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Commentary: That Googie on Grand and the fabric of a city

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - A recurring comment about St. Louis from visitors is how fortunate we St. Louisans are to live in the midst of such a magnificent inventory of distinguished buildings. Here's a recent example. During the opera season, a quite worldly and sophisticated couple came to town for a visit - their first time ever to be in St. Louis. They have a couple of residences on the east coast, geography that accommodates any number of fine buildings of all sorts. Yet in spite of the rich architectural milieu in which they dwell, the built resources of St. Louis fascinated them, thrilled them.

I'm delighted to hear reactions such as those. Nevertheless, when I'm told how fine on our building stock is I have to keep my trap shut, so as not to spoil any observations or puncture illusions, because for so many years St. Louis was home to a happy and promiscuous headache ball. Without getting up from my desk here in the Nine Network building in Grand Center I can look north and see the site of what was an opulent 19th century residential street called Vandeventer Place. Among its treasures was the Lionberger house at No. 27, which was designed by America's Brunelleschi, H. H. Richardson. By the mid-20th century, all Vandeventer Place was gone, demolished and sold for scrap, except for the gates, which were transported to Forest Park.

Vandeventer Place is just one example of the destruction of our architectural heritage. There is, for example, little if anything left from our 18th century European-based past, and prehistory on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi was most ruthlessly removed. In "St. Louis Lost," author Mary Bartley gives a much fuller account of many of the buildings that have been knocked down.

Certainly some were beyond redemption or inconsequential. Some were replaced by something better and more dynamic. Too many, however, were victims of capriciousness or greed or both. The Landmarks Association of St. Louis has been heroic in its efforts to save buildings that matter. Thanks to Landmarks, for example, the central landmark of the downtown St. Louis business district, the Old Post Office, stands strong. Not so many decades ago, it was dismissed as a pigeons' roost and an impediment to progress.

All this brings me to the Del Taco building on Grand Boulevard, a key element in the Schwartz & Van Hoefen-designed housing ensemble built in the mid-1960s for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The residential housing towers and low-rise office buildings that form the bulk of the project are serviceable buildings that cast the rectilinear shadow of American modernist design. These buildings are not in peril. One building in this project sets it apart from its rather faceless companions and elevates it from the bland to the piquant. That is the edifice that has come to be called the Del Taco building.

This building, now a fast-food restaurant, sits close to Grand Boulevard at its intersection with Forest Park Parkway. It is literally fantastic, representative of a style whose origins are as deep in the realm of fantasy as they are in the exuberance of mid-century Southern California. The style is generally called "Googie," a quicksilvery architectural expression that derives its name from Googie's, a now-demolished coffee shop in Los Angeles at Sunset Strip and Crescent Heights.

Googie's was one of many distinctly mid-20th-century buildings designed by architect John Lautner. It was built in 1949. The name Googie lodged itself in the vocabulary; it's not onomatopoeic exactly, but close. If you said of our Del Taco, "It's that Googie building on Grand," most people would know what you mean, because the Del Taco looks, well, googie-ish.

That's one reason it is valuable, because of its googiness. But beyond that, the Del Taco building (formerly the Naugles building, originally, when built in the 1960s, a Phillips 66 filling station and garage) brings to the Teamsters ensemble an unusual dynamism and an attraction lodged in the spirit of imagination. It breaks the rules; it attacks the tyranny of the 45-degree angle. In being demonstrably wayward it achieves a certain glory.

It is quite wonderful to see that the Del Taco building is being appreciated for its whimsical and redeeming architectural qualities, and to feel the El Scorcho heat of the movement to save it. The movement's nucleus is St. Louis, and my guess is that much of its energy comes from the growing group of young men and women who've cast their lot with the City of St. Louis and its future, denizens of PechaKucha night, along with the usual preservationist suspects.

Alderman Marlene Davis represents the 19th ward in the city, which is home to the Teamsters complex. During the hearing at City Hall on Wednesday (June 29) on the fate of the Del Taco building, she tweeted that she'd heard from people in New York City and from Warner Brothers as well as local developers who're interested in the structure. Interest in this local landmark is going national.

And it should. The vitality of American architecture is based not entirely on genuine masterpieces such as the Arch, the Pulitzer Foundation building, the Eads Bridge and the Wainwright building, but also on buildings that express exuberant notions of freedom, inventiveness and authenticity, buildings such as Del Taco.

Buildings of its character inspired "Learning from Las Vegas," the influential plea by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour for an understanding of an architecture that is resolutely democratic as well as architecture that speaks of the noble and the heroic.

In his challenge to the received wisdom of modernisms, Venturi said, "Less is a bore." So too is homogeneity, our tendency to root out anything that deviates from a rather unchallenging norm or what we might call good taste, a tendency that reflects, among other things, a lack of confidence in our own intuitive originality, and our avoidance of taking risks.

As this was written, an aldermanic committee voted 5-2 to blight the Del Taco site, and that action may spell doom for the building. I hope not. Cities are complicated organisms; the story of that complexity and variety needs to be told. One way we tell our history in through material evidence such as buildings. If we reveal our city in any way other than its complex richness, for whatever reason, we simply have failed to tell the truth.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.