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