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Architectural origins of St. Louis can still be seen, but you'll have to look closely

The Dodier-Sarpy house was at 2nd and Clark streets.
The Missouri History Museum
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The European heritage of early every-day St. Louis architecture – the poteaux-sur-sol, Fachwerk and other construction – was explained and put into perspective by Landmarks Executive Director Andrew B. Weil recently.

Weil was in good form when he inaugurated a four-lecture series on architecture. His talk was given in a grand new urban asset, Ritz Park, a vest-pocket public amphitheater recently and masterfully created just north of the King and I restaurant on South Grand Boulevard. Other lectures will be at the St. Louis Art Museum and downtown's Central Library of the St. Louis Public Library system.

The place for Weil’s talk -- and Weil’s talk itself -- couldn’t have been better. The park is designed for lectures and performances, with permanent concrete benches arranged so that audience members look directly at the performance platform. Water bubbles into a pool and spills into a little stream that runs through the premises.

As for the talk, it wasn’t your usual pretty-house-tour talk, nor was it one of the cautionary tales Landmarks is obliged to present regularly about buildings in peril. The lecture identified causes for regret and disappointment and exultation and hope all at once.

Weil didn’t skip over the various plagues of destruction that have been visited on the architectural fabric of the city of St. Louis. These include a devastating 1849 fire as well as city-sponsored land clearances and federal urban renewal and highway development schemes and the clearance of 40 square blocks of 18th and 19th century architecture for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. But he presented also a clear and factual recitation of the glorious architectural inheritance we enjoy, and so often overlook or take for granted, and in some cases know absolutely nothing about.

Residential vernacular architecture from French colonial days was the foundation on which Weil’s talk was constructed, but not narrowly, because he put architecture, urban planning, the economy and government into the mix and made connections. This vernacular architecture generally was based on necessity and built and owned or rented by working class and middle class folks for use as dwellings or as stables or small businesses.

In large measure, the buildings were planned by builders and craftspeople and informed by utility rather than aesthetics. Often these structures were influenced strongly by memory and by attachments to styles imported to America by an increasingly polyglot immigrant population.

Early on, the buildings often were of the basic poteaux-sur-sol and poteaux-sur-terre construction, buildings framed by logs set perpendicular to the ground, with the timbers resting on sills and or sunk into the earth and bonded by a mortar called pierrotage, a mixture of clay or lime and stones.

The Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia was built in 1799, replacing a similar structure built 100 years before.
Credit Kbh3rd | Wikipedia
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The Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia was built in 1799, replacing a similar structure built 100 years before.

This region boasts the apotheosis of this style. It is the late 18th-century Church of the Holy Family in the village of Cahokia, mere minutes from downtown St. Louis. Other examples are found south of St. Louis in Missouri and Illinois in relative abundance.

Ste. Genevieve is a good place to stop if you go on a French colonial pilgrimage. There one finds a National Landmark, the Louis Bolduc house, now a museum.

Later, as immigration became more diverse, houses with any number of European relationships were established – Weil featured a house of Alsatian inspiration. A barn in South St. Louis has characteristics of half-timbered, or Fachwerk, traditions that evolved in Europe.

The Otzenberger House is in Carondelet.
Credit Landmarks Association of St. Louis
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The Otzenberger House is in Carondelet.

Weil began the talk by catapulting us back to the 18th century showing watercolor drawings of what existed then, idealized of course, but visual proffers of a time for which we have few actual clues of how we looked. Photography began its titanic development in the third decade of the 19th century, and in the decades following the cityscape and landscapes of the region were captured in various photographic mediums.

For Weil, the best information about the growing and expanding city comes from a remarkable document, a perspective or bird’s-eye view of St. Louis presented in series in a book. It is “Pictorial St. Louis,” commonly known as Compton and Dry.

Richard J. Compton published, and Camille N. Dry illustrated this 1875 treasure, and a contemporary publisher’s note proclaims it to be an “Atlas of 110 connected views which, when assembled, would make a panorama 9 by 24 feet. … The detail is minute … such apparent accuracy would have been an accomplishment beyond any reasonable expectation.”

In this page from the Compton & Dry "Pictorial St. Louis," Park Avenue is the main street on the left and Chouteau Avenue on the right. Eighth Street is at the bottom.
Credit Flickr
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In this page from the Compton & Dry Pictorial St. Louis, Park Avenue is the main street on the left and Chouteau Avenue on the right. Eighth Street is at the bottom.

Dry supposedly hovered in a balloon over the east side of the Mississippi to get his bird’s eye perspective of the city and made sketches aloft, and from these linear definitions produced the amazing document that is “Pictorial St. Louis.” It is distinguished by exacting detail and thrilling for its dynamism and generally absorbing qualities.

It was a reasonably accurate “snapshot,” Weil says, of the city at a moment of its transition from its French colonial roots to a time of commercial development and population migrations. These migrations, by the way, became the locomotive for residential and commercial movement in St. Louis. And the word locomotive is not used in a metaphorical sense necessarily. Once the Eads Bridge was completed, the steamboat economy was sunk, a destabilization that had its own effects on downtown.

The Jean Baptiste Roy house on South 2nd Street was demolished in 1947.
Credit The Missouri History Museum
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The Jean Baptiste Roy house on South 2nd Street was demolished in 1947.

Since the 19th century, we have rather carelessly and determinedly turned our collective back on the river and have chugged west. Compton and Dry is a testament to this. But the pictures also reveal the scraps and the treasures of the French residential heritage in the late 19th century. “Pictorial St. Louis” didn’t stop at the city limits. It includes villas set in the midst of large farms on the fringes of the city and St. Louis County. Still evident in places shown in “Pictorial St. Louis” are the scant remains of ribbons of land that were common fields – land owned in common by the citizenry. When this land acquired commercial value, it was sold off and now few if any indications of it exist.

The Compton and Dry illustrations also reveal geological conditions that in their way shaped history and affected the rise and fall of neighborhoods. The Mill Creek, for example, bisected the central city east to west, and as the westward migrations took on more and more energy, the valley served to isolate downtown into an island, as dwellings on the north and south began to empty out, most dramatically on the north side, where housing stock was older and less well cared for, Weil said. A similar phenomenon is observable in regard to in south St. Louis, but much more of its 19th century housing stock remains – the Soulard and LaSalle Park neighborhoods, for examples.

Weil offered the audience a lens through which architectural St. Louis can be viewed critically as an organism that grows and shrinks, suffers and recovers from various urban illnesses and greed-based duplicities, from the loss of a dynamic and highly sophisticated public transportation system and the subsequent exaltation of the automobile, from various forms of human segregation, and so on. But ultimately St. Louis survives, in places architecturally and historically intact, an urban organism that accommodates a complex population that for better or worse includes you and me. It’s a place that needs work, it has big problems and prejudices, and it is a pretty good place to live overall. Weil intimates that attitude has value.

At this moment of hellzapoppin challenges to accepted norms on local, regional, national and international stages, moments of enlightenment and exultation are important, so long as they are worthy and elicit vigilance along with pride and wonder.

The lecture series continues

 Esteemed St. Louis architectural historian, preservationist and professor Esley Hamilton will give a talk at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Central Library, 13th and Locust streets. Landmarks says Hamilton will discuss the architecture of Scotland from early castles and cathedrals to the both beloved and despised 2004 Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh, designed by the contemporary architect Enric Miralles. Hamilton will also present works by Robert Adam and Charles Rennie McIntosh in his eclectic Scots mix. The talk is free. The St. Louis Art Museum has taken notice of mid-century modernism, and on Nov. 8, it will open a major exhibition on this rich vein of visual history. Modernism is an expertise and enthusiasm of the historian Mary Reid Brunstrum, and at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, she will discuss “Modern Architecture in St. Louis, 1928-1968: An Expanded View” in the museum’s Farrell auditorium. Her talk is free, and promises to build on the foundation built by Weil, showing how architecture in St. Louis continued to evolve. Washington University Architecture College Professor Eric Mumford has written extensively about the modern movement in Europe and America and about some of its most illustrious contributors. Mumford is an expert, for example, on the work of International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) as well as on the brilliant Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert i López, who is the subject of his talk. Sert made enormous contributions to 20th century architecture as a designer and as evangelist for the architecture of modernism. He helped to bring Le Corbusier to America and for the commission to build his Carpenter Center at Harvard; it is Corbusier’s only North American building. Sert even has a connection with St. Louis. Fumihiko Maki, designer of Steinberg Hall and the buildings of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University, worked with Sert from 1955 to 1958 in Cambridge before returning to Japan to open his own firm. Mumford’s lecture on Sert is at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 19 at the Central Library, 13th and Locust Streets. Free.

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