Sunday, April 20, 2014

An open letter to the St. Louis County Library District Board of Trustees


To the Board of Trustees of the St. Louis County Library:

At this moment, the Board of Trustees holds in its hand a rare and remarkable opportunity. With one simple decision, the Board has the chance to:

  • Serve its patrons above and beyond their expectations
  • Make wise and efficient use of taxpayer dollars
  • Celebrate the history of St. Louis County
  • Conserve a significant and beautiful work of art
  • Practice innovative, creative governance
  • Leave a lasting legacy

All this and more will be accomplished in a single stroke – if the Board will simply choose to let the original William and Clark library building remain standing.


Save the building, and a smaller, much less expensive addition can be added to it – saving taxpayer money, and keeping tons of material out of landfills.

Save the building, and future County residents will have a direct link to the past, through a building that their parents and grandparents used when they were children.

Save the building, and its stained glass will remain in its original, intended context – and will continue to delight generations of County residents.

Save the building, and library patrons will continue to have access to a delightful, whimsical, unique space – and it will serve their needs better than ever.

I urge the Board not to destroy this building, but to shepherd it through its middle years, update it and make it better than ever. Do not fall victim to the notion that age alone is reason enough to demolish a building – a community cannot gain the historic legacy of a hundred year old building if everything is knocked down when it turns fifty. Renew and update Lewis and Clark, so that in another 50 years, it will still be proudly serving its patrons, a historical legacy and landmark for the County.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Looking for Technical Help Moving Forward

Are you a web content management guru (or guru-in-training)? Ever wanted to lend a hand to Built St. Louis, but didn't know how? Here's your chance!

Built St. Louis has always been a hand-tagged site - that means that I typed in, or copy-pasted, every scrap of HTML and CSS on every page. When I brought the site into its current format back in 1999, that was the only way to do it. It wasn't such a problem back then. Now, however, with approximately 1,200 pages and several dozen tours, it has become extremely unwieldy, to the point that it inhibits my ability to add new content. I need to focus on writing, research, grammar and spelling, dates and names, selecting and touching up photographs - not making sure that baden-north03.html links to baden-church02.html in all the right places.

I have a strong vision of how the site should work, but I lack the technical know-how to implement any of it, or handle the migration of a huge number of manually built pages to a standardized system. I need someone who knows about Content Management Systems to help me get things set up, or at least advise on how I can get going down the right road.

If you or someone you know is willing to lend some technical help in the name of the city's architecture, please contact me at I'll see to it that any and all assistance is recognized on the site, and I will be hugely grateful.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wash U learns from recent mistakes

I can't say how much protest and outcry there was 6 years ago when Washington University demolished Prince Hall. The small sampling of comments I saw ranged from my own howls of protest, to some general agreement and "isn't it a shame" head-nodding, to the also-typical endorsement of the status quo - "Well, it was a hard building to work with" and "Oh, you can't save every building."

Maybe, though, just maybe, Wash U heard some of those protests, and listened, and learned.

The recently completed renovation of Umrath Hall has taken a building of similar size, scale and difficulty, and radically transformed its interior into a modern academic setting, while leaving its venerable stone exterior untouched. The solution was both extreme and extremely creative - take off the roof, remove the entire interior, and rebuild it from the inside out. Umrath was built as a dormitory, and like its demolished contemporary Prince Hall, it was divided by load-bearing walls into a warren of small spaces and non-communicating interiors. The gut rehab removed those walls to allow an all-new interior to go in with modern hallways and larger spaces.

It is the kind of respectful, thoughtful, and inventive project that should have happened at Prince Hall. But Prince was less prominently visible - Umrath forms a busy and popular plaza space along with the 1970s Mallincrodt Hall and also has a striking relationship with Graham Chapel. Prince was also less aethetically striking - Umrath has a prominent central archway and tower that makes it one of the most charming buildings on campus. Prince had no historic interiors, while Umrath had the original men's dining hall, a flexible space with beautiful wood trim and carvings. And Prince had something of a reputation as the red-headed stepchild of campus, the little building that nobody wanted. Booted from department to department over the decades, saddled with a misguided sunken plaza from the 1950s, it didn't inspire enough love or loyalty to save it from the wrecking ball.

Whenever the University touts the amazing collection of circa-1900 buildings that forms the core of the main campus, they must forever acknowledge a permanent black mark on the list. Perhaps that mark because a lesson that helped push Umrath towards renovation instead of replacement - but it remains a heavy price to have paid.

Read a full account of the Umrath renovation here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mid-Century Madness

My pace of updates on BuiltStLouis may have slowed, but I've been working furiously behind the scenes - cleaning up, organizing, tying together related pages, updating and reformatting old pages, and adding lots of new material. There have been some updates I simply haven't bothered to post on the front page. With about 1,500 pages total on the site, all manually created and maintained, it can take time to get things done.

Today's update - with a batch of fresh Mid-Century architecture - is only a preview of a bigger update to the MidCentury tour, which I hope to have up in April.

And did I mention I reworked the pages for the late, lamented Century Building?

'Cause I did. Rescanned every image, added some additional pics from the archives, and added a shot or two of the reviled Garage Mahal.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The in-between zone

Within the city limits of St. Louis, there are two skylines - the big one downtown, and a small one in Midtown. Between the two lies an area that tends to be overlooked. Thinned out by urban disinvestment, full of scattered vacant lots, it nevertheless retains a large number of important and interesting buildings.

I've arbitrarily split this zone into two areas, called one Downtown West and the other Midtown East, and documented almost everything of note within them. These twin tours have been in the making for a good six months or so; I started photographing almost two years ago. Hopefully the results are worth it.

Exploring these areas has been an exciting treasure hunt. I've visited a half dozen churches (and met several pastors and congregants), found several MidCentury gems, and finally taken a good look at iconic landmarks like the Butler Brothers Building and the General American Life Building.

Perhaps the greatest find was a building that has been altered beyond recognition today - the spectacular Century Electric Company building across from Union Station, a MidCentury building lost in the 1980s to a Post-Modern reskin. This was one of the earliest, largest and - in my opinon - most significant Modernist buildings in St. Louis; I remained surprised that it is not more widely known in preservation circles.

This area abounds in National Register of Historic Places properties, which means a vast amount of information is available for many of the buildings. I've included short histories of the buildings on each page, with links to the much more detailed nomination forms immediately after.

The new tours incorporate a number of existing pages and are tied in with various other existing tours - you can either plow straight through or take detours to your heart's content. Either way, I hope you'll enjoy them and that they will compel you to spend some time on these fascinating and often-overlooked streets.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Midwest MidCentury fights


I'm duplicating this post across two blogs, because two parallel battles are being fought right now over MidCentury buildings in Chicago and St. Louis.


In Chicago, a well-publicized fight has been going on for many months over the fate of the Prentice Women's Hospital at Northwestern University Hospital's downtown campus. Prentice is a high-rise building by Bertram Goldberg, the same architect who developed the corn-cob Marina Towers on the Chicago river, and two other complexes in a similar idiom south of downtown. The building has been vacated by Northwestern Hospital, which originally expressed a desire to demolish it, though no plan for using the land has been developed.

In St. Louis, Midtown's "flying saucer" building - originally a gas station, now a Del Taco fast food outlet - has been the center of a much swifter controversy, as the owner announced plans to demolish it and build a new retail building in its place. The St. Louis community immediately rose up in righteous grassroots wrath. Driven by an unholy alliance between MidCentury architectural preservationists and fans of Del Taco chain (a mainstay of late night food, particularly for students at nearby Saint Louis University), the issue has flared across local news and been debated at the level of the city council.

Several interesting parallels stand between these buildings and their champions. Both are from the 1960s, built of concrete, and defined by dramatic cantilevers and round forms. And both lend themselves to diagramatic simplification in the form of the line drawings up above - a simple, clear expression of the buildings' big ideas, a clear illustration of the dramatic simplicity that defines them. Those two drawings summarize one of the big trends in Modernism - simple, bold design moves, with dramatic but carefully considered lines and proportions.

Such representations are eminently useful in getting people to see past the more transitory elements of the buildings. A number of St. Louis residents have commented about bad memories or experiences with Del Taco, and called for demolition - as if the building itself were responsible for the business within it. Likewise, Prentice has the maintenance issues one would expect of any building that's approaching 50 years old, with stained and spalling concrete in need of cleaning and repair.

Finally, both buildings are fine examples of the growing need for Midcentury awareness and preservation. Nobody is building these things anymore - once they're gone, they're gone forever.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Central High deterioration

I had not been by the old Central High School for a while, but after photographing the northwest corner of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood - home to several lovely blocks lined with dozens of Craftsman style homes - I paid a visit to the old school. Last time I was by, back around 2002, the school was in fine shape. So I was shocked to see the condition it's in today.

The copper domes have been stolen for scrap metal, and most of the windows are missing. Some of the windows might be tornado damage from January, but most of it has to be deliberate work of vandals or thieves - tornadoes don't selectively remove the frames on one floor and just the glass on another floor.

Vandals have also done a number on the beautiful formal approach to the school, smashing the balustrade railings and even the limestone globes.

The School Board of St. Louis still owns the abandoned building, and has failed to board it up properly. Boarding up is an imperative first step to secure the building and protect this significant city landmark.

More info and photos on the Yeatman / Central High School page.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Industrial-strength updates

As promised, I've been working like a madman on Built St. Louis.

I've added a ton of little updates all over the place - spinning major buildings off onto their own pages, combing through a two-year backlog of visits and adding newer photos, getting rid of those annoying thumbnail images so that you don't have to click a million times to see all the photos. There's way too many updates to list on the front page; you'll find them all over the place.

With the online world having converged to a blog-focused mindset, and a vast crop of bloggers having taken up the mantle of sharing current events from St. Louis, I've come to see Built St. Louis as less of a current news site and more of a book - a slow, long-term project, rather than a constantly-updating fountain of quickly-forgotten news. I try to write from a more long-term perspective now, so that if I don't get back to update a page for a couple of years, it won't sound ridiculously dated in the meantime.

Example: in updating the Eads Bridge page, I realized that some of the text about "current" conditions had not been changed in almost ten years! Equally startling was the realization that the time period of my own observations, from when I first encountered that structure up to the present, now encompassed a whole historical period of the bridge's life - its existence without an upper deck - that has long since passed. (Yes, I'm really obsessed with bridges right now. Can you tell?)

I also look over some of my earlier writings and conclude that, on occasion, I could stand to tone down some of my vehement enthusiasm. This site began as nothing more than my own observations - but time, technology, reading and experience have granted me access to plenty of information about the city's history, so there's relatively little excuse for writing everything in the first person. I'm trying put a clearer and more structured separation between facts, observations, and opinions. I still have strong opinions, and I still intend to use the site as a platform to voice them, but I want it to be useful as a reference source as well.

I'm slowly moving everything toward integrated navigation, where a tour of a geographic area will also scoop up buildings from other tours that are in that area. So when you tour, say, The Hill (not up yet, but like many others, it's coming) you'll also come across pages from the Historic Churches tour, and the Ittner/Milligan schools tour, etc. etc. etc. So far, you can best see this on The Eastern Edge tour, which combines the old "Forgotten Houses" tour with several of the Industrial City pages and a few new ones.

This creates some navigational chaos at times, but it avoids duplicate pages, it ties everything together nicely, and most importantly, it makes future updates a lot easier.

But you don't care about any of that, right? You care about pretty pictures of amazing buildings.

Well, I recently got an email from a site visitor who provides exactly that, in spades, on the forums. Go check 'em out and be reminded why St. Louis is so fantastic.

Part 1
Part 2

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Still around

No, St. Louis, I haven't forgotten about you.


I had a spectacular visit to the city over Thanksgiving weekend, my second trip into town this year. The sun shone for three solid, beautiful days, and I saw many spectacular sights, old and new.


I'm currently working on some revisions and fixes to the site's existing pages, unifying the formatting, fixing broken code, and setting up a standardized navigation scheme. It's a big job and won't be finished any time soon, but stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a bunch of random photos from two weekends ago.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Syndicate Trust Building, visited and re-visited

I visited the model apartment at the Syndicate Trust recently. Like most of downtown's new lofts, it's a pretty slick, clean, modern space, well-lit and elegant.

It offers some pretty impressive views of downtown, too. Check out the views, the renovation, and a bevy of new and re-scanned photographs at Built St. Louis.

It's always interesting to rework a project page I haven't touched in a while. In this case, I'm reminded of how hopeless and frustrating the Syndicate's situation seemed in the late 1990s. The building repeatedly came within weeks of demolition, and while we lost the Century, the Syndicate survives. Today it's nearly everything that's right about downtown St. Louis - beautiful architecture, mixed use, a bright future.

They just need to fill up that ground-floor retail space, and we'll be all set.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I can hear the wild wind blowin'

Myself and my two intrepid companions were inside the Calvary Cemetery mausoleum Saturday afternoon, when the eerie silence and occasional rumbles of thunder were broken by the creepy wail of the tornado sirens. The mausoleum was closing down for the day, so we had to leave. We got in the car, drove about 30 yards, and the heavens opened up. We stopped outside the cemetery gate and waited out one of the most intense storms I've ever seen.

4:40pm, W. Florissant Avenue

90 minutes later, we were in Old North, enjoying some beautiful sunshine.

6:10pm, Old North St. Louis

Both were startling contrasts with what was by and large a gray and dreary weekend.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Arch Grounds - Too much wasted space

It's been a good long while since I got up on my soapbox, but talk about the Gateway Arch grounds always gets me good and riled up.

The Framing a Modern Masterpiece limited competition has selected 9 teams to redesign the surroundings of the Arch grounds and reconsider ways of "integrating open space into a city’s urban fabric".

Thing is, the problem is not just one of integration, but also of proportion. There's too much "open space" and not enough "urban fabric". This is the basic problem and if it is not directly and boldly addressed, nothing of substance will be accomplished.

Solving that problem requires doing something utterly blasphemous: getting rid of green space, and I mean lots of it. In the Arch's case, that means the gigantic swaths of unused land - including the reflecting ponds that sit to the north and south of the walkways approaching the Arch. These are utter dead zones - uncrossable, unused, unnoticed, and speaking for myself at least, unloved. They are photo opportunities, but not part of the city.

Aerial view of the Arch grounds

The reflecting pond shown here is ringed by distant walkways. I would be thrilled to see everything inside those walkways filled in, the street grid extended into them, and new buildings in the 2- to 6-story range constructed on them. A curving line of modern facades could front the walkways approaching the Arch, bringing the life of the city and the destination power of the Arch together, framing the Arch as part of the city rather than an abstract and distant sculpture. Hold the buildings back a few feet, enough to preserve the line of trees on the north and south walkways, include retail and restaurants and living space, and you've created a streetscape as lovely as any in the city, while answering the inevitable question of tourists walking out after visiting the top of the Arch: okay, what do we do now?

I would urge the competition teams not to get lost in grand visions of cutting-edge design philosophies, abstract notions, and isolated instances of avant guard design. St. Louis is a gridded 19th Century American city. This is a simple, basic concept that has worked for two hundred years, and it is what will work best here, too. The entire problem is that the grid was violated, desecrated, and ignored. This is not a new problem, requiring radical and untried visionary solutions; it has been confronted and solved many, many times in recent decades.

The mission is to bring the city and the Arch grounds together. This is not an abstract or philosophical mission. There is no reason not to be quite literal about it - in fact, anything else will result in failure. The Arch isn't going anywhere, so bring the city to the Arch.

The Arch grounds stole away forty square blocks of downtown St. Louis. It's time to give some of it back.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A different face of North Broadway

Everyone knows the old tenement by I-70. Its wide facade, marked with fire escape balconies and a regular grid of windows, is one of the highway's most distinctive sights. Local graffiti artist Ed Boxx made it his canvas for a time. And every time I passed it, I thought to myself, I have got to photograph that place some time.

Image courtesy of Chris Naffziger

That thought eventually combined with an exploratory adventure in the summer of 2006, when I was first introduced to the idea that, among all the heavy and light industry east of the highway, there were actually houses. Whole or fragmentary neighborhoods once stood on this land. Michael Allen once observed that today's "Old North" neighborhood doesn't even include the original North St. Louis town boundaries to the east. Today, abandoned and recycled houses could be found left and right, in a long thin swath from Old North to Baden... but they were disappearing fast, like this batch from that 2006 trip.

This was a fascinating notion. Did people still live there? (Yes, but not many.) What kind of environment are they in? (Isolated.) What would happen to the surviving houses? (Abandonment, followed by demolition.) Here was a conundrum - not many people would be willing to move into such environments, totally surrounded by industrial uses, which means that as each current occupant gives up the ghost and moves on, the houses tend to fall into abandonment. And yet, people do still live in a few of these places. Others have been converted to businesses, or even assimilated by the industrial concerns that devoured their neighborhood.

I still have some areas left to document fully, but the Forgotten Houses of North Broadway shows the bulk of these isolated survivors, fragments of an earlier era for the St. Louis riverfront.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Dissecting Soulard

Where ever I live, I pride myself on not being that guy who, when his friends come from out of town, is seeing the sights for the first time right along with them. Whatever the big attractions are, I become familiar with them in short order. By the time visitors arrive, I can tell them all about whatever they want to know.

Soulard is certainly one of St. Louis's top attractions, and my first photographs there are now over a decade old. I've visited it many times. So it was a surprise to find how little I've photographed there. However much you wander across a neighborhood, you don't find out what you have and haven't documented until you try to put it on a map.

On reflection, in my endless quest to find the city's more exotic, far flung, forgotten, neglected, and endangered corners, I have always regarded photo expeditions to Soulard as a guilty pleasure, an overdone cliche, something to be avoided in favor of seeking out places and buildings that might not be there tomorrow. In spite of its near-demise after World War II, Soulard today seems like a safe bet to stay put. So I've never put in the serious hours there needed to truly document it and capture its essence.

Nonetheless, I have gotten many of the highlights and landmarks, and present them on a humble tour of Soulard. This will be the first of many south St. Louis tours, and some day it will be more extensive. It doesn't fully capture the charm of this amazing neighborhood, but it's a start.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This and that

Encountered this article while cleaning out email:

* "Saving a Sense of the City" - Michael Allen shows a sampling of endangered south side buildings

In other news, the San Luis is coming down. I was in town in July and wistfully snapped a few photos of it before the wreckers could get too far along.

Last days of the San Luis

The fight to assert preservationist rights in St. Louis, however, is still going on:
* "Why the Friends of the San Luis Continue"