by Michael R. Allen
Few 1910’s buildings in the St. Louis area anticipate the Art Deco style as much as the Monroe Manual Training Center at 1620 Martin Luther King Drive in East St. Louis. The building’s symmetrical form, flat roof, angular lines, large expanses of windows and mostly-abstract terra cotta ornament are extremely precocious for this 1916 building. The building’s purpose — serving as home for a progressive school aimed at training young people in the industrial and mechanical arts — only heightens its machine-age aura. The central pediment proclaims “Learning and Labor,” a proud summary of the values of the inter-war period, when modernist ideas were being refined to seeming perfection. Yet the Monroe Manual Training Center building is not an early Art Deco palace. There is a hint of Beaux Arts classicism in its small doorway pediment, which displays garlands and a keystone. The Greek-key frieze, running along the entire cornice and also above the doorway opening, is more classical than modern. The building’s architecture is forward-looking but not quite avant-garde.
Still, the building’s stylistic refinement — although not its modest scale — is on par with educational buildings being built in Chicago at that time, such as those of Dwight Perkins, Richard Schmidt and Arthur Hussander (see Jacob Riis School). These buildings embodied a fascination with the intersection of machine age and education as well as the influence of nascent European modernism and the Prairie School philosophy on architects trained in classicism. In 1916, both East St. Louis and Chicago were bustling industrial centers whose leaders saw no limits to their cities’ growth. Civic leaders pushed for strong and progressive public education, including innovations like manual training, as well as for grand civic architecture worthy of budding metropolises.
Today, the Monroe Manual Training Center stands empty, diagonally across the street from the now-demolished Gateway Community Hospital. The old dreams of East St. Louis are dormant, and new dreams have yet to include this building.