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Commentary: Don't tear down, unless you build better

This article firsr appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2011 - The Mid-Century Modern Preservation Special steamed north on Grand Boulevard this week, made a left turn on Lindell, headed west, and chugged along to another round building that could feel the blunt force of another round object, the headache ball. This is the AAA Auto Club building at 3925 Lindell Boulevard, a door or two west of Vandeventer Avenue. It would be replaced by a chain drug store.

The AAA building dates from 1977. It replaced a much larger, much grander building that was originally the home of the Columbian Club, which burned down. The auto club building has little of the whimsical attraction of the Del Taco building at Forest Park Avenue and Grand, whose future also remains in question, but it is a distinctive presence. Back on Grand, St. Louis University has said it wants Del Taco gone, so we shall see what happens now that such a formidable opponent has arrived by bulldozer.

Whatever comes to pass in regard to the preservation or demolition of these two buildings, the fact is consciousness has been raised in regard to the architecture of the mid 20th century. Although I would lament tearing down either of the buildings in question, I cheer the resulting arousal of interest in these and other buildings from our recent built past, buildings getting a second and much more serious look. It is gratifying also that more and more folks, particularly young men and women, are buying tickets and boarding the Preservation Special.

Before a pox of imitative and decidedly second-rate postmodernist commercial buildings spread across the regional landscape, St. Louis was hospitable home to a plentiful stock of sturdy and genuinely original "modern" buildings by an impressive list of architects. This inventory includes names such as architects Harris Armstrong, Frederick Dunn, Charles Eames, Ralph Cole Hall, Samuel Marx, Charles Nagel, and Isadore Shank; firms such as Bernoudy, Mutrux and Bauer; Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber and its successor firm, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum; Murphy, Mackey, Wooford & Richman; and the enormously gifted designer, Victor Proetz. Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to this glory, as did, of course, Eero Saarinen.

There were others. My purpose here is not to single out any one architect, designer or firm but to illustrate how robust the architectural establishment was in those days and to encourage readers to look at buildings from the mid 20th century with an eye to appreciating inventiveness, quality and craft.

Resources include http://preservationresearch.com and www.andrewraimist.com, as well as Eric Mumford's "Modern Architecture in St. Louis: Washington University and Postwar American Architecture, 1948-1973."

So often the built environment has been victimized by fashion, by hate-this, love-that reactions to various periods and styles. Too often architects, for whatever reasons, nurture this ill-advised selectivity by condemning to design hell buildings that have the misfortune of not conforming to the style or the gimmick of the moment.

Informed by such vanity and disguised in the cloak of expertise and ersatz philosophical proclamations many hapless clients have been drawn in and were left holding the complicit bag as they watched fall magnificent buildings with centuries of aesthetic vitality and utility left in them.

And all too often, when a few decades pass, the public kicks itself for not better appreciating, and insisting on preserving, the good things that have gone before, and now are memories.

Worthy individuals and the Landmarks Association of Greater St. Louis deserve thanks for their hard work and determination. This week they were joined by Mayor Francis Slay, who weighed in on the side of thinking twice before knocking down buildings of some prominence. To that end, he wrote, "I will, therefore, ask my office's representative on the Planning Commission to cast a vote against the project today (Thursday, July 7). And I urge the other members of the commission, at least, to consider doing the same until the developer has been more directly engaged."

We do not endow our heritage and our surroundings by the indiscriminate destruction of our architectural past. Quite to the contrary, we diminish them.

Listen to the mayor: "The loss of any distinctive element of our built environment must be justified by a new good at least its equal."

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