Once-hidden ceiling in Kingshighway's U-Haul emerges from darkness into light — and shines | St. Louis Public Radio

Once-hidden ceiling in Kingshighway's U-Haul emerges from darkness into light — and shines

May 4, 2016

A late autumn's promise has bloomed in the spring: a once-hidden architectural gem in St. Louis is open to the public at last.

U-Haul International Inc. has made good on its commitment to uncover and repair a sculptured ceiling created for the main lobby of its mid-20th century facility on South Kingshighway by the late American artist and designer Isamu Noguchi.

The ceiling had been covered by a drop ceiling for decades, and precedent predicted that it would be destroyed or that it had deteriorated beyond salvation. But a discussion last fall on St. Louis Public Radio spurred listeners to express wishes for it to be opened up for all to see. Then in early December, Jeff Lockridge, manager of media and public relations for U-Haul International in Phoenix and salesman Sam Bowen of the store at 1641 S. Kingshighway announced the company's efforts to save the ceiling.

Now the restoration is complete, and the public is welcome to see Noguchi's extraordinary contribution to the region's artistic heritage. Lockridge said in an email that people “can stop by anytime to check it out.” But he also said the public is invited to a community open house on Thursday, May 19, from 7 -8:30 p.m. to see Noguchi's artistry.

The ceiling isn’t the only point of interest at the site. The building’s architect was the late Harris Armstrong. An artist of resolute determination and moxie, he contributed plenty to the visual and cultural life of the community, such as the Ethical Society building on Clayton Road.

Armstrong’s design for the Kingshighway building, then owned by the Magic Chef stove company, enjoyed admiration near and far. Although altered by the U-Haul Co. to serve its needs as a storage facility, and chopped up inside, the bones and much of the skin are evident. For example, the bold exterior east-facing planes of a divided facade, created by fastidiously capable St. Louis brick masons — as well as in interior details, such as hardware and restrained decoration — are reminders of Armstrong’s attention to the minuscule as well as the majuscule.

The following is an excerpt from St. Louis Public Radio’s original report

 For two decades at least, exotic swirls of extraordinary biomorphic beauty hung in obscurity above the heads of the temporary truckers, the moving-box buyers and the storage facility renters who came to do business at the U-Haul store on South Kingshighway and Northrup Avenue, just north of Interstate-44.

In the 1990s, a drop ceiling was installed by U-Haul over the original sculptured ceiling, which is, in fact, a sculpture. The work was further obscured by partitions added to break up the space. This truly extraordinary but concealed mid-century masterpiece was created by the sculptor, stage designer, landscape and furniture and lighting designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Most everyone interested in it was resigned to it being hidden forever. 

A maquette of Isamu Noguchi's sculptured ceiling for the Magic Chef building from the "St. Louis Modern" exhibit at St. Louis Art Museum. A photo of the original interior of the building, courtesy of the Harris Armstrong Collection, University Archives
Credit Robert Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio

Earlier this fall, a St. Louis on the Air segment on local mid-century modernist treasures prompted a lively discussion in a local history Facebook group on the subject — with many calls for the ceiling to be opened up for all to see. Now, that wish is a reality. 

Two U-Haul employees relayed this information. First was Sam Bowen, a salesman in Kingshighway store. He gave us a peek at the still-under wraps ceiling and said it was his understanding that the false ceiling and partitions would be removed. He referred us to the media relations department of U-Haul's headquarters in Phoenix. There, on the phone, we had a conversation with happy-sounding Jeff Lockridge, manager of media and public relations for U-Haul International. He, in turn, cleared the path to an announcement with Stephen Langford, who represents U-Haul’s marketing efforts in St. Louis.  

The U-Haul Building was built soon after the end of World War II as headquarters for the American Stove Company-Magic Chef Co.  In the national wave of enthusiasm for mid-century American modernist works, promoted further by the St. Louis Art Museum's recent modernism show — Armstrong’s designing is receiving well-deserved attention.

Other major projects in Armstrong’s portfolio are the (1935) International Style building for the orthodontist Leo Shanley at 7800 Maryland Ave.,  in Clayton. It won the Silver Medal of the 1937 Paris Exposition of Art and Technology.

He also designed the Helen Tredway and Evarts A. Graham Sr. house on a bluff over the Missouri River in Florissant; the Grant Clinic Building at Taylor Avenue and West Pine Boulevard in the Central West End; and the Ethical Society building on Clayton Road in Richmond Heights.  Armstrong was also one of five finalists in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition, won by Eero Saarinen and his now 51-year-old Gateway Arch.

The exterior of the U-Haul building in Kingshighway. In Harris Armstrong's original design, this part of the building, now covered in concrete and siding, was glass.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

The Magic Chef building, which dates from 1947-48, is a landmark modern building in St. Louis. Its striking massing of stripped-down architectural forms; the intricately laid brick masonry on its prominent east-west-facing monolith;  and its generous employment of glass in the south and north elevations of the building, now covered up — all contributed to its national reception as a masterwork and its surviving reputation among connoisseurs.

The building was a product of Armstrong’s aesthetic engine hitting on all 12 cylinders. He not only arranged for the commissioning of Noguchi to see to the lobby ceiling, but also designed (or designated with his keen aestheticism) fixtures such as door handles, stainless-steel sheathed doors and a delicate and whimsical sculptural arrow pointing a visitor to the elevators. That bit of Armstrongiana hangs from a still-visible section of the Noguchi ceiling in the elevator lobby, where the use of glass blocks on the western face continues to bring the afternoon light into the building with abundant warmth.

When you think about it, like so many great buildings, the Magic Chef office building was constructed not only of bricks and mortar — but also very much of light. Further, Noguchi’s illuminated ceiling contributed — and once again will contribute — to the region’s architectural heritage and the pleasure of visitors and customers.