by Michael R. Allen
Internet happenstance led to my discovery of the website for the Jennings Historical Society. Jennings is a small city in north St. Louis County, located not far from the city limits of St. Louis. While Jennings was incorporated in 1946 and saw rapid growth after the opening of Interstate Highway 70, settlement there dates back to 1839. While the Historical Society’s website isn’t deep in content, its presence and wonderful design suggest that there is an effort going to take an interest in the history of one of north county’s most interesting cities.
Jennings was instrumental in the development of the shopping mall in St. Louis. Both Northland Shopping Center in the 1950s and River Roads Mall in 1967 were innovative, albeit auto-centric, development projects that fell into vacancy and disrepair before demolition. Northland fell last year for a new big-box strip, and River Roads is under demolition at the present moment for a new subdivision developed by the Pyramid Companies.
Jennings, however, lives on. While the city faces the same problems as other municpalities in St. Louis County that went from great early suburban development to stangant economies, it could stand to preserve some of its recent past. The suburban development of the 1950s is increasingly the subject of serious research, and its atomic-age modernism seems rather intimately-scaled when compared with suburban development that followed it. Jennings is still the site of 20th century retail, gas station and other commercial buildings that tell the story of the postwar settlement of St. Louis County — as well as older buildings that show the development that the once-rural county supported before highways.
Historic preservation is needed in Jennings as well as other “inner ring” suburbs. The rush to increase revenues may wipe out a lot of interesting places and buildings there. I hope fellow preservationists look at mid-century suburban architecture as seriously as they do early 20th century urban office buildings. Places like Jennings are very important antidotes to development projects like WingHaven that undercut all sense of place and totally condemn the pedestrian. Jennings developed into a car-friendly place that also retained a specific character. Those of us who despise the suburbs can find things to like about these cities — and our involvement can redirect development efforts from replacement sprawl to urban development that builds on local character. A site like that of River Roads would have been a great place for the New Urbanists who are instead building non-places on the remote corn fields of St. Charles County.