by Michael R. Allen
Now that my office is at the corner of Cherokee and Jefferson, I have occasion to slip eastward afoot (often for coffee at the Mud House). In the last two months, I have been delighted to find the owners of the two-part commercial building — and by two-part I mean one part store, one part flats above — at 2220-22 Cherokee Street have fully restored their cast iron storefront. The building dates to 1912 and its front is the product of the St. Louis Architectural Iron Company.
Day after day, workers were removing layers of paint that had rendered the smooth panes of the geometric columns bumpy and aged and the base plate (the part that runs under the columns) grimy. The layers of paint peeled back to reveal iron as smooth as ever, ready to be repainted anew. Now the front is finished off with a matte black, and the building looks a lot better. Every line and edge is clearly evident.
The effort of the building owners seems somewhat rare in this age. Often the restoration of iron fronts is limited to another layer of paint, with some scraping or sanding beforehand. On the other hand, on Park Avenue in Lafayette Square is a new building whose builders chose to use a cast iron front — as a model for faux wooden columns mimicking the real material. In the middle of the twentieth century, iron storefronts were covered by shiny metal, vitrolite or even permastone-type materials.
Of course, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s construction robbed the city of its best full-facade commercial fronts. Fronts still disappear — some salvaged by parties like the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation or dealers, some scrapped and destroyed. Cast iron storefronts, one of this city’s definitive vernacular elements linked to local geology (iron deposits to our southwest), don’t always get the respect they deserve.
The St. Louis Architectural Iron Company is one of several local makers of storefront systems whose name plates can be found at the bases of columns around the city. Spied by the downward-cast eye, these plates allow the names of manufacturing concerns to be far more enduring than the formerly more-esteemed names of architects and developers. If only the names of the hands that cast the columns could be openly known, the city would tell the story of who really built its great works. The essence of material culture is labor as much as design, but architectural history has been slow to catch on.
Known now is the name Charles Albert Simon, who split from prolific cast iron front makers Christoper & Simpson to launch St. Louis Architectural Iron Company in 1900. Simon hailed from Louisville, Kentucky, a city whose contribution to the art of iron is as esteemed as ours. Simon is listed in the Book of St. Louisans, but his workers remain largely anonymous. Yet today so many of our city’s commercial buildings have an enduring vitality due to their craft. The sturdy columns make it possible to open the bases of brick buildings, providing transparency that will make the interiors desirable spaces forever.
Back on Cherokee Street, there is at least one example of a small act of stewardship of that legacy. The work likely will go unnoticed by most passers-by, but that is fine. Stewardship of the built environment is realized generations later, when buildings still stand and their features remain intact and beautiful. The owners of the building on Cherokee Street probably won’t win a preservation award, but then again careful labor rarely receives the fleeting accolades of an era. Solid labor rendered in building material simply shapes the quality of our city for generations.