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Dream of architectural artifact museum gets closer to reality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2012 - Larry Giles may have the largest collection of artifacts in the United States, but that shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking he’s satisfied.

With about 300,000 historical artifacts under his belt, including his ever-growing collection of rare and out-of-date architecture books, Giles said he’s ready to show the world what he has.

Some may have already seen just a tiny fraction of Giles' collection, a two-story facade of the St. Louis Title Company, among the architectural pieces at the City Museum, but Giles said he doesn't agree with the way the City Museum presented the piece.

Giles’ vision for a national museum started becoming a reality in April 2005 when his not-for-profit organization, the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation, bought a 15-acre, 13-building site formerly known as the Sterling Steel Casting foundry. Giles said he hopes the site in Sauget will one day become a national architectural arts center.

A historic landmark and work-in-progress

Off the radar but well preserved, the Sterling Steel facility dates back to 1923, making its rehabilitation and transformation into a national museum of historic artifacts a feat in and of itself, said preservationist Michael Allen, who serves on the foundation’s board of directors.

“I was amazed. … This place (had been) abandoned but not long enough to have serious decay. It’s a remarkable sort of industrial artifact, and what (Giles) is doing to it is a really important historic preservation story for the country.”

Giles said much progress has been made since acquiring the site seven years ago. He said he spent the first few years cleaning up the place, putting in new concrete flooring and gutting some of the buildings’ structures.

Flash forward another two years and 200 trailer loads later, Giles’ 300,000 historical artifacts – including terra cotta, ornamental brick and cast iron building fronts once scattered among warehouses in the St. Louis area – have been consolidated and stored away at the new site. He also has pieces from the Century Building in St. Louis, which was demolished in 2004. (To see a report on what was happening at the site in 2007, check out a Living St. Louis report at www.youtube.com)

For the past 35 years, his collection had only been available through small exhibitions and private appointments, according to the foundation’s website. A national museum could change all of that, he said.

Inspiration on the riverfront

The idea for a museum of architecture was not his own, nor did it grow overnight, he said.

In the early 1930s, Charles Peterson, an architectural historian and senior landscape architect for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and Sigfried Giedion, a Swiss historian and author of "Space Time and Architecture," created a plan to have a museum of American architecture on the riverfront. The two put together a list of artifacts and buildings on the riverfront that they thought should be saved through this museum, Giles said.

“These old-timers just kind of inspired me. See, (but Peterson and Giedion’s) collection was scattered. All of the cast-iron building fronts were scrapped … and the collection is almost totally gone.”

Giles’ collection, on the other hand, is still growing. And it’s no wonder: He’s a pro who’s been at it for more than 30 years.

He grew up in Central West End, where his interest in history and architecture began. His grandfather used to take him on trips, all the while sharing his knowledge of the city’s history and architecture. His grandfather was also an avid stamp collector.

“He got me started in (collecting) as a kid. … He was a wealth of knowledge about the city. A real urbanist, you know?” Giles said.

He joked that his grandfather’s stamp collection is nowhere near as elaborate as his own collection today. Despite his being the largest artifact collection in the United States, Giles said the toughest challenge has been gathering financial and moral backing.

Support hard to come by

To build national support, Giles recently partnered with the Brooklyn Museum in New York to acquire part of its collection. About once a week, he receives another set of books in the mail – all of which will be catalogued in the museum’s library. 

Allen said he thinks adding materials from other cities and building relationships with universities and scholars could strengthen Giles’ case and his donor base. He hopes donors will understand the magnitude of Giles’ collection and the significance of the foundry site, which Allen said will happen in due time.

“(This) is a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of curatorial work on his part of artifacts and amazing study library and, you know, the repurposing of an industrial facility,” he said.

An American architecture revolution?

Giles said he hopes the library will allow researchers and architects to essentially “catch up” with European architecture. Modern American architecture, which he says is too wrapped up in the financial details and never-before-seen designs, has put forth a “superficial” effort, rather than relying on the past for inspiration.

“We want to be able to offer more. You know, people want to know more about (the process of building and which materials to use). Well, here’s more,” he said.

The foundation is the largest supplier of historic roofing tile in the area – and there are times when an architect will look to Giles for historic pieces to become parts of new buildings, Allen said.

“I look at all this new construction in St. Louis and wonder ‘Why didn’t these people call Larry?’ Architects and contractors are trying to make buildings that mimic historical style. They could go to him and get actual material … and give it that character.”

Allen said this tradition is often seen in Europe but seldom in the United States. Much of Giles’ collection will stay in Sauget but some of it could return to the city through new buildings connecting older craftsmanship with new craftsmanship, he said.

Allen, who has worked to stop demolitions on historic buildings, said Giles’ role differs from his, but the philosophies are similar.

“(Giles) happens to have the skills to save the last pieces,” he said. “I would prefer everything to be saved in place. I think Larry would as well. But his role is to come in at that inevitable final hour and my role largely has been to try to stop that inevitable last hour.”

Ryan Reed, preservation specialist for the Landmarks Association, said there are times when buildings can’t be saved and that’s when Giles comes in to salvage what’s left – and sometimes, what’s salvaged can be reused.

“These buildings are being torn down and he’s taking elements from these buildings … and repurposing them elsewhere so they don’t just get thrown in a landfill somewhere and lost forever,” Reed said.

Allen said he thinks Giles and the foundation are at the forefront of trying to change American building culture to embrace the reuse of materials.

“What he has done is built the collection that will give the revolution an intellectual footing. But it’s going to take other people using what he’s assembled to really pull that together.”

Giles said he hopes his artifacts will soon tell a national story and his library can provide architects and researchers the tools to build upon the past for inspiration.

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