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American City: St. Louis Architecture Three Centuries of Classic Design

ABOVE: Cover of American City: St. Louis Architecture.  Text by Robert Sharoff & photographs by William Zbaren
ABOVE: Cover of American City: St. Louis Architecture. Text by Robert Sharoff & photographs by William Zbaren

Two days ago my post contrasted St. Louis natives & newbies.  That day a beautiful large-format book arrived at my door.  American City: St. Louis Architecture, with text by Robert Sharoff and 140 color photographs by William Zbaren, is stunning.  They affirm my point from Tuesday, that outsiders see what we often overlook.  Sharoff & Zbaren, both from Chicago, came to St. Louis in 2007 working for the New York Times. In the cover letter with the book they say they “wound up being knocked out by some of the greatest architecture in the country.”

ABOVE: One of several photographs of the Carl Milles fountain in Aloe Plaza. Photo by William Zbaren

St. Louis can and does impress persons from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, etc.  Books like this new volume will hopefully open they eyes of people who’ve never once visited St. Louis.  This book is the second in their American City series, the first was Detroit. Upcoming volumes will look at Chicago and Savannah.

Sure St. Louis, and Detroit, have issues but the gems presented in this book are part of the reason why St. Louis is home for me.  This book will be available for purchase in March 2011.

– Steve Patterson


Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side

October 15, 2010 Books, South City 5 Comments

ABOVE: Jim Merkel signs his new book
ABOVE: Jim Merkel signs his new book "Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis's South Side"

Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side is the title of a enthralling new book by Jim Merkel.  The publisher’s description:

In St. Louis’s South Side, people stand in line for frozen treats named for building material, and women used to scrub their concrete steps every Friday. In the South Side, a stop sign means “tap the brakes quick,” and a restaurant masquerades as a windmill. In the South Side, a dentist once moonlighted as a murderer, and a bloody bank heist became the basis for an early Steve McQueen movie. And in the South Side, prepare to run if you use a particular local slur. Suburban Journals reporter Jim Merkel brings nearly ten years’ experience in covering the South Side. Herein are some of the people, places, and events that made the South Side a place like nowhere else. “South Siders are down-to-earth, good people,” this South Sider writes. “I’m staying until they drag me away for good.”

Merkel’s beat as a reporter for the Suburban Journals has been covering south St. Louis for years. This book enables him to share interesting stories about the people, places & events of the south side.

ABOVE: The Asylum on Arsenal Street

The following is one such story from page 70-71 of the book:

The Asylum on Arsenal Street

In August 1911, the area was shocked to learn how forty-year-old Eva Jarvoubek, a patient at the City Sanitarium, was choked to death by a straitjacket she was wearing. The outcry was loud about what happened at the city’s institution for the mentally ill. Dr. C. G. Chaddock, a member of the City Hospital Visiting Staff, told the State House Special Investigations Committee that the use of mechanical contrivances for quieting violent patients was wrong. Attendants too often used straitjackets and similar restraints when they should use humane care, he said. It was a brief moment of light for the institution inside a tall red brick domed building on a hill at 5400 Arsenal Street. After this incident, things went back to normal. The asylum once again became that looming building visible on the horizon throughout the South Side, where people wondered what went on inside. The asylum’s history was a mix of mistreatment and sincere efforts to help mentally ill people, always limited by a lack of funding. Instances of mistreatment have declined in recent years as effective medical treatments for mental illness have become known, but increasing limits in state funding have harmed efforts to improve the lives of mentally ill people at what is now known as the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center.

The institution first opened as the St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum on April 23, 1869. The building went up in the country, full of fresh air thought to help mental illness, said Barbara Anderson, who was volunteer director of the hospital from 1988 to 2006. The building itself was designed to bring that air inside. But in fact, treatment of any sort was wanting. “It was basically warehousing people with mental illnesses,” Anderson said. “There was no clinical criteria by which someone measured another as being psychologically disoriented,” she said. Sometimes women were brought in suffering from postpartum depression and often ended up institutionalized for years. “It was a way to get rid of your wife and run around with some young girl,” Anderson said. Patients also could have been alcoholics or suffering from syphilitic dementia, or just plain poor.

Treatment was cruel at worst and misguided at best. In the basement, some patients were placed in six-to-eight-foot-wide cubicles with straw on the floors. “People would defecate on the floor, and they would sweep it out every day,” Anderson said. “It was cold and damp down there, and people slept on the floors.” Those patients were usually African-American, or whites who were out of control. Upstairs, patients would be treated to all the amenities of the Victorian household, including reading rooms and pool rooms. These rooms also were thought to improve patients’ mental health. To shock them into sanity, people were placed in vats of ice cold water. “They did the best they could, based on the incredible ignorance they had,” Anderson said.

As time went on, the institution’s name changed to the St. Louis City Insane Asylum and then the City Sanitarium. When the city sold it to the state for one dollar in 1948, it became the St. Louis State Hospital. In 1997, it moved to new quarters on the same property at 5300 Arsenal Street and became the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center. The domed building at 5400 Arsenal became an office building for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health and the State Department of Mental Health.

Through the years, as the building’s name changed, one ineffective therapy replaced another. Patients danced, were given beauty treatments, and sang operettas. A newspaper ran a feature story about how straps, straitjackets, and manacles were replaced by outdoor recreation and occupational therapy, but other articles told of cramped and unsanitary conditions. Nothing really helped, though, until the discovery of medications that treated mental illness. However, here and elsewhere, their promise was limited when patients were released without enough of a structure to treat them in the community. Today, people continue to see the big building with the green dome on Arsenal Street wherever they go on the South Side. What they may not see is how budget cuts are still hurting patients.

This book is a must for any student of St. Louis history.

– Steve Patterson



Public plazas part one: people sit where there are places to sit

June 26, 2010 Books, Plazas 6 Comments

I’ve been a huge fan of the late William H. Whyte since I bought his book City: Rediscovering the Center when it was published in 1988.  It would be many years later before I would read his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces or see the companion film of the same name.  I had hoped to show you the film but the six YouTube videos that someone had posted have been removed due to copyright infringement.

The book and film are brilliant.  New York City had passed zoning changes that allowed developers to build taller buildings if they provided public plazas.  A decade later Whyte and his team meticulously studied numerous public plazas to determine why some were heavily used and others stood vacant. In the coming weeks and months I’m going to take a closer look plaza spaces here in St. Louis and use Whyte’s findings to see if they apply and how our plaza spaces might be improved.

One important finding was that “people sit where there are places to sit.”  Sounds obvious right? People would sit on steps and any place they could and not necessarily where the designers wanted them to sit.  “People attracted people” was also a finding, people watching is better when there are others to watch.

– Steve Patterson


Holly Hills neighborhood the subject of new book, author signing event today

June 5, 2010 Books, South City 7 Comments

ABOVE: Cover of Holly Hills by NiNi Harris
ABOVE: Cover of Holly Hills by NiNi Harris

Among St. Louis neighborhoods, Holly Hills is among the newer ones — dating to the 1920s.  Holly Hills is the subject of a new book by my good friend historian NiNi Harris.  The publisher’s description of the book:

“Holly Hills is a brief history of the Hollywood-inspired neighborhood that borders St. Louis’s treasured Carondelet Park. Author and longtime St. Louis historian NiNi Harris follows the history of the area, from the faint traces of early French settlers, through its purchase by railroad magnate Jay Gould, and finally to the dynamic developers who envisioned a California-styled neighborhood. Harris highlights the lasting institutions, civic leaders, and colorful characters that have shaped the neighborood. Also featured are Holly Hills’ extraordinary architecture and lush landscape setting. Engaging text and rich images depict the development of the adjacent Bellerive area, which boasts a rich collection of early twentieth-century Arts and Crafts architecture, luxuriant Carondelet Park, spectacular Bellerive Park, and the boulevards that tie the parks and residential areas together.”

This Sat. June 5, 2010, local historian and author NiNi Harris will be signing copies of her new book “Holly Hills” at from 2-4 p.m. The Bungalow is home of the oldest beer garden in St. Louis!

Although I’ve had a review copy for a few weeks now I’ll admit I haven’t read the book cover to cover — yet.  What I have done is go through the entire book looking at a great collection of images and reading about each.  Harris enjoys highlighting small facets of community — the people, where they lived, where they worked and so on.   The history of Holly Hills, like much of our region, actually goes back to the 19th century.

Other posts I’ve done about books by NiNi Harris:

– Steve Patterson


Faded Glory or a Glorious Future?

September 12, 2009 Books, STL Region Comments Off on Faded Glory or a Glorious Future?

As most frequent visitors know, I’m not from around here (I’ve “only” lived in St. Louis for about 5 years). I don’t remember Sportsman Park or where the Blues used to play. I never went to Gaslight Square or the Highlands amusement park. I never rode on a streetcar here, nor do I have any irrational cravings for a concrete or for Provel cheese. I’m an outsider, and I’m still learning a lot about my new hometown.

Earlier this year, Forbes Magazine did a special series on the State of the City, and unlike many series, focused on the whys cities are the way they are, instead of just creating another list. I found many points that crystallized more than a few of my perceptions and observations about St. Louis, both the city and the region, and offered more than a few insights about what the future may hold for us and how we may or may not get there.

In an effort to be succinct, I’m purposely not going to quote from any of the articles – it would be best if you explored them on your own – but I think there are multiple topics worth further, local discussion, everything from the role suburbia plays to discussions on parks, public art and high-speed rail. Many of the issues raised aren’t new – crime, schools, sprawl, taxes, jobs – but the spin is not always what we’ve come to expect. I’d encourage you to take the time to look at one or more in depth, and then to come back and post your thoughts on the issues that seem most relevant.

– Jim Zavist