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AAA takes first steps toward demolishing its mid-century modern home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - It’s no coincidence that less than a month after landing on Missouri Preservation’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places, the AAA building at 3917 Lindell is, in fact, in danger of meeting its maker.

A preliminary review to demolish the AAA building, owned by Automobile Club of Missouri, is on the city Preservation Board’s June 25 agenda for a preliminary hearing.

Mike Right, vice president of public affairs for the Auto Club, said Tuesday that AAA and CVS have worked out an agreement and plan to tear down the existing AAA building and the building that houses an Enterprise Leasing office if their newest design proposal is approved by the city's Preservation Board.

But Preservation Board Chairman Richard Callow said the preliminary review is just that: a preliminary review. Other steps must be taken before the building's fate is decided.

Once the preservtion board takes a look at the applicant's proposal, the Cultural Resources Office will use the board's discussion and decision as a basis for what it would do if the applicant were to apply for a demolition permit, Callow said.

A bill was recently signed into law by Mayor Francis Slay, defining boundaries for three new Preservation Review Districts. The ordinance was amended to include a section of the 18th ward that includes the AAA building. While the law does not go into effect until July 5, the protections, which include Cultural Resources review, apply.

According to the Cultural Resources website, preservation review districts are established when the Board of Alderman "finds that, considering the impact upon a neighborhood or upon the city as a whole, demolition review is in the public interest."

Callow said because the building is now in a preservation review district, the Cultural Resources Office would have a chance to look at it and the proposal from CVS and could approve or deny a demolition permit. If the Cultural Resources staff denies the permit, the applicant could appeal to the Preservation Board.

Auto Club spokesman Right said the company has not yet applied for a demolition permit although he believes it to be in the company's future.

Eighteenth Ward Alderman Terry Kennedy said he and many of his constituents do not support demolition, but also admitted the community does not have the power to stop AAA from tearing down its own building if it gets the go-ahead from the board.

Few safeguards are in place to protect the mid-century modern building. Built in 1976, the AAA building is fairly young so it isn't listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Ryan Reed, preservation specialist for Landmarks Association who worked to save the AAA and Del Taco buildings last summer, said buildings within a Preservation Review District have the potential to be significant -- but are not automatically saved from demolition.

The building has been praised by preservationists for its unique oval-shape and colonnade of white columns, and for its neoformal architectural style -- elements that make the building worth saving, Reed said. (New formalism consists of combining modern technology with popular contemporary elements, according to Landmarks. Reed said this style is fairly rare across the country and particularly uncommon in this area.)

Reed said the building's physical attributes make up only half of the story. The mid-century modern building was designed by Wenceslao Sarmiento to replace the original AAA building that burned to the ground. Reed said Sarmiento designed at least two other well-known buildings in the St. Louis area: the Jefferson Bank and Trust Co. building and the Archdiocesan Chancery.

It's also one of the last of its kind, said Michael Allen, founder of the Preservation Research Office and president of ModernSTL.

"It was (built during) a time when modernism was starting to fail," he said.

AAA spokesman Right disagrees with the building's significance and doesn't understand why preservationists are fighting to save a building that the AAA owns.

"So somebody likes a round building. So what?" he said. "Seriously, if you owned a house and your neighbors liked it but you wanted to sell it to somebody ... and your neighbor says 'Oh you can't do that. No, you can't move,' how would you feel about that?"

He said he knows some people will be upset over the loss of the building. "People get upset about everything, and you get over it," he said.

Alderman Kennedy said he doesn’t have a vote on the preservation board but hopes his opposition to the demolition holds some bearing when the board makes its decision.

He said even if the preservation board approves demolition, CVS and AAA would still have to look to the community for input.

He said companies such as CVS typically have a standard model for each of its buildings. The company's model has more of a suburban feel – a style that would not fit within the 18th Ward’s urban landscape, he said.

But AAA spokesman Right said he doesn't think the current AAA building matches the 18th Ward's urban landscape.

"Our current building is glass and concrete. It's certainly not what you would see in the 18th or even the 19th ward … (It's) unique or odd, one of the two."

Kennedy said he hopes the newest design proposals will fit in with the 18th Ward's urban landscape, which wasn't the case with previous design proposals.

A neighborhood review group, consisting of architects and developers, met during portions of last year to view various proposals from CVS and AAA. All received mixed reviews, and no one supported tearing down the existing building.

Earlier this year, NextSTL's blog "What Should Be" posted renderings of one idea that would allow the AAA building to remain on the site, leaving enough room for a new CVS building to be constructed beside it.

Kennedy said he would not be opposed to that idea.

Preservationists starting speaking out against its demolition last summer,  around the same time the St. Louis Planning Commission gave AAA preliminary approval to demolish the building.

Allen said he understands that not all buildings preservationists support can be saved. He said he finds the disparities in preservation to be rather jarring and unfair. For example, preservationists fought hard to save the original DeVille Motor Hotel (also known as the San Luis apartments) but it ultimately became a parking lot.

"(DeVille) got a lot of attention, but the attention was hard-won," he said. "The AAA building is the same way. It seems to be a footnote in all of this."

And then, he said, you have the Del Taco building, which received overwhelming support from the community. "Del Taco was very visible. Very iconic," he said. "Nine times of ten, the reasons buildings get preserved are sentimental and economic instead of historic and architectural."

AAA spokesman Right said he doesn't believe the building's significance is enough to keep it intact when a new building could stand in its place.

"It's not like we're tearing down the Arch or Busch Stadium or the Eads Bridge ... or anything like that. This is a building that's been around not very long."

Right said he doesn't see why the Preservation Board meeting won't go in AAA and CVS's favor. "Why wouldn't it?" he said.

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