by Michael R. Allen
Since the summer, the mid-century modern residence designed and occupied by architect Robert Elkington has sat on the market for sale. But now, the house is under contract — and its future is as uncertain as it was before, at least to anyone who is not the buyer-to-be. Located at 1520 Carmen Road in Manchester, the house was completed in 1948. As Ted Wight notes on his blog, the well-kept and dramatic design, the 3.56-acre site and the $250,000 price made the house both a bargain and a worry. The realtor who listed the house included the dreaded phrase “tear down” in the marketing, and with a large site and a low price there is a real possibility that the sale will bring the end of the home.
The Elkington House is a small masterpiece that honors its natural site. The house sits astride a slope, exposing aggregate concrete foundation and providing contrast to the home’s architectural planes. As with contemporary homes influences by Frank Lloyd Wright, Elkington’s accentuates the public space by placing the living roof in a large glass-walled space while placing private areas behind less amply-fenestrated expanses of wooden siding and pale smooth concrete.
Yet the interior is well-lit by the clerestory that lines the low-vaulted hallway. The hall’s ceiling and the inverse-sloped ceiling of the living room — which sloped toward the homes’ massive concrete chimney wall — are actually the exposed decks of the roofs. No voids are created here. Yet Elkington embraces the inherent beauty of simply and plainly-expressed materials, from concrete to the lumber that forms the long pergola sheltering the entrance walk. Overall,the contrasts between the concrete, vertical wooden siding and paneling, smaller lumber elements and plate glass evoke the varied material composition of the natural surroundings.
Japanese-born Elkington (whose last name was changed so he might better assimilate) practiced in St. Louis from the 1940s until around 1990. One of Elikington’s most prominent local works is the minimalist brick-walled high-rise Dorchester Apartments (1962) at 665 S. Skinker Boulevard. Yet Elkington’s suburban dwellings garnered him the most national publication. Elkington managed to get into 82 Distinctive Houses From Architectural Record, a 1952 volume that also included St. Louis architect Frederick Dunn. Dunn and Elikington’s homes were published alongside work by uch modernist luminaries as Richard Neutra, Walter Groupius, Pietro Belluschi and Keck & Keck. Elkington’s designs for the Hedrick House in St. Charles and the Koestering House in Kirkwood were publiched in the 1954 volume Quality Budget Houses: A Treasury of 100 Architect-Designed House from $5,000 to $20,000 by Katherine Morrow Ford and Thomas H. Creighton — a more popular publication.
Elkington’s own house is a significant precursor to his later output as well as to the tract houses that would be fueled by the 1948 and 1949 federal mortgage guarantee laws. Its preservation would allow the region to retain a work both highly beautiful and architecturally significant.