by Michael R. Allen
While preservation battles continue across the St. Louis region, those surrounding mid-century modern buildings will probably dominate the next twenty years of the local preservation movement. Given the economic geography of new construction in St. Louis around the middle and later parts of the 20th century, most of the buildings that will be threatened stand in St. Louis County and other suburban areas (with some exceptions).
Any preservation effort that will aim to defend the outstanding modernist buildings of this area will need to be pan-geographic. The effort will have to involve individuals and groups comfortable and ready to make alliances into the suburbs, and into Illinois. In turn, new allies will have to be ready to support battles ongoing in the city of St. Louis.
With the parochial attitudes of many cultural actors here, one may have cause to be pessimistic about the prospect of the local preservation movement trying to save mid-century modern buildings. Of course, even before the bias toward certain political boundaries comes a more pernicious bias against any building not “historic” by the art-historical terms embodied by most local, state and national landmark designations.
What is needed before too long is rejection of the strictures of profession and political boundaries so that a truly regional effort to preserve all of the valuable architecture of this region can be born. While there are ethical and ecological reasons to favor the dense urban core of the region, culturally significant works of architecture are everywhere. The mid-century buildings tell a different story than the 19th century masonry buildings that are ubiquitous here — one of an optimistic embrace of technology and open space. We all know that story has become tragedy, but certain buildings that are part of the story are aesthetically unique landmarks that are needed in today’s world when we have descended even further into the abyss of suburbanization.
Time has changed the way in which architectural historians appreciate the buildings of the mid-century era. Now it’s time for the preservation movement to do the same, in St. Louis and elsewhere.