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Reflection: New home for law, new light downtown

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2013 - Lex and Lux are a vowel away from being the same word. In interesting ways, the two – Latin for law, Latin for light – weave together actually and symbolically in a former downtown St. Louis office building. Once providing a perfectly splendid reason for averting the eyes, this building now serves not only as a stylish and functional new home for the Saint Louis University School of Law but as a fresh and welcome asset for the city and the region.

Mike Schnaare, a planner for architectural firm The Lawrence Group, is an eloquent spokesperson for this aesthetic and functional transformation of the building at 100 North Tucker Blvd.

“Every moment I was awake,” he said, “I was thinking, ‘What is possible?’”

The possibility that spooled out is remarkable. Schnaare said the results were a combination of a process of discovery -- learning the opportunities the existing mid-‘60s building presented -- and working with the Law School officials and exiting Saint Louis University president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi S.J., to determine their needs and their vision of what should be.

“From all that, the building evolved,” Schnaare said.

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Forty years ago this month I went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Tucker Boulevard – 12th Street in those days – had been home to three major newspapers in the first half of the 20th century, and the two principal journalistic presences continued to call 12th Street home when I began my newspaper career. To get to work I often took the Lindell bus to Olive Street and Tucker Boulevard, and disembarked a block north of Scott Hall (the name of the Law School’s new home). From there, I walked a few blocks north to our plant at what was then 1133 Franklin Avenue, now 900 North Tucker.

The movings-around of St. Louis newspapers in the 1900s were like ink-stained musical chairs, with huge rolls of newsprint and barrels of ink and linotype machines and molten lead – and the men and women who make newspapers following along behind.

Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office and a regional architectural history resource, filled in vacancies in my memory about Tucker Boulevard. For example, I couldn’t recall the first building I encountered after I got off the bus. It was originally the Star-Times Building, he told me, which moved north to the building that now houses St. Patrick’s Center. The Post-Dispatch moved from 12th and Olive (a building that is now beautifully restored) to its present location, displacing the old Globe-Democrat, which removed itself to 12th and Delmar, now Convention Plaza and Tucker.

The newspaper buildings to the north were essential contributors to the existence of an impressive architectural canyon that began to present itself just south of Market Street. Law, like journalism, was an unmistakable presence, most notably in the amazing Civil Courts building with a version of the Temple of King Mausolus crowning it.

An ensemble of late 19th and early 20th century office and commercial buildings and one magnificent and famous hotel, the Jefferson, also functioned to form the canyon’s bulwarks.

Gazing back through the distortions of nostalgia and times lost, Twelfth Street registers as magnificent when it intact; but already in 1973, when I went to work downtown, it had begun to fray and to weaken. Its grandeur has been patched but not repaired. Such is the fragile condition of the American city in 2013.

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That statement does not signal a throwing in of the urban towel. The American city -- this American city -- has enormous potential. And every time we are presented with an architectural incident of a positive nature – a building up rather than a pulling down, construction rather than asphalting – there is reason to get out the Reporter's Notebook and take notice. Add this renovation to the system of streets and streetscape amenities emerging now to connect the Stan Musial Bridge to downtown via Tucker Boulevard and you get a genuine boost of urban dynamism.

The building The Lawrence Group designed and Clayco Construction renovated and wrestled into respectability was a middle American take on the faceless emptiness of Soviet buildings of the 1960s. It and its visual sibling to its north, between Pine and Olive, wrestled for decades for the title of most undistinguished building downtown.

As an office building, 100 North Tucker hung on for almost a half a century, only 20 percent occupied at the end of its office-building career. Joe and Loretta Scott gave it to the university.

One interesting and accidentally felicitous aspect of the law school building and its $30 million renovation is that 100 North Tucker was originally supposed to rise 14 stories tall. Instead it stopped at 11. Because it was designed and built structurally to support three additional stories, it's able to accommodate the enormous weight of the books that fill the library’s two floors.

Not only that, it provided Atlas-like muscle to carry a modern Xanadu erected in an added-on, brand new 12th floor of the building, a grand space that accommodates a commodious 300-seat courtroom, plus a glass pavilion and an outdoor deck.

The views from these spaces are stunning, as are the views from the stairways on the 12th Street side, which you see if you drive east on Olive Street toward Tucker, articulated by the giant, indelible glass T on the façade, with glass extending around the building like a coronet. This huge curtain wall not only provides extraordinarily arresting views and a strong exterior architectural statement, but draws in, as well, cascades of light, illuminating the stairways and the sitting rooms adjacent to them.

The ordinary, original fenestration appears to be rather stingy, but in fact it provides every room with a view in Scott Hall, including the grand courtroom, which in the school’s previous building was so window-free it felt like a tomb.

Symbolically the law, as a grand, societally steadying and ameliorating concept, and light, as in illumination and enlightenment, are constant partners. The law seeks to bring order out of chaos; light is brought into the dark places to discover Truth. In this building, the most telling illustration of the marriage of the two is on the building’s south side, in the law school library on the 5th and 6th floors. There, generous expanses of glass serve as a sort of picture plane, on which are painted images of the major courts of law in the region: the Civil Courts, the Carnahan Courthouse (formerly the Federal Courthouse and Custom House) and the recent Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse.

Beyond sheltering the law school, its courtrooms and classrooms, its clinics, a chapel, a spiffy new restaurant on the ground floor (open to the public), the huge library, the myriad classrooms and gathering places and study rooms and offices and so forth, the building has the buoyant and refreshing urban-vitality factor. All of a sudden, a thousand new occupants, some in flip-flops and shorts, others clearly dressed for success or for reasons of professional dignity, have flocked downtown, joining others who have taken up residence in lofts and renovated apartment buildings. The partnership of youth and gravitas challenges the perpetual naysayers.

There’s no question a rather lavish and beautifully lined silk purse has been created from the sow’s ear at 100 North Tucker Blvd., and the streamers of buff brick will forever remind us of the building’s pre-renovation aesthetic hideousness. Some may regard it still as an irreparable mediocrity. Others may say it is too lavish, an embarrassing show of chutzpah and wealth. And indeed, the 12th floor pavilion and deck bear a certain resemblance to the observation deck of the Four Seasons Hotel on the riverfront, which of course can be seen from the building’s sweeping roof deck.

While no match for last year’s architectural and cultural bonanza, the majesty of Cass Gilbert’s Central Library, Scott Hall owns membership in a special class: buildings and institutions that do not simply exist but actually serve a out-of-the-ordinary public function. For St. Louis, it a big step forward in the city’s process of reinventing itself.

Everyone associated with it -- not the least of whom the man who’ll see it in his rear-view mirror as he leaves St. Louis this year -- can be proud of this material accomplishment and the academic and civic contributions it houses and so admirably represents.

Background for this article

Paul Spencer Byard’s “The Architecture of Additions, Design and Regulation” (1988). Byard was a champion of compatible design and presented excellent ways for drawing the best out of existing buildings in the renovation process.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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