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Back to the future - support is growing to save mid-century modern

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2011 - It used to be that if preservationists rallied to save something, it was almost always an oldie and clearly historic -- a century-old brick building, for example, with rich, artisan-crafted ornamentation and a strong connection with the city's history.

But that's not necessarily so anymore.

These days, in increasing numbers here and around the country, preservationists and others are doing battle to save newer, mid-century modern buildings, sometimes called "googie" architecture.

Constructed generally after World War II and into the 1970s, the good ones were well-designed often with unusual eye-catching, even quirky shapes and curves. Their builders sometimes experimented and creatively used new materials and construction techniques. Many of the buildings reflected optimism, a futuristic outlook and sense of humor that were part of the times back then. Think funky neighborhood gas stations, eateries, even some car showrooms.

Last year, preservationists here lost a battle when the original DeVille Motor Hotel, a mid-century modern 1963 building at 4483 Lindell Blvd., came down. It left behind a gaping hole in the streetscape, now a parking lot.

More recently preservationists, architects and other fans of these iconic buildings have been signing petitions and doing whatever else they can to protect two more threatened mid-century modern buildings.

One, with a 120-foot saucer-shaped roof at 212 South Grand Blvd., most recently housed a Del Taco restaurant. Built in 1967 as a gas station, it was designed by what was then the noted Schwarz and Van Hoefen architecture firm.

"It continues to be held dear by the citizens of St. Louis," says one of its defenders, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "It reflects a time of design and construction that uniquely expresses the American optimism toward the future."

Also threatened is the round AAA building on Lindell, built in 1976 and designed by Wenceslao Sarmiento, another prominent St. Louis architect at the time.

The AAA is one of about 20 mid-century modern buildings with varying architectural quality left along Lindell. But it's a standout, its supporters say, largely because of the architect and high-quality design and because it was one of the last of the group built.

"It is a very strong anchor, and a strong important part of the group," says Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis and a founder of ModernSTL.

The growing uproar over the loss of the two buildings began after developers stepped forward with plans for replacing them. Rick Yackey envisioned new retail, maybe another restaurant, where the so-called "flying saucer" building stands. CVS/pharmacy wants to put a drug store on the AAA-owned property and build a smaller building on the site for AAA. CVS tried, once before, to build elsewhere on Lindell where another mid-century modern building stands but got driven away by opposition.

At this point, both the developers and those opposing them have reason for hope.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen did approve a plan for developing the Del Taco site, but Mayor Francis Slay hasn't yet signed it. The bill also stipulates that if anyone applies for a demolition permit for the Del Taco, the request would need the city Preservation Board's approval.

The St. Louis Planning Commission approved a rezoning change needed before CVS can proceed. But the aldermen, and the mayor, have not yet signed off on that. And if CVS wants tax abatement or other public assistance, it will need separate approval ultimately from the aldermen, now on summer recess.

Mid-century in our midst

Meanwhile, all the fuss about the possible demise of the buildings -- some of the loudest and strongest heard here in years -- is resulting in something positive for the future of other mid-century modern buildings.

Don Roe, acting director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency, says a survey is in the works that would, for the first time, identify mid-century modern buildings throughout the city and document ones that are important to keep.

"They've not been studied fully to date," Roe said, "and we want to begin that process. Part of the survey would be to filter what they are, and their status and eligibility for some type of designation."

"If they are not designated," like the AAA, "they don't have to be reviewed before being demolished under existing laws."

"If they are designated," like the Del Taco, part of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, "they have to go before the Cultural Resources Office and maybe the Preservation Board, depending on circumstances."

The Cultural Resources Office is essentially the staff for the Preservation Board that includes an architect, historian, engineer and other design-related professionals.

Groups leading the charge to save the two threatened buildings, meanwhile, have done their own research to document why they should be keepers. And they've been circulating the info, posting it on their websites and using it to lobby aldermen, the mayor's office and anyone else they can find.

The Del Taco, originally a Phillips 66 gas station, was part of the Council Plaza complex for the city's elderly built by Teamster Local 688 between 1964 and 1968. It included two residential towers, office and retail space and other amenities including the gas station, according to the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Landmarks says on its website that the funky concrete and steel gas station building is "an intricate piece" of the Council Plaza district, listed on the National Register in 2007.

"The loss of this building," Landmarks cautions, "has the potential to compromise Council Plaza's designation as a historic district."

AIA executive director Michelle Swatek said that Schwarz and Van Hoefen (later known as Schwarz and Hemni) designed all the buildings in Council Plaza, the Mansion House complex and the Lindbergh Cadillac dealership. Among its other major projects, she said: working with architect Edward Durell Stone and others on the old Busch Stadium.

Swatek, and others, note that Yackey has already gotten historic tax credits for renovating other buildings in the district.

"He got the historic tax money because of the complex being listed on the National Register," Swatek said, and now wants to take down the Del Taco, "the basis for getting it (the listing) originally."

The AIA says that the Del Taco is structurally sound, "an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse," and "part of a wonderful collection in a handsome contemporary complex on Grand (Boulevard), and must remain."

The AIA also opposes demolition of the AAA and has proposed that CVS renovate it for a drug store, as it did with historic buildings in New Orleans and New York City.

"We've already torn down enough" mid-century architecture, Swatek said. "We should cherish what we have left."

Ryan Reed, a preservation specialist at Landmarks, and Allen say that architect Sarmiento also was well-known when he designed the AAA. From about 1951 to 1961, he lead the design department at what was then Bank Building & Equipment Corp., and oversaw the design of cutting-edge mid-century modern bank buildings around the country. He designed at least two other well-known buildings here: the Archdiocesan Chancery on Lindell and the Jefferson Bank and Trust Co. building.

"We are in opposition to the demolition" of the AAA, Reed said, and like the Del Taco, "doing what we can to help save it."

Growing movement to preserve

Allen said that support for saving the buildings is some of the strongest he's seen since preservationists went into battle mode years ago to save the marble-clad Century Building downtown and the Coral Court Motel. They were were torn down in the mid 1990s.

"This is really an unusual outpouring from a broad group," Allen said, "architectural and historic groups coming together, and thousands of others signing petitions and following on Facebook and Twitter."

Allen thinks social networking is part of the reason for the outpouring of support. But in addition, he said, "I think the common factor is wide public love for the buildings."

Roe, at the development agency, thinks that something else is driving things.

"People now are very conscious about their environment and the qualities that contribute to it. The city has some unique, wonderful neighborhoods, wonderful architecture" and other such features.

"People are embracing that and want to see it carefully considered before it is changed," he said.

Slay has been involved in some of what's been happening -- although not always successfully.

He uged the St. Louis Planning Commission, unsuccessfully, to reject the zoning change for the garage portion of AAA property, posting his thoughts on his blog.

Referring to the AAA building, he wrote that "the loss of any distinctive element of our built environment must be justified by a new good at least its equal. It is not my current impression that the amenity of a new chain drugstore within blocks of a couple of existing ones or the very ordinary design of the proposed building is such a good."

He did ask that the Preservation Board review any demolition permit request for the Del Taco, something the aldermen added to the plan they approved. Under the city's existing and somewhat convoluted review procedures, only the Cultural Resources Office would have reviewed the request otherwise.

Kara Bowlin, a spokesperson for the mayor, said she can't say if the mayor might sign or veto the bill with the Del Taco plan, or others that might come later from the alderman for the AAA property.

"He's not for or opposed to demolition of the Del Taco," Bowlin said. "He is for a fair and transparent process and he believes that if it (demolition) is to be done, it should go before the Preservation Board."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes about historic preservation and development.