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Denny’s a Landmark?

March 3, 2008 Guest, History/Preservation 32 Comments

A guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA.

Recently, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board designated an old Denny’s restaurant as an architectural “landmark”: Seattle Times Article.

This raises, again, the challenges about whether or not mid-century modern architecture will (and should?) be appreciated and properly recognized, both across the country and here locally, in the St. Louis area: http://tobybelt.blogspot.com/2006/11/overland.html

We’re already set up to recognize landmarks, both historic and architectural, both individual structures and groups of buildings (in districts). One basic requirement for architectural significance is being at least 50 years old. Most of us are pretty comfortable with (and conditioned to) recognizing structures from the 19th Century and the early 20th Century, place like Soulard and Lafayette Square. We’re also somewhat comfortable with recognizing certain “modern” public structures, like the Arch. Where there’s a lot more debate is with the need to preserve “modern” architecture.

The ’50’s and the ’60’s were a time of change in popular tastes, both in architecture and in other areas of design. Many of the downtown buildings from the teens and twenties were reclad in aluminum and porcelain steel. The suburbs took off, and architecture morphed to respond to an explosive growth in the use of the automobile. For many of us, it’s the architecture of our childhood. For others, it’s just old and dated / “uncool” stuff that reflects the suburbs we now despise. There was a time when the “painted ladies” of the Victorian era weren’t appreciated. Now is the time that mid-century architecture is most in danger of being lost. It’s no longer new and stylish, and not old enough to have “come full circle” and become stylish and appreciated again.

It seems like most mid-century modern architecture falls under the control of one of three groups of owners, public entities, private commercial owners and private residential owners. Structures under public control or used for private residences are the ones that seem to be under less pressure – their biggest challenge comes when their owners deem them “functionally obsolete”. Commercial owners, especially retail owners, are much more prone to want to tear down, replace and be “up to date”. That said, let me throw out some examples for discussion on the merits of designating them local architectural “landmarks”:

  • St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters – 1421 N. Jefferson
  • The Record Exchange (previously a branch city library) – Hampton & Eichelberger
  • Maplewood City Hall – north side of Manchester, between Laclede Station Rd. and Big Bend Rd.
  • the older parts of Crestwood Plaza
  • Lindell Bank Building, Hampton & Chippewa
  • multiple inner-ring suburban churches, including the Ethical Society
  • Del Taco on Grand north of Forest Park Parkway

My questions to the blogosphere – should any or all of these be designated as architectural landmarks? What other ones should be on the list? Are any more endangered than the others?

The other part of this whole discussion is private property rights and functional reuse. It’s one thing to designate a structure as a landmark (and offer tax credits). It’s a whole ‘nuther thing to define functional, economically-viable uses for older, and at times, “obsolete”, structures. The Record Exchange is a classic example. It was apparently not too difficult to move out the book stacks and to move in the record racks – no significant exterior changes were required and the structure’s appearance was (and is) “preserved”.

The antithesis to this is the Schnuck’s at Hanley & Clayton Road. The land underneath the structure and the parking lots is worth a lot more as something, anything else, probably a multi-story mixed-use project. Clayton could designate the structure as “historic” and could delay its ultimate demolition, but there’s little that that can be done legally to stop it from happening. Admittedly, it’s not “great” architecture, but, much like the Denny’s, it is representative of what was considered to be good retail architecture from that era (see http://www.groceteria.com/ for others). Is it worth the battle to save it (and other retail structures from the ’50’s and ’60’s) or should we just “move on”?

Finally, is the residential side. St. Louis County was home to several notable “modern” architects and recently identified a comprehensive list of “notable” structures: http://www.co.st-louis.mo.us/parks/history/MidCenturyModernArchitecture.pdf In some of the “nicer” parts of the county, the same argument of “functional obsolesence” is being used to justify the demolition of significant residential structures so they can be replaced by larger McMansions that, charitably, “make a different statement” for their owners. Unfortunately, one legacy of that time is increasingly threatened: http://www.stlmag.com/media/St-Louis-Magazine/November-2007/A-Conversation-with-Ralph-A-Fournier/ Some areas are starting to address the issue (http://www.olivettemo.com/aam/documents/ResidentialNPRAdvisoryCommitteeFinalReport.pdf), but many aren’t, and all face the same private-property-rights-versus-public-good conundrum almost all areas struggle with . . . thoughts?


Currently there are "32 comments" on this Article:

  1. Chris says:

    They definitely should be made landmarks; I’ll never forget my favorite high school Denny’s at 141 and Manchester got bulldozed for the new highway back in the late 90’s.. They moved to an old Bob Evan’s, but it just wasn’t the same. The Denny’s was your typical, Delta-wing(?) style restaurant, and it provided a great, open dining space.

  2. john w. says:

    Because most pre-war historic architecture was a product of the type of urban pattern that most urbanists would agree is the form most conducive to revitalization (agreeably more at the neighborhood scale than the regional scale), the argument for their salvation is much easier to defend. While there are clearly many examples of fantastic mid-century modernist buildings in more urban contexts, a lot of what is now threatened by imminent demolition are part of the suburban sprawl fabric that is clearly not sustainable. Does this fact alone dismiss a mid-century building’s eligibility for preservation? Of course not, but incorporation of some of these buildings into a pattern that allows for more sustainable infill growth is beyond difficult. The Schnuck’s store at the corner of Hanley and Clayton is a great example of such a case. As Jim points out, the value-in-use cannot justify the prime corner location to remain as stand-alone building with surface parking. An argument could made to wrap a multi-story condo or apartment building around the existing mercantile footprint, and then installing a green roof atop the old store as outdoor amenity for the residents. This would not only preserve the old store, but provide for grocery shopping at walking distance to the residential neighborhoods immediately adjacent, but would also allow this somewhat narrower intersection (the two streets meet in an angular manner) to remain open for driver visibility. Despite all of that, the market will see the new Schnuck’s at Big Bend and Clayton well within short travel, and know that another, commercial feature could very easily provide the same level of neighborhood amenity while being subsumed within a new building in a more urban manner. I don’t have much fondness of any building that was designed to sit alone surrounded by surface parking, however Chris’ recollection of his particular Denny’s restaurant reminded me of the one in Columbia, MO that is of that era. The interior spacial quality of the Denny’s in Columbia (along highway 70 passing through town) is the same as the one Chris remembers, and this is worth noting. I would maintain that a building’s situation in a total fabric is the most compelling reason for salvation, with obvious exceptions. If a particular building has significant historic significance, then that may supercede an argument I make for being amenable to infill growth that is more urban and sustainable. The Del Taco building demonstrates some real innovation in the use of thin shell concrete form in its exuberant canopy roof, but retaining the building in its current location ensures the lack of edge definition that a more urban-friendly installation could provide. I suppose anything nearly directly abutted to the ugliness that is highway 64 doesn’t have much chance of being considered pedestrian-friendly, despite all of the SLU students and others traversing that inhospitable stretch to the Grand Metrolink station.

  3. awb says:

    In the early 1970s, McDonalds restaurants did not have drive thrus or even indoor dining areas. They were white tile buildings with golden arches starting at the front corners and sweeping above the building before terminating at the back corners. There were a couple benches on the outside. Rest rooms were accessed by exiting the building. Before you knew it, all the McDonalds were “upgraded” to pretty much what we see now. The only arches are on the signs.

    McDonalds destroyed it’s “old” identity with no help from anyone. Personally, I miss the old white tile buildings, with the view to the griddles and fry vats from the big windows. And I can’t find a way to appreciate the new ones yet (maybe in a couple more decades). But I can appreciate the effort to save old Denny’s buildings for the same reasons I hated to lose all the old McDonalds buildings. They aren’t urban structures, but they are in their own way historic. I don’t know that I would fight to save them all, or only just the oldest ones, but we do need to consider the history lessons in lifestyles for future generations.

  4. constant change says:

    Not needing pics in this post (but Steve would have anyway, lol), says save ’em in my book.

    [Guest Editor’s Note:  That is just a testament to the time and energy Steve puts into this endevour.  Not only are his posts thought provoking, but he almost always uses images to enhance his point.  Composing all the text and images is a big job — not to mention writing new material on an almost daily basis.  I will be so glad when he can do this himself.]

  5. mark r says:

    I am still disturbed that the old White Castle at Chippewa and Hampton was not protected.

  6. Would we protect Hampton Village if some mixed use project was proposed?

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    There’s still an “old-school” Steak-n-Shake at 1300 Lemay Ferry Road – should it be preserved?
    Google “retro McDonald’s” and there are multiple links to locations around the country, including http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/North_America/United_States/Midwest/Illinois/Danville/photo453412.htm . The nearest one I’m aware of around here is at Exit 27 off of I-64 in Illinois. The biggest challenge to bringing back the “old look” is actually local design review – many suburban areas have design standards that limit what are considered to be “garish” elements in the name of “good taste”.

  8. dude says:

    Jim, first off bravo for guest posting. You’ve got a reputation on this site and I think you lived up to it. I take it you’re not a fan of the Ethical Society out on Clayton Road? Maplewood’s City Hall, you failed to mention like many other municipalities’ functions as the Police, Fire, and until only recently, the public library. It probably shouldn’t be a stand alone city but that’s another story. My point, bulldoze it. Chris, I feel your pain about the Steak n’Shake. Mine was the one on Brentwood Blvd accross from the Galleria and it currently is a combination of things I don’t know how to describe. No Denny’s and Del Taco’s should not be in the same category as the Scott Joplin house or the Old Cathedral. Their detriment to the health of American’s diets alone should disqualify them. Now I wouldn’t buy a McMansion but last I looked this is supposed to America, isn’t it? Where a man can take his hard earned money, buy a ranch house in a suburb minus the pastuer land and horses of course (the literal ranch), and replace it with a monstrosity provided it is up to safety code and the Depto of Health says it’s good for a certain number of folks to reside in.

  9. Michael Allen says:


    Many later mid-century buildings in the St. Louis area are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places or have pending nominations — Plaza Square Apartments, the Pet Building, the American Zinc Building, the General American Life Insurance Building, the Harry Hammerman House in Ladue and the former Nooter Corporation building have all been nominated in the last ten years. I do a lot of nominations professionally, and expect my work load to be dominated by buidlings built between 1950-1970 for the next decade.

  10. GMichaud says:

    You better get them while they are hot. My friend told about an article in Atlantic Monthly. To quote the article called The Next Slum, “For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.”

    The article is a good deal longer, but you get the idea, so you might want to include examples of McMansions in the sampling of suburban artifacts.

    The truth is the suburbs will need to be reconfigured and even eliminated to accept mass transit and alternative planning modes in the decades ahead when gas reaches $10 a gallon and bread $20 a loaf. (If it even takes decades)

    You might want to keep a Denny’s or two for old times sake, but the era since the fifties will be remembered as a planning disaster, it is the era of the land development robber barons. Some of the architecture is worth remembering, but often what surrounds this architecture is not in a sustainable form for long term human use. This in turn makes it more difficult to save a unique building.

    Inner ring suburban sites will fare better. Cities such as Maplewood, Clayton, Ferguson and Kirkwood are connected to the core. Even then infill schemes like mentioned by John W may take precedence over saving a building such as a typical retail grocer of the fifties.
    Ultimately whether or not a building is worth preserving may hinge upon how well it works in its surrounding environment as new conditions emerge in the years and generations ahead.

  11. Missy says:

    I am NOT a fan of “modern” stuff yet I *still* find the Del Taco on Grand godawful (said in the most flattering way possible, LOL) and hugely worth preserving!

    If nobody saved the “godawfuls” of their day, I’d never have my breath taken away by the old-fashioned stuff that captivates me.

  12. Wow! How utterly ironic it would be.

    My grade school was our lady of lourdes in University City. Now if you drive past it you will see it for what it is – a big blue box from the 1960’s. The church that stands next to it is a old, wonderful building constructed of stone. Imagine now the school being proclaimed historic. The architectural travesty that was committed in this instance was the destruction of the matching stone school house. Honoring with historic designations those buildings borne of the short-sighted and unappreciative ineptitude that replaced the old with the new during the 50’s and 60’s would add insult to injury.

    How utterly inane. This sickens me.

  13. Susan says:

    I’m pretty sure the Del Taco building (a former gas station) is on the National Register as part of the Council Plaza nomination. The nomination isn’t on the Preservation Office website yet, so I couldn’t double check. But there is a good example of modern architecture being listed.


    But if you’re talking “landmarking” as in making it a City Landmark, that is something different.

  14. “One basic requirement for architectural significance is being at least 50 years old.”

    I want to add that the “50 year rule” is more myth than fact when it comes to the National Register of Historic Places, and does not exist for St. Louis city landmark designation. For the National Register, a structure built within the past fifty years must demonstrate exceptional significance to be listed, but aside from more stringent significance rules there is no real restriction.

  15. Jim Zavist says:

    I’m actually a fan of mid-century modern architecture, including the Ethical Society’s structure. I’d like to see more of it appreciated and, hopefully, preserved. I’m old enough to remember when Victorian architecture wasn’t cool and when the best thing you could do to a downtown storefront was to rip out the cast iron and replace it with aluminum. My point is that every architectural style goes through a cycle of being in style, out of style, altered/demolished, then missed/revived. Mid-century modern is at that low point now. It’s starting to be appreciated, but it’s not as widely appreciated as more traditional styles, like those around Soulard or Lafayette Square or Benton Park.
    But, as much as I’d like to see more of it (and any style) “preserved”, I’m enough of a pragmatist and a libertarian to realize that you can’t save everything – to justify saving most things, they need to have a viable (re)use. It’s less of a challenge with residences and churches – their biggest challenge is simply becoming “too small” – and much more of challenge with commercial and government structures, who have to “earn their keep” every day. And, unfortunately, there are always “experts” that will try to convince owners that the only/most-cost-effective solution is to tear down and start over. Fortunately, the recent fascination with green/LEED-certified architecture encourges reuse, so there’s more consciousness about trying to save what’s there, leaving the challenge of appreciating “dated” styles as the remaining big hurdle to protecting mid-century architecture.

  16. john w. says:

    I believe the vast majority of notable mid-century modernist buildings can be easily recognized for their worth. True mid-century buildings, and not the insipid trash that followed the wave of urban renewal destruction, can be identified by their attention to detail in a manner that is not so far removed from their more traditional predecessors. I’ve always considered mid-century modernism to include all that was built with believability in its materials (as opposed to veneers and artiface) and innovative sculptural form, and not the blandly planar masses with inarticulate ribbon windows and windswept entry ‘plazas’. Some good examples of mid-century modernism in St. Louis include the old Famous Barr store, and the two buildings flanking Hanley Avenue at the southeast and southwest corners of the Forsyth intersection in Clayton, just to name a few. The excellent modernist bank that was sadly demolished at the northeast corner of this same intersection, only to be replaced with the atrocity that is the US Bank building, represents why the rush to vanquish should be questioned when what may be expected as replacement is the miasma of suburban style garbage.

  17. Dustin Bopp says:

    “The excellent modernist bank that was sadly demolished at the northeast corner of this same intersection, only to be replaced with the atrocity that is the US Bank building, represents why the rush to vanquish should be questioned when what may be expected as replacement is the miasma of suburban style garbage.”

    Actually, that beautiful bank is still under there. It was horribly altered. It was a very academic building. I suspect its lack of privacy and solar control (arguably the point) were its downfall. They amputated the wonderfully deep cantilevers and wrapped it in a suffocating skin of EIFS and colored reflective glass. There were certainly more deft solutions for dealing with the perceived shortcomings. Too bad its so ham-handed.

  18. john w. says:

    So convincing a job of removal of original character that I would believe it was demolished. Wasn’t the curved masonry stair at the site corner also part of the original base?

  19. Paul Hohmann says:

    I am surprised that you see modernist private residences as being under less pressure. I would say they are just as much under siege if not more so than commercial buildings. Unfortunately there is a perception among most developers and real estate agents in the that the residential market in the St. Louis area will not buy modern homes, and with rising land values in inner-suburban areas, this has led to many unfortunate “tear-downs” in the last several years. Typically the modernist homes are replaced with something traditional, and usually larger. The other problem that leaves these homes un-protected is that many of the suburban municipalities such as Ladue, Clayton, and many others refuse to enact any kind of ordinances protecting any architecture, no matter how significant. Typically they do not do so because they feel that “property rights” are more important than architecture. They will let you tear down anything, but the funny thing is, go to build something new, and you have to follow all their strict guidelines and regulations and sometimes the dreaded architectural review board… in other words the style police.

    In general there needs to be al lot of education done to the general public about modern architecture and why good examples should be preserved. At the same time, I think there does need to be a distinction made about what good examples of modern architecture are. Let’s face it, there are a lot of modern buildings out there, such as the school at Our Lady of Lourdes mentioned earlier, that do not really have a lot of character to them and do not deserve landmark or historic designation or protection.

  20. john w. says:

    You are surprised that who sees private residences as being under less pressure? I would say based upon quality, that residences deserve equal value to commercial buildings, however it would likely be far more difficult, I believe, to secure protection of a single home away from public exposure the way commercial buildings have more identity.

  21. Steve in Philadelphia says:

    I read the article linked in St. Louis Magazine about Ralph Fournier.

    I’m diappointed he did not mention his work for the Alfred H. Mayer Company. His home designs in AHM communities of Paddock Hills Paddock Meadows, Paddock Estates, Paddock Forest, Paddock Woods, Wedgwood and Wedgwood Green in North County, as well as other developments for AHM in Maryland Heights and Ladue, set the pace for new home construction in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s.

    I hope that St. Louis County sets up some sort of historic preservation areas for these developments. They are wonderful examples of exuberant, mid-century suburban design.

  22. Jim Zavist says:

    As several posters noted, and I neglected to “connect the dots”, mid-century architecture is very much driven by an autocentric culture. Whether it’s Palm Springs, suburban St. Louis, southern California or most of Florida, the urban design “model” that most “cool” architectural examples are located in are areas that tend to be less friendly to pedestrians and transit than older, more “traditional” areas. This leads to interesting conundrum – do/should we attempt to preserve mid-century modern architecture in an environment that’s becoming less sustainable? Or do we just preserve examples in a “museum”-like setting, a 20th century version of Colonial Williamsburg?
    Maplewood’s relatively-interesting city hall is just one example, along with the Volvo dealer across the street. In a perfect architectural-preservation world, these two examples of mid-century modern architecture would be preserved, with viable new uses, if the old ones no longer “work”. In a perfect urban, walkable world, the stretch of Manchester between Hanley and Big Bend would be rebuilt with much-higher-density mixed use TOD projects, to connect the new Metrolink station (near Hanley) with Maplewood’s reinvigorated, “old-school” downtown (east of Big Bend). Depending on one’s perspective, either or both answers are or may be “right” . . .

  23. a.torch says:

    I would think that St. Louis county/Ladue has shown us that mid-century houses are just as endangered. RIP
    South Warson Road/Mayview Zorensky House, Morton D. May house (still can’t believe someone demolished that house!) and many others. As for restaurants, I would vote to save the Steak n Shake on Lemay Ferry Road in Lemay and still lament the old White Castle that was at Hampton/Chippewa.

  24. Margie says:

    Keep in mind that landmark status does not guarantee protection from demolition. The Century Building was listed on the National Register. In the end, all that status did was to make its loss for a parking garage even more embarrassing.

  25. john w. says:

    The difference with these two examples is that they actually hug the edge of a street that, while not exactly pedestrian-friendly (a consequence of the ‘nowhere really to go’ condition of a lot of commercial strips that cater to cars), is at least Manchester Road is still manageably narrow through town, with only the major intersection of Big Bend/Manchester being truly out of scale. I don’t believe the city hall will be lost, only appended as square footage demands (they want to incorporate the fire station services into an expanded city hall), but as well I’m not certain that this building warrants salvation because of the era of its construction. The St. Ann city hall, and probably a few others could certainly meet that qualification if we’re talking about stanzas of time/style rather than architectural quality.

  26. Richard Kenney says:

    I’m a resident of Seattle (and an architect too). I drive by that former Denny’s on a regular basis, as its on a prominent corner in the Ballard neighborhood and one that’s prime for redevelopment, given the high traffic. It was built in 1964 as Manning’s Cafeteria, which alot of locals remember well (Denny’s arrived at that location some years later). One thing that hadn’t been anticipated when this developer was applying for demolition was the strong community affection for that building, which is the only thing that saved it. I’ll admit, the roofline is interesting and always grabs my attention when I see it. Its how I know where to turn left to head to downtown Ballard, since there are no other noticeable structures on that busy corridor. Most of the buildings on that dreadful street are your typical Wendy’s and other fast food prototypes, Safeway, auto parts stores, strip malls, etc etc. But people really like that funky old Denny’s building, or whatever sense of nostalgia they associate with it. That building IS that intersection. Remember, time is relative. Seattle is a much younger city than St. Louis, so I guess a sense of what constitutes a landmark can truly be a local experience.

  27. john w. says:

    And when the building IS the intersection, it really is no longer solely about the building but its position in the fabric. The comment about the roofline being so striking as to serve as a mapping landmark is another consideration for preservation of buildings not necessarily thought of as having historic significance. I think a more finite definition of what is considered historically valuable modernism is certainly needed.

  28. Well, I hope it’s clear where I stand:


  29. john w. says:

    Robert, Jim,

    Robert, I’ve always loved your blog. As a catalog of great buildings, historic and modern, yours is one of the best in the blogosphere. I’m wondering if anyone knows much about the building on Forest Park Blvd. in the CWE between Taylor and Euclid on the south side of the street. It’s a two level office building dating to likely 1958-1962, and features repetitive arched bays and textile screening in each bay. The bays similar are similar in arc to the cycloidal arches of Kahn’s Kimbell Art Gallery in Ft. Worth, and the building represents mid-century modernism as good as any. In Crestwood, across from the mall to the south side of Watson Rd. is another good example very similar to the office building recently demolished at St. Louis Hills on Chippewa. Good overall post Jim. Though we probably would butt heads politically, I always appreciate what you have to contribute.

  30. Jim Zavist says:

    A little off-topic – here’s a structure that carries a lot of history for people of my generation, yet it no longer resembles its original incarnation – should it be saved (because of its history) or should just the sign (and the memories) be saved? http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/mar/11/the-last-waltz-for-site-of-rock-history/ (The sign was originally saved for more pragmatic reasons – it allowed Walgreens to use the theatre marquee to advertise their products, something typically prohibited under Denver’s zoning code.) Personally, I have no problem with a new Walgreen’s replacing the old one – there’s not anything remotely “historic” about a gutted suburban multiplex box, especially when none of the original interior remains – the memories will always be there, they can’t be replaced and they really can’t be shared with people who weren’t there . . .

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