However, ultimately the choice to preserve the space will be passed to whomever leases this space.

Needless to say, the space is the only large-scale intact Art Moderne interior in downtown St. Louis, and one of a handful ever created there. Its preservation would guarantee that the city would retain a space like no other. The uncertainty points the need for redefining local, state and national preservation standards to give architectural interiors protection equal to that of exteriors.

We thank Paul Hohmann of Pyramid Architects for giving us a tour of the interior.

After passing through the street lobby, one enters a show room flanked by offices.  Tapered plasterwork hide the building’s original columns.

Inside of the show room, the curvaceous entrance to the theater beckons.

Arriving at the top of the theater, one is face with an asymmetrical array of curves and a double-back progression to the lowest level.

Wedge-shaped mirrors in stylized frames — replete with coquillage at the center top –adorn the walls.  The stage is no simple platform, but a continues to make use of wide parabolic and circular curves.

The columns in the theater have cloud-like plaster capitals, and the ceiling repeats the motif with recesses.  Once you enter, you pass to the land of dreams — and dresses!

Every detail seems to be considered by the architect. Even the the view lines between these columns, once governed by a grid, serve as an axis for a Rorschach-like scene.