Downtown Mid-Century Modern

Preserving Which Dorsa Building?

by Michael R. Allen

Preserving the Dorsa Building at 1007 Washington Avenue presents a challenge: which building does the historically-minded owner save? There are two buildings here, at least on the level of ornamentation: there is the original 1902 red-brick wholesale warehouse with terra-cotta ornament designed by the noted St. Louis firm of Eames and Young, and then there is the stunning 1946 art moderne slipcover facade designed by Meyer Loomstein — with terra cotta by sculptor Sascha Schnittman — with stylized interior spaces.

The original facade is a typically masterful articulation of Renaissance Revival detailing on a Chicago School commercial structure. While the Eames and Young design is certainly impressive, it is far from the firm’s best work as well as unexceptional for Washington Avenue.

The Loomstein design breaks through the gentle, classical street wall on Washington with bold lines and bright colors. The lower two floors are clad in green tile and lack fenestration beyond the first-floor entries, while the upper floors are covered in yellow stucco with bright red window sashes and flutes spandrels. Originally, the western doorway was a fantastic modern creation: a pronounced web suggestive of both the pragmatic lines of geographic longitude and latitude as well as the mysteries of a spider’s web. To the right of this entrance, centered on the elevation, brilliant red neon tubing proclaimed “DORSA” in a vertical line. Inside, the first level was a showroom for the Dorsa Company, which sold women’s dresses. Nary a 90-degree angle exists in the curvaceous space, which contains a splendid theater for fashion shows. Loomstein’s design is one of the finest modern commercial interiors in St. Louis, and a forgotten one at that.

The Dorsa building enjoyed new life in the early 1980’s when developer Larry Deutsch renovated it as one of downtown’s first loft buildings. Unfortunately, the web work and the neon signs disappeared during this renovation. Lately, the Pyramid Companies has acquired the building for development as loft condominium space. The company had to answer the question on which building to preserve, and the answer seems to be the version by Loomstein, although saving the plaster-cast interior spaces seems less likely. New posters modeled on old Dorsa dress ads have appeared on the building lately, advertising the condos.

At the least, Washington Avenue will continue to be punctuated by one of its few modern designs. By saving the moderne facade, Pyramid celebrates accumulation and originality in the built environment.