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Arts

Take five: Architect Richard Henmi designed Del Taco building

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2011 - He's designed high-rise hotels, Federal Reserve banks and apartment buildings. He's competed with such heavy-weight starchitechts as I.M. Pei and won. But the St. Louis building he designed that has grabbed the most attention in recent weeks was built on a smaller scale and serves a more prosaic purpose.

Richard Henmi designed the South Grand Del Taco building as part of a larger Teamster Local 688 community development project aimed at senior citizens. Originally finished in 1967, it first served as a Philips 66 gas station. Its saucer shaped roof -- technically a hyperbolic paraboloid -- is integral to the entire complex's design. The complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Henmi designed the "saucer," he had already been designing buildings in St. Louis for 20 years. His career stretches so far back that early on, his architecture study was interrupted when he was called to serve in World War II. Freelance writer Alex Sciuto recently talked with Henmi about his famous little gas station and his life that has seen so much change in St. Louis and has helped to build so many well known buildings in St. Louis.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're originally from Fresno, Calif. How did you end up living in St. Louis and designing so many buildings in the city?

Henmi: I'm from Fresno, and I was attending a school called Fresno State College in my home town. In 1941, World War II broke out. Being of Japanese ancestry, I and my family were put into an internment center. The center was originally in Fresno -- it was the county fair grounds. I was in the internment center for about three months. Because I was going to school at the time, if I was accepted by an inland school, I was permitted to leave. And that's how I came out to Washington University in St. Louis. My parents were moved to a permanent relocation center in Jerome, Ark. They were there for about two years.

I was called up for active duty in the military. I was drafted initially in 1943, but because I was Japanese, they didn't want anything to do with me. They put me in the reserves. In 1945, they called me up for active duty, and I became a second lieutenant. I came back after the war to St. Louis, finished my school, and graduated in architecture.

How did you end up running your own firm, Richard Henmi and Associates?

Henmi: The firm I ended up running was founded in 1900. It was Mauran, Russell and Garden. That firm was an offshoot of an even older firm from Boston. In 1900, the Boston firm decided to close its operation in St. Louis, and the three men decided to found their own firm. Fifty years later, in 1951, I went to work for them. Russell was still there! I think he was 90 years old. When I became a partner in 1968, there were three partners. After one partner left and one died, I was left. And it became Henmi and Associates.

In 1989, things were pretty tough -- almost as bad as it is today -- and architects had no work. I sold my company. In 1995, I reopened my own firm and that was active for four years. Those four years were when I did the Sheraton Hotel on 14th Street, the Drury and the Coronado.

You're well known for your large buildings, but one of your smallest -- the Del Taco Building -- has been in the news recently. How did you come up with that design?

Henmi: We were employed by the Teamsters Organization to design a complex. We designed a taller building for senior citizen housing, a lower building as the Teamster's headquarters and medical center. Along with those square buildings, we put this round building, which was a Philips 66. Though small, the Del Taco building was definitely part of the complex. Because the two other buildings are rectilinear, we wanted a focal point on the street.

Back then, there was what is known as a hyperbolic paraboloid being developed, which is extremely strong. Del Taco's roof is only five-and-a-half-inch thick concrete, but it's 120 feet diameter. The shape uses the structure to give maximum strength to the concrete. It's a very thin structure that spans a very long distance.

Tell me about some of the other buildings you have designed that you are proud of.

Henmi: The building that is now the Renaissance at the airport is one of my favorites. It's been there for quite a while. The design worked out very well. It's a clean design, and the shape fits the intended use. The hotel is located at the end of the main runway at Lambert. The developer wanted to take advantage of the location and the airplanes taking off nearby. All the hotel rooms on the north side open out directly to the airport.

The downtown Hilton Hotel was another kind of a challenge. The first-floor building was the Spanish Pavilion from the 1964 New York World's Fair. The Pavilion was considered the best building of the New York World's Fair. Al Cervantes was the mayor at that time and he got the Spanish government to donate the building to St. Louis. He wanted to make it a civic building, but it could not make enough money to survive. My client, Don Breckenridge, bought it to make a hotel out of it. We wanted to be sure not to disturb the Pavilion needlessly. We wanted to preserve the appearance of the building. So we carefully dropped one tower into a courtyard that happened to be in the middle of the pavilion. We adapted all the interior space for ball rooms and banquet rooms. It really worked out well.

What do you see for the future of St. Louis' skyline?

Henmi: I have done many, many projects over the years. It has changed quite a bit in my time, but it's a bad time for architects in St. Louis. There's nothing being built. Companies are hurting. There are some areas of the country that are still moving ahead, but St. Louis isn't one of them. St. Louis as a whole has done well with most of its architecture. I would like to see if they can continue and do more.

Alex Sciuto is a freelance writer. 

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