Home » History/Preservation » Recent Articles:

Times Beach Summer Resort Fascinates Me From Beginning To End

July 8, 2021 Environment, Featured, History/Preservation, St. Louis County Comments Off on Times Beach Summer Resort Fascinates Me From Beginning To End

To escape the heat & smell of city life  wealthy St. Louisans in the 19th century would take a train out to various resorts along the Meramec River.

In the late 19th century, several popular summer resorts were founded southwest of St. Louis, Missouri on the Meramec River, including Meramec Highlands, Valley Park, Fenton, and Castle Park. As the Frisco Railroad trains started running on a regular basis to the Meramec Highlands and Valley Park train stations, Meramec River attractions became popular for wealthy St Louis families. Unfortunately, for the masses of St. Louisans, the cost of the train ride prohibited frequent visits for the common folk of St Louis.

The Meramec Highlands “Frisco” Railroad Station was constructed in 1891 by the Meramec Highlands Company, the developers of a summer getaway for wealthy Midwesterners. Located on the bluffs overlooking the Meramec River, two miles west of present-day Kirkwood, the station was built in the Romanesque Revival architecture. Once completed, it was deeded to St Louis and San Francisco Railroad for $1 in exchange for regularly scheduled service. (Source)

By 1896 streetcars had reached the area, allowing the masses to afford the trip to cool off in the water for the day.  The area was no longer exclusive, so the wealthy went elsewhere.

This had to be in mind when the owners of the St. Louis Times newspaper decided to sell off lots on property they owned along the Meramec, but further west.

1920s advertisement for lots in a new resort located too far west for streetcars. The Ford Model T had been on sale since 1908, but many households didn’t own cars. The wealthy did have cars.
Much later aerial photo shows the streets followed the curve of the river.

Decades earlier the wealthy could stay in impressive 2-story cottages in the Meramec Highlands area, but now simpler wood structures were built on the tiny lots. By the mid/late 1020s the wealthy were building impressive homes further from downtown, a bunch of frame shacks doesn’t sound very exclusive.  I think the Times target audience wasn’t wealthy folks, but those much better off than they had been. They’ve got a car and want to drive it somewhere to get away from the heat. Newly middle class.

Along Route 66 at the eastern edge of the Meramec a roadhouse opened in 1935 that catered to elegant dining, appropriately named the Bridgehead Inn.  This was after the start of the Great Depression, so perhaps the truly wealthy were among the first to have summer places here.

Lobby of the Route 66 State Park visitor’s center inside the former roadhouse. Click image for state park website.
By 1946 the Bridgehead Inn was closed, the property sold. The wealthy either lost everything in the depression and had to move out to their summer shack or they moved elsewhere.
Until very recently this old Route 66 bridge over the Meramec was still open to traffic, Times Beach was on the right on the west bank of the river.

For decades Times Beach was home to poor whites, in a flood zone. Municipal tax revenue was limited. Roads went unpaved, which created a lot of dust. The solution to the dust is why no structure from Times Beach survives today. A man was hired to spray used oil on the ground to control dust, but that oil had been mixed with toxic dioxin. In 1983 the EPA shut the town down, becoming a large superfund cleanup site. In 1997 it reopened as Missouri’s Route 66 State Park.

The bridge landing on the Times Beach side
This mound is where some material is buried.
This treeless field is there the large incinerator stood for years.
Much of the 419 acre park is covered with trees.
It’s actually quite picturesque.

So much went wrong with Times Beach, from the initial planning to the later tragic poisoning of the entire town. It was already closed by the first time I drove to St. Louis along I-44 in August 1990. I’d love to go back in time to see it in the first 5-10 years.

Further Reading:

I’m glad we made the trip out there recently to see the visitors center, route 66 bridge (remains), and park.

— Steve Patterson

 

Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

June 17, 2021 Central West End, Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Real Estate Comments Off on Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

A developer has proposed a new apartment building that was require the demolition of a mid-century modern (MCM) building. I’ve been watching the debate of preservation of MCM verses increased density on Twitter & Facebook. I want to weight in, but first some background.

The non-profit service group Optimist International was founded elsewhere more than a century ago. In 1924 St. Louis was selected as the location for its worldwide headquarters. Decades later their 2-story building at 4494 Lindell (@ Taylor) was designed by local architects Schwartz & Van Hoefen.

Optimists International’s headquarters at 4494 Lindell was dedicated at 3pm on Sunday June 17, 1962 — 59 years ago today. Previously they were located in the Railway Exchange building, Image from May 2014

Schwartz & Van Hoefen is also known for:

  • Marchetti Towers I & II, SLU campus.
  • Mansion House, 4th Street downtown.
  • Council Plaza, which included a “flying saucer” gas station (later various places like Naugles & Del Taco, now a Starbucks & Chipotle)
  • Northland Cinema (demolished)
  • Busch Stadium II (local architect, demolished)
Optimist International has formally listed their property for sale a number of years ago, it includes the slightly taller building next door. Photo from May 2021.

There have been numerous proposals for the property, including one for renovated and updated office space. The most recent, announced last week, calls for demolition of the original 2-story building and late 70s 4-story addition. In their place a new 7-story apartment building.

This recent proposal is what got people fiercely debating, falling roughly into 3 camps: we need to preserve our few remaining mid-century modern buildings, more density is good, and preservation focus should be on saving 19th century buildings. This is a generalization of their points so let’s get into some specifics.

This view shows the Taylor side of the proposal.

Many see an artist’s rendering of a proposed project from a bird’s eye and get all excited. From this vantage point artists can make anything look good — they could make the workhouse look like a lush resort.  Humans, however, don’t experience the built environment from a bird’s viewpoint.

Those on the side of preservation of Optimist International are correct that increasingly we’re seeing MCM buildings being razed, especially in the Central West End. Last century these MCM buildings were seen as important symbols of reinvestment as the wealthy began to flee the city, as Gaslight Square began to fade.

One disputed point is “architectural merit”, I’m not qualified to argue for or against on this particular building. However, from the Mansion House nomination to the National Register of Historic Places I can learn about the firm responsible:

The firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen was a midcentury incarnation of one of the longest-running continuously operating firms in St. Louis. It began in 1900 as Mauran, Russell & Garden when three architects broke away from the St. Louis office of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (which was set up locally as Shepley, Rutan, Coolidge, and Mauran). John Lawrence Mauran brought along two younger colleagues, Ernest Russell and Edward Garden, and the firm almost immediately received several important commissions. Ned Garden left the firm in 1909, to be replaced by William Crowell in 1911. After Mauran’s death in 1933, Russell & Crowell added W.Oscar Mullgardt.

By the mid-20 century, more than half a century into its existence, the partnership remained one of the leading architectural firms in St. Louis. Esley Hamilton wrote that in the 1950s and 60s, the firm “was unusual in maintaining its design flare while working on large commercial projects. The firm completed many architecturally significant works during this period. In addition to the Mansion House, four of their other projects were recommended for National Register listing in the City of St. Louis’ Modern Movements survey of 2013.

This means that 1/5 of the 25 properties on the list were by the various iterations of this single partnership, more than any on other firm on the list.

The four other buildings on the list are as follows. The Wohl Recreation Center (1959) at 1515 N. Kingshighway Boulevard is a glass-skinned neighborhood recreation center commissioned by the City of St. Louis. The Engineers Club of St. Louis (1959) at 4359 Lindell Boulevard is a low-rise addition to the emerging Modernist corridor; its use of traditional masonry and playful forms is very striking. The original two-story section of the Optimist Building (1961, 4490-94 Lindell Boulevard), a block to the west of the Engineers Club, has an exposed concrete frame.[Emphasis added] Finally, the Steinberg Art Gallery Building at Washington University was a collaboration between the partnership and architect Fumihiko Maki, who is credited with the design (1960, 6201-53 Forsyth Blvd.)

In addition to the buildings recommended for listing in the City’s Modernism survey, the partnership of Schwarz & Van Hoefen designed many other important buildings in St. Louis. Among the most visible is Council Plaza, which consists of two towers and two smaller buildings located at 212 – 310 S. Grand Boulevard (NRHP 3/02/2007).

So the architectural firm is an important part of our history. The city’s modern architecture page includes the survey mentioned above, which lists the Optimist International property as significant and worthy of individual listing. The list only contains 25 properties. So one of the two buildings is architecturally significant. Saying otherwise ignores the established record.

I love density, but it’s also correct that the Central West End isn’t where we need to be building more density. That said, I do like that the proposed apartment building includes small studio apartments. If only new CWE residential projects included some affordable and low-income units — they are not the same thing. An alternative is paying into a fund the help building units elsewhere in the city. Elsewhere means cheaper, less desirable neighborhoods…like where I’ve lived for before and for the last 2+ years.

One pro-preservation argument I saw said the Optimist International building was urban, in line with adjacent properties. Well, yes and no. It’s not set back behind a surface parking lot and the entrance clearly fronts onto the primary street.   The Lindell facade respects the established building line, the Taylor side is a set further back than the slightly older Grant Medical Clinic at 114 N. Taylor, designed by Harris Armstrong. In addition to being set back further than other buildings a low stone wall & raised lawn separates the building from the Taylor facade.  As a result of the design, the Taylor side has zero activity/openings/entrances. This is not urban form.

Looking south you can see the substantial setback behind the raised lawn. The low wall is the established building line along Taylor.

The proposed 7-story apartment building would be built out to the building line, not set back. It would have have a few retail storefront spaces right off the Taylor sidewalk. Balconies would also face Taylor, the common pool area also faces Taylor. I believe Taylor Ave would be more active and interesting with the proposed building, compared with the existing.

I do think we need to save our architectural history from all centuries. Both 19th & 20th century buildings are threatened, often for different reasons. While I love clean 20th century modernism it often is a negative to the urban experience. Claiming MCM buildings are urban is just as disingenuous as those who say the Optimist International building has no architectural merit.

In the event the current proposal falls through, I could see a reuse project where the 1979 4-story addition is replaced by a taller tower with west-facing balconies. A few storefronts or entrances are carefully cut into the Taylor facade. with a section of lawn & wall removed to create an entrance to each. Cafe tables with umbrellas would look great. Maybe the main building has storefronts, residential lobby on the ground floor and structured parking on the upper floor? New residential units would all be in the new tower to the east. The roof of the old building could be a green roof with outdoor seating, activities.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

Lenore K. Sullivan Boulevard Reopened Five Years Ago Today

June 2, 2021 Downtown, Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on Lenore K. Sullivan Boulevard Reopened Five Years Ago Today

Remember when Lenore K. Sullivan Blvd used to flood nearly every year? How it was a costly mess because street light wiring, guard rails. and such were all damaged? The street between the Arch and the Mississippi River underwent a major makeover, including increasing the elevation roughly four feet.

Re-opening day June 2, 2016. Lights were mounted on top of angled concrete piers to keep the wiring dry.

The work to elevate the road reduces odds of flooding, but it can and does happen.

Major flooding on the St. Louis riverfront, May 5, 2019

In the above example you can see the tops of the concrete piers sticking out of the water. Keeping the electrical connections dry significantly reduced the time & expense to reopen the street once flood waters recede.  Hopefully we won’t see future flooding so extreme the connections are under water.

— Steve Patterson

 

Where They Lived: Page, Hathaway, and Spinks

February 25, 2021 Featured, History/Preservation, North City Comments Off on Where They Lived: Page, Hathaway, and Spinks

February is Black History Month and two recent celebrity deaths prompted me to do this post.

I’ll begin with the opening lines to RuPaul’s 1992 dance hit Supermodel (You Better Work):

[Spoken Intro: LaWanda Page and RuPaul]
Once upon a time, there was a little black girl, in the Brewster Projects of Detroit, Michigan. At fifteen, she was spotted by an Ebony Fashion Fair talent scout and her modeling career took off
You better work.

These initial lines weren’t sung by RuPaul, they were spoken by the very recognizable voice of Lawanda Page (1920-2002). Though Page was born in Cleveland, Ohio she was raised in St. Louis. According to Wikipedia she attended Banneker Elementary School at 2840 Samuel Shepard Dr. This school closed in 2005. This is just north of what was the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood, where she likely lived.

LaWanda Page, born Alberta Peal, is best known for her roll as Aunt Esther on the sitcom Sanford and Son, starring her friend St. Louis-born Redd Foxx (1922-1991). Born John Elroy Sanford, his father was indeed named Fred Sanford.  While Foxx was born in St. Louis he was actually raised in Chicago.

Back to the song lyrics and that little black girl. None of the three male songwriters were from Detroit, much less the Brewster projects. However, three little black girls from the Brewster projects in Detroit Michigan founded the group that became Motown’s The Supremes. Supreme Mary Wilson (1944-2021) recently died.

Like so many housing projects, Brewster began as low rise buildings but later buildings were high rises.

The Brewster Project and Frederick Douglass Apartments were built between 1935 and 1955, and were designed by Harley, Ellington & Day of Detroit. The Brewster Project began construction in 1935, when First LadyEleanor Roosevelt broke ground for the 701-unit development; the first phase, consisting of low-rise apartment blocks, was completed in 1938. An expansion of the project completed in 1941 brought the total number of housing units to 941. The Frederick Douglass Apartments, built immediately to the south of the Brewster Project, began construction in 1942 with the completion of apartment rows, two 6-story low-rises, and finally six 14-story high rises completed between 1952 and 1955. The combined Brewster-Douglass Project was five city blocks long, and three city blocks wide, and housed anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 residents, at its peak capacity.

St. Louis followed the same pattern of low rise initially, followed later by massive high rise projects. Today’s Carr Square neighborhood included numerous public housing projects, both low & high rise: Carr Square Village is low rise, followed by high rise Vaughn Housing & Pruitt-Igoe.

Donny Hathaway (1945-1979) was born in Chicago but raised in the Carr Square neighborhood. My favorite Donny Hathaway song is his 1972 duet with Roberta Flack, Where Is The Love? He lived with his grandmother and attended Franklin Elementary & Vashon high school. I wasn’t able to find a specific address so I’m not sure where they lived. I do know another song he’s known for is The Ghetto.

Franklin school is now senior housing, October 2007

The Spinks family, including boxer Leon Spinks Jr. (1953-2021), also lived in the Carr Square neighborhood. Early on it would’ve been called Kerry Patch, and later DeSoto-Carr. Unlike Donny Hathaway, I do know exactly where the Spinks family lived.

 

Leon Spinks Sr was born in 1937. In the 1940 census he was the youngest of 8 kids living with Lewis & Ava Spinks at 1409 N 14th Street.  The house they lived in was on the 1909 Sanborn map, but was torn down prior to the 1980s construction of the existing apartments at that addresses. The 53 year old Lewis Spinks Sr. listed the 14th Street address on a war registration card but marked it out, writing in 1024 N 21st. As a reference he listed Lewis Spinks Jr, now living separately at 1423 Biddle.

Leon Spinks Jr was born in 1953. In 1965 his father was living in the 2800 block of Biddle, in or near Pruitt-Igoe. By 1969 the senior Leon Spinks was living at 2210 Cass — definitely Pruitt-Igoe.

Not sure why I enjoy looking up where people lived, but I do.

— Steve Patterson

 

New Book — ‘Oldest St. Louis’ by NiNi Harris

December 17, 2020 Books, Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on New Book — ‘Oldest St. Louis’ by NiNi Harris

I’ve been fortunate enough to know local historian & author NiNi Harris for more than two decades. I posted about her books before, and another is now available.

From iconic buildings like the Old Cathedral to the Polish butcher shop in North City, Oldest St. Louis explores the history of St. Louis through the history of the city’s oldest institutions, streets, and businesses. From the oldest library book, to the oldest museum, Oldest St. Louis traces the history of the city’s rich cultural life. From the oldest Italian bar to the oldest bowling alley, the book recalls St. Louis’s ethnic traditions. In following the stories of the oldest businesses and institutions, the book becomes a sensory tour of St. Louis featuring the crunchy oatmeal cookies made in the Dutchtown neighborhood the same way for 82 years, the fragrance in the 138 year old Greenhouse in mid-winter and the beauty of St. Louis’s 184 year-old Lafayette Park. Oldest St. Louis is also a nostalgic look at recent history from the space-age design of South County Mall, to a cherry Coke made with a secret recipe since the Chuck-A-Burger drive-in restaurant opened in St. Ann in 1957. (Reedy Press)

The contents are long, all starting with “Oldest…” I knew some, but not all. I had to quickly turn page by page to see the oldest this and that. In my 30+ years in St. Louis I’ve been to many of them: oldest soda fountain, convent, soul food diner, etc.

Each Oldest subject is headed by the year. The oldest Oldest is a tie — from 1474! Most are 19th & 20th century. Harris talks about each Oldest.

If you’re a St. Louis fan then this book needs to be on your bookshelf.

— Steve Patterson

 

Advertisement



[custom-facebook-feed]

Archives

Categories

Advertisement


Subscribe