If the afternoon light is just right the house glows golden, and the best view of it, ironically, is when you exit the Innerbelt, I-170, a roadway that once threatened to knock the venerable old building down, onto I-270.
The building is the graceful former home of a 19th century family, perched on a hill in Florissant. It has lived on Missouri Preservation's places in peril list - but seems to be in peril no more.
Built in 1867
It's called the Myers House for the man who built it on his 50-acre estate: John B. Myers, a landowner from Pennsylvania. The house today appears to look down its classical revival nose at goings on it witnesses constantly: automobiles racing by at speeds unimaginable in the mid-19th century; the tangled concrete ribbons of Dunn Road, and highways 270 and the Innerbelt; the nearby commercial buildings that go in and out of usefulness in a fraction of the time the Myers house has existed.
The motorists who pass by the Myers House heading to Chicago or Kansas City or to Florissant itself or to Lambert Field or the city of St. Louis may notice the dignified presence of this house on their first drivings-by. But soon it becomes just another bump or blur on the landscape, and the phenomenon of familiarity renders it easy to ignore.
And yet, because old buildings attract bulldozers and headache balls as fast as anything that moves attracts a kitten, this house has not been ignored but almost in defiance it has endured. Now, thanks to its new owner, it again has more time.
In old photographs you see a plowed field making its way up to the front porch, which in turn leads into a comfortable, ample dwelling built for a family of comfortable means. John Myers came to Florissant from Pottstown, Pa. His wife, Adelaide Motten Myers, was a native of Alsace-Lorraine. John Myers died as the basement of the house was being dug; Mrs. Myers saw the house through to completion. The couple had three children – two daughters, Zelda (born just 16 days after her father’s death) and Salena; and a son, John Jr.
The house nearly bit the dust in the 1970s when it appeared as if that Innerbelt, aka I-170, would plow through its graceful, delicate double portico and on inside to reduce to rubble the solid brick and stone house.
“At that time, the Innerbelt stopped at Page Boulevard,” said Gretchen Crank, president of Historic Florissant Inc. and a preservationist who has seen the house through good times and terrifying times. “The highway department’s idea was to take it north and hook it into I-270. That would take down several buildings, including the John Myers house.”
Apparently, the Highway Department didn’t reckon with the dogged resistance it would face in the late 1960s and early ‘70s from the public, from Historic Florissant Inc. and the late and now legendary Rosemary Straub Davison. Mrs. Davison was city clerk of Florissant for 17 years, but evident on her resume is her work as a preservationist and one who put a well-formed social conscious to work. She led the charge for saving the Myers house and other historic buildings in the city. By one informed account she was a tough customer who knew the rules, followed them and expected everyone else to fall in line.
Mrs. Davison and other preservationists, along with a strong Landmark and Historic District Commission in Florissant, pitched a house-versus-highway battle for years and there were bad feelings on both sides, Crank said. Finally in 1974 agreement was struck between the preservationists, Historic Florissant in particular, and the Highway Department. Five women pooled enough money for Historic Florissant to buy the house and later the adjacent barn.
Attached to the deed to the property is an indenture creating the Myers House Commission. Three executive officers of interested organizations – the Landmarks Association of Greater St. Louis, Historic Florissant Inc. and the Florissant Landmark commission – are its members. Two of the three commission members must agree before any major changes can be made to the property, including razing it.
In 1986, Helen and Charles Argent bought the house and the barn. When Charles Argent died, his children wanted to sell the property, but the indenture surfaced. This meant a buyer had to be made aware that the commission existed and that two of its three commissioners had to agree before any major changes were imposed on particular property.
Fast forward to this year and the "in peril" designation: The property was put up at auction with Adams Auction and Real Estate Services Inc., of Belleville. Crank said that at the time of the auction( in August), the auctioneer said all potential buyers wanted to tear the house down, reasoning that the land was more valuable than the house. The known-to-be-interested buyers dropped out at $200,000. Terry Turner, a bidder no one recognized, got it for $210,000.
Myers house regulars such as Gretchen Crank and Nancy Quade are delighted with the new owner and are full of enthusiasm for his ideas.
Turner, the new owner, has declared that not only does he want to preserve the house, he also wants to seek added protection for it. He wants to create an apartment for himself on the second floor and has brought in a couple of chairs as if to mark his personal territory in his house. He has been into Historic Florissant’s office to look at archival material related to the place, and has begun making much needed repairs.
Approval from the house and beyond
Nancy Quade owns The Weaving Dept., a store that has been in the Myers house for about 30 years. It sells yarns of many, many colors and textures. She and her associates there also teach weaving, spinning and crocheting, along with knitting. Quade says the business plans to stay.
“It is absolutely amenable,” she said. “It is visible from the highway, and when people call and ask where we’re located, I tell them, and they immediately know where to go.”
But it’s more than business when you’re working in the Myer house: “Someone told me the shop has a soul.” And as every historic house should, there is a ghost in residence, or a presence, as Quade described it.
“Mrs. Myers is what we call her. She responds positively and seems to like what we are doing,” Quade said.
The presence was off duty the other day, but Quade made an informed and enthusiastic tour guide, pointing out both features and quirks of the house. There are frescos, for example, some from the 19th century, others more recent, some painted over. In the front parlor, and in the front bedroom upstairs, panels beneath the window sills open, and when the windows are pushed up, access is created to the porches on both floors.
Original fireplaces remain, some with faux marble painting on their mantelpieces. Transoms hang above many of the doors. Mercifully the original floor plan has been left alone, more or less. In any event, the house retains its original bones overall and hasn’t been chopped up. There is no acoustical tile above, and only scattered tile or carpeting litter the handsome wide-plank floor.
It’s the opening of a new chapter, Quade said. “We are saved once again.”
“Terry swooped in to save the house,” Crank said. “It was as if he were wearing a cape!”
More information about the house tour is at the Historic Florissant Facebook page.