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Obituary of W. Philip Cotton Jr.: Architect, historic preservationist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - Philip Cotton, the dapper, mustachioed, Harley-Davidson-riding local architect who dedicated his life to preserving architectural treasures in the St. Louis region, died Wednesday at St. Luke's Hospital following a long illness. He was 76.

If there was a historical restoration project in the region, Mr. Cotton was probably involved.

In 1969, he was part of a group of architects, historians and planners that created Heritage/St. Louis. With Mr. Cotton serving as the organization's executive director, volunteers spent 10 years conducting a survey that documented thousands of buildings in St. Louis, a survey that still helps guide preservation efforts.

Projects include Mark Twain's Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Mo., the waterfront in Historic St. Charles, the Collins House in Collinsville, the Gittemeier House in Florissant, the Saline (Mo.) County Courthouse and structures at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park. He also prepared the "statement of significance" for the nomination of the Wainwright Building to the National Register of Historic Places. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

"Everybody in St. Louis and beyond owes Phil Cotton a debt of gratitude," said John Karel, director of Tower Grove Park.

Destined To Be An Architect

Mr. Cotton's interest in architecture developed early in his hometown of Columbia, Mo., where he was born July 11, 1932. "My parents and relatives encouraged and fostered an early interest in buildings," he once wrote. "My first book on architecture, which I still have, is dated 'Christmas 1937 from Aunt Mary'."

That recollection comes from Mr. Cotton's contribution to the 2007 book, "20 Fellows: Paths Taken, Lessons Learned," about how and why American Institute of Architect fellows in St. Louis became architects.

The goal of "20 Fellows" was to guide and inspire students just starting out in the profession. Mr. Cotton knew how important that was, having declared in his essay, "I ignored poor advice from the high school guidance counselor and was fortunate to get exceptional counsel from neighboring university professors."

Those neighboring professors were at schools such as the University of Missouri and Princeton University, from which he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1954.

After college, he moved to St. Louis, though his career was interrupted briefly by military service. During the Korean War, he served in the U.S. Army Field Artillery School and later was stationed for a year in Germany. After completing military service, he enrolled in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard and received his master of architecture degree from Harvard in 1960.

Mr. Cotton's first job after graduate school was with architect Harry Bogner in Milwaukee. He returned to St. Louis and worked first for Schwarz & Van Hoefen, then Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum. "After detailing toilets and stairs for some months," Mr. Cotton said he sought and received more responsibility: He was put in charge of the U.S. Embassy project in San Salvador in 1964. After completing that project, he opted for on-the-road training, touring the Mideast, Germany, North Africa, Egypt, Greece and other countries.

Armed with knowledge of diverse architectural styles and of other cultures, Mr. Cotton returned to St. Louis, this time to open his own firm downtown in the Wainwright Building, one of the many buildings he would later fight to save.

"The first years were ones of struggle with few commissions," he wrote in "20 Fellows." But by 1966, he had found his calling: the world of historic preservation. His commissions included restorations from Oklahoma to Alabama, but he loved none better than those near home.

A Career; A Calling

"Philip was one of the fathers of historic preservation in this area. Preservation was his whole life," said fellow preservationist architect Jeff Brambila. "We worked on some of the same projects at different times. Phil did early work on the Eugene Field House and Toy Museum; about 10 years ago, I worked on it and consulted with Phil."

The two also worked for the benefit of Tower Grove Park, where Brambila has done work off and on in recent years on projects of which Mr. Cotton was the primary architect. Tower Grove director John Karel says it was an inspiration to work with Mr. Cotton.

"Much of what people see at Tower Grove would not have been possible without the talent and commitment that Phil Cotton invested," Karel said. "Not to just get it done, but to get it done right. His personal commitment to every aspect of the project reflected historical accuracy."

Eugene J. Mackey III, principal of Mackey Mitchell Architects, agreed.

"Phil did very detailed research with an eye toward accurate preservation," Mackey said. "He was almost forensic in his approach, very meticulous, taking projects back to their true character, style and color. He was an architectural investigator and he was very good at it.

One of Mr. Cotton's favorite preservation projects, Mackey and Bramila said, was the Steedman Architectural Library in the St. Louis Public Library downtown. The Steedman Room houses one of the finest historic architectural libraries in the country. It was funded by George Fox Steedman and his wife Carrie Howard, and was designed and built to house their gift of 1,500 volumes on architecture and allied arts.

Oscar Mullgardt designed the room. It opened in 1930. A few years later, Mr. Cotton ensured the legacy.

"It was one of his passions," Bramila said. "He was interested in filling out the Steedman Library's collection of works from medieval times."

Another passion was the Wainwright Building. It's a 10-story building at Seventh and Chestnut streets in downtown St. Louis. It was designed by Louis Sullivan. Today it houses state offices. At one time, it was home to Cotton's one-man office. The building has been called the father of today's skyscrapers. Mr. Cotton called it "probably the greatest work of architecture of the 19th Century."

"Prior to the Wainwright Building," he wrote, "steel frame structures had been covered with architectural cliches and trappings which bore no relation to the revolutionary new framework type of construction. They were covered with ill-fitting clothes."

The writing was typical of Mr. Cotton's penchant for descriptive prose. The creatively written, detailed descriptions helped to inspire preservation work on residential and commercial structures such as the landmark 154-foot-high Grand Avenue Water Tower and a number of buildings in Lafayette Square.

Preservationist As Prophet And Motivator

Mackey noted that Mr. Cotton predicted the current economic troubles. His conclusion in his "20 Fellows" essay - his piece of the guide for aspiring architects - was prescient.

"Our society is mortgaged and leveraged to a record extent and further is endangered by vast derivatives which are potently unstable and are liable to produce a financial meltdown," he wrote. "All of this means a major economic reckoning lies ahead and the downturn may very well be a record one, not an ordinary recession, but a depression."

His warning came mixed with advice to students: "As bubbles burst, architects bruised and buffered will of necessity need creativity to survive. One should be planning today in the event construction is significantly reduced to find other occupations where architectural training will be a benefit." He added, "Architecture is a special art" and aspiring architects should "regularly seek inspiration from great architecture to nourish and charge their spirits."

A Unique Man

In addition to being a master of historic preservation, Mr. Cotton was known for riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, playing both the piano and the organ (classical music only, he said) and sailing.

"He was a great sailor," said his niece, Mary Sarni. His passion was his Comet sailboat (a 16-foot, two-person racing sloop) named Haras. He won numerous sailing awards.

"He was very active in a lot of different things. He loved the Internet because he did a tremendous amount of research. But the man never watched TV," she laughed. "He didn't even like being in the room with a TV. He was a reader."

And a writer. In addition to "20 Fellows," Mr. Cotton's work included contributions to "Lafayette Square: St. Louis," by John Albury Bryan with Wardwell Buckner and Mary M. Stiritz. He edited "100 Historic Buildings in St. Louis County."

Many Jobs Well Done

Mr. Cotton was one of the founding members of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting, supporting and coordinating historic preservation activities throughout Missouri, and the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

He was named an AIA fellow in 2002. The FAIA designation is achieved by only 2 percent of the members of the foremost national professional organization for architects. He also was given the President's Award of Landmarks Association in 2001 and the Rozier Award for Historic Preservation in 1991 from Missouri Preservation. He was a past member of the Public Revenue Education Council and had offered support to the Scleroderma Research Foundation, the State Historical Society of Missouri and the Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

Mr. Cotton, lived in the city of St. Louis for more than 40 years until a move in February to Briarcrest Estates, a retirement center in Ballwin.

A memorial service will be 9 a.m., Saturday, June 27, at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, Mo. 63122. Burial will be at 1 p.m., Friday, June 26, at Columbia Cemetery, Columbia, Mo.

His parents, William Philip Cotton Sr., and Frances Harrington Cotton, are deceased, as is his only sibling, a younger sister, Barbara Cotton Tull.

He is survived by four nieces: Mary T. Sarni (Mark), St. Louis, Laura T. Kok (Jeroen), Vancouver, Wash., Frances T. Scriminger, Broken Arrow, Okla., Susan T. Holloway (Wade), St. Louis; one nephew, Frank Tull IV (Stacey), Glencoe, Mo., and his brother-in-law, Frank Tull III, Kerrville, Texas.

Instead of flowers, contributions in his memory to some of his favorite places would be appreciated: The Missouri Botanical Garden, the Steedman Library at the St. Louis Public Library, Tower Grove Park, or a historic preservation project of choice.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.