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Commentary: Can modern architecture be protected in St. Louis?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2009 - On July 27, Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker Jr. dismissed a petition by the Friends of the San Luis seeking an injunction against the St. Louis Archdiocese to stop demolition of the mid-century modern San Luis Apartments at 4483 Lindell Boulevard.

Built as the DeVille Motor Hotel and designed by Charles Colbert, the now-demolished San Luis was the epitome of "space age modern." It was easy even for opponents of preservation to see why people were so passionate about saving it - the building glowed with the future-focused optimism of a lost era when triumphs in American design and economic growth seemed endless.

The Friends of the San Luis, an advocacy organization that had worked against demolition for more than a year, filed suit to stay ahead of its chance to appeal a city-issued demolition permit for the retro-cool building. Time was definitely a factor because city preservation law allows non-owners - that is, citizens - a chance to appeal only after a demolition permit approved by a city preservation entity is issued. Even though the St. Louis Preservation Board approved demolition by a narrow preliminary 3-2 vote on June 22, advocates could not appeal until a demolition permit was at hand.

The Archdiocese was doing all the demolition work it could without a permit, damaging the building and rendering it a "lost cause" to many. If such a system makes us look like obstructionists, that is neither our fault nor our intention.

The Preservation Board failed to extend protections of both local historic district standards and the city preservation review ordinance to a mid-century modern building based on a perceived legal ambiguity. The Friends of the San Luis could not let that stand, so we waited for the permit to be issued and filed our petition for injunction as well as a motion for temporary restraining order. We hoped that Judge Dierker would stop demolition, which was in full swing within moments of the issuance of the permit, and give us time to file our appeal of the demolition permit. That appeal would go back to the Preservation Board, of whose nine members only five were present on June 22. Maybe the outcome would have been different.

Instead, the judge denied our motion and our injunction. Plus, Judge Dierker's five-page ruling gave us another problem: He ruled not only against our case but ruled that we did not have legal standing as "aggrieved" persons under city law. Why not? Well, the Friends of the San Luis did not own the San Luis Apartments or adjacent property!

That's not all. In the ruling, Dierker also went far beyond the limits of interpretation and opined that the city's preservation law itself violated private property rights established by the U.S. Constitution.

That narrow definition of who has legal grievance under city preservation law is a terrible blow to advocacy efforts. Normally, advocates don't appeal Preservation Board decisions. That's because normally the board follows its governing laws, no matter what judgment it renders.

In the case of the San Luis, an appeal was worthwhile because we are dealing with a largely unprotected class of historic building: a mid-century modern building that is not the work of the handful of modernists who practiced in St. Louis and who have been canonized by historians.

The San Luis effort blazed new ground; preservationists declared that a modern building that was not a Harris Armstrong or a Philip Johnson was worthy of preservation on its own merits as well as its contextual significance.

From Grand west to Kingshighway, there are 36 largely multi-story commercial and residential buildings built between 1941 and 1977. This represents one of the few areas of extensive postwar development in the city amid the beginning of the suburban boom.

Here the developers largely chose brash, bold modern design. Not all of it was even as architecturally memorable as the San Luis, but each piece was part of an ensemble that created a unique modern overlay to an already-historic area.

Unfortunately, little of this context enjoys legal protection. The Central West End Historic District's federal certification marks all mid-century buildings as "non-contributing," and most of Lindell's modern buildings fall outside even that boundary. Only the former Bel Air Motel at 4630 Lindell (1957-9) is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. And apparently the Preservation Board isn't sure whether the preservation ordinance even gives all of these buildings a review when they are on the chopping block.

See where this is going? We may have to go to court again, until we can clarify the ordinances that apply here. While the Friends of the San Luis started as a building-specific venture, its members are fighting the larger battles of protecting modern architecture in the city and fighting for citizen rights under preservation review laws. Hence, we have appealed Judge Dierker's ruling to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

We hope that court overturns the basis for the lower court ruling by affirming citizen rights. The alternative leaves many buildings without a defense.

If Dierker's ruling goes unchallenged, no easy recourse may be left at any point in the future when the Preservation Board's members fail to apply the law because a building seems too modern to be historic. Or, worse, what if an owner misleads the board and the lie is revealed before demolition? Dierker's ruling would not even allow an appeal then, unless the next-door neighbor brought the suit.

Seeing the San Luis fall was bad, but worse sights could lie ahead if Dierker's ruling stands.

Michael R. Allen is president of the Friends of the San Luis. An architectural historian, Allen is also director of the Preservation Research Office, a historic preservation assistance firm.

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