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Commentary: City taking the lead on preserving mid-century modern architecture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - Lately the local preservation movement has more often than not gone into battle over buildings that are considered to be “mid-century modern” – works of modern movement architecture largely built between 1940 and 1970. Prominent battles have included the unsuccessful effort to prevent the demolition of the San Luis Apartments in 2009 as well as last year’s successful fight to preserve the “flying saucer” gas station at Council Plaza and the seemingly won effort to save the AAA Building. The streamline SS Admiral was unceremoniously scrapped last year as well.

While most mid-century modern buildings are outside of the city, those within seem particularly endangered. No road map to significance exists, forcing advocates and developers alike into a series of contests of persuasion.

The dynamic of preservation of mid-century modern architecture is about to change, at least inside of the city limits. On March 26, the city’s Cultural Resources Office announced that the State Historic Preservation Office had awarded the city a $24,600 matching grant for a survey of mid-century modern commercial, institutional and religious buildings as well as the development of a historic context. The result of this work will be a broad understanding of which modern buildings are truly significant and warrant preservation.

There is no doubt that the collection of mid-century modern buildings in the city tend toward the work of significant local and even national designers. While St. Louis County and suburban areas boomed with housing and retail development between 1940 and 1970, the city itself was largely built out. The city’s modern architecture largely comes from efforts to reconstruct downtown, the central corridor and parts of older neighborhoods. Institutions and religious groups replaced large facilities with new ones.

Our mid-century architectural efforts were not born of the simple necessity of shelter. Corporations, city government and other developers were making emphatic statements about the city’s position in a changing nation. To make the strongest statements, developers turned to the best architects.

Modern architecture in St. Louis deploys the stylistic traits common in American practice at the period: clear structural expression, avoidance of ornament, flat roofs, use of curtain wall systems and exploitation of structural forms available through advances in thin-shell concrete. Yet the city’s modern architecture carries a tempered quality that respects the existing pre-World War II built environment.

The most important works of the period are well-known: the Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen (1965), the Lambert Terminal by Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber (1954), the Climatron by Murphy & Mackey (1968), the Engineers Club by Russell, Mullgardt, Schwarz & Van Hoefen (1959) and the American Zinc Building by Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum (1967) have been lionized since construction. Urban renewal projects, including now-lost public housing high-rises, are well-known too. Yet throughout the city are other graceful and largely unexamined buildings from architects whose reputations have unfortunately faded.

For instance, the Board of Education built several modernist schools in the 1950s designed by F. Ray Leimkuehler. Among these are Peabody School on South Fourteenth Street (1955) and Pruitt School (1954) on North 22nd Street – buildings whose stylized, marble and limestone entrances are playful portals to education.

Downtown streets marked by early 20th century commercial buildings carry punctuation marks like the streamlined, International Style St. Louis Post-Dispatch Printing Plant on Olive Street (1941, Russell, Mullgardt, Schwarz & Van Hoefen) and the jazzy entrance to the Paristyle Building (1942, Meyer Loomstein) on Washington Avenue. Around the city, commercial buildings in the modern movement can be found along Chippewa, Natural Bridge and other thoroughfares.

Then we have the streets on which the city’s efforts to call forth a modern look are dominant. Between 1939 and 1977, 37 new structures were built on Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Olive Streets — and all but four were designed in the modernist range.

The entire route of Hampton Avenue builds up layers of modern architecture, starting with Art Deco and Art Moderne north of I-44 and moving south through 1950s and 1960s commercial buildings all of the way to the River Des Peres. These streets lay to rest the notion that the city doesn’t have much modern architecture, or any places where it dominates the built environment.

There are countless other examples, including north St. Louis’ assortment of ranch houses in Penrose and other neighborhoods, and numerous Roman Catholic churches by esteemed firms. The main point is that St. Louis did build a substantial legacy of modern architecture beyond major revered works. As the city reshapes itself in a new century, taking account of the middle part of the last one will prevent us from erasing any messages we would like to pass along to future generations.

Michael R. Allen is president of Modern STL and director of the Preservation Research Office, which intends to bid on any consulting work the Cultural Resources Office offers as part of the city's mid-century modern survey.

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