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Reflections: In Wellston, a 'family reunion' explores faded riches, realities — and possibilities

The J.C. Penney building, in 1948, on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive
Provided by Andrew Raimist
The J.C. Penney building, in 1948, on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive

Architect-preservationist Andrew Raimist pulled open a makeshift plywood door, the sort of bashed-up door you see before the boarding-up service shows up. Once, a door here would have opened onto a building resplendent with promise, a landmark post-World War II department store that gleamed not only with commercial ambition but with civic muscle in a city very much on the go.

This is the J.C. Penney building at 5930 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.

It was built in 1948 when MLK Drive was called Easton Avenue, named in honor of Rufus Easton, St. Louis' first postmaster. The building was designed by St. Louis architect William P. McMahon in collaboration with his son, Bernard, architects who very much should be included in our current discussions of and re-appreciation of mid-century St. Louis architecture and design.

The J.C. Penney building today
Provided by Andrew Raimist

I “discovered” the Penney's building last year when on a bike tour of north St. Louis. Its  beauty and originality smacked me in my wonky architectural history sensibility. It clearly was inspired by the clean sweeps of the 20th century International Style and provides visual clues leading directly to the drawing board of Le Corbusier. Technically the building is in St. Louis, but as Raimist said, it's an extension of Wellston, a place of elastic geography, a state of mind.

The greater Wellston Loop area provokes a memory both silvery in its past glory and grimy and depressing in its contemporary desuetude. 

The  building is owned by Fred Lewis, a young entrepreneur who collects all manner of objects, stuff that with a canny curator could easily be shaped into a 20th century mechanical objects wunderkammer.

Raimist and a crew of students from Washington University are helping to put things in order in the building. Raimist is a polymath. He is an architect, a teacher at Washington University's Sam Fox School of Art & Design. He is a photographer and a dedicated student of architecture. For example, he’s an expert on the mid-century modernist St. Louis architect Harris Armstrong, whose work is featured in the modernism show at the St. Louis Art Museum.

At Washington University, Raimist  is co-teaching the community building course in the architecture college this semester with Bob Hansman, the local-hero-artist-designer and human-rescue virtuoso, who made the course famous. In the spring semester, Raimist will teach "Community Building North" himself. 

He is a student of architecture's past, present and its promises,  and he is a writer and speaker on architectural subjects. He is also a person of action. When he opened the plywood door, he seemed Herculean, and what faced him were contemporary Augean stables.

A party of and for Wellston

This work is way more than his fifth labor, yet everything Raimist does appears to animate him, and this week that would embrace the idea of giving a party, the better to provide opportunities to talk about Wellston, to make manifest his own vivid sense of possibility for the city itself.

“It’s time now to think about the future,” he said. And about a party in the street (or in the J.C. Penney building if the weather’s bad). “When we started talking about this party, I was interested in historical documents and photographs. One of the folks working with me said that although my ideas were OK, it would take more than history to bring out the folks."

The Wellston Loop in the early 1950s
Provided by Andrew Raimist

"How about a family reunion?" his colleague asked. The idea was super and entirely appropriate, Raimist felt.

And so, this Saturday up and down Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, there’s to be a family reunion, and like Wellston itself, the description of family stretches far enough to include just about everyone. The main event is from 1 to 3 p.m., but looking around is encouraged anytime.

The idea is text-book family reunion perfect in plan. It is an effort to get folks reacquainted with the Wellston area, to invite them swap stories and memories, to eat, to look at “family” photographs and visit the J.C. Penney building and see the work being done on it, and then travel west to another landmark, the 1909 Wellston Station, a handsome craftsman style building that was the center of the Wellston transportation loop.

The Wellston Station, 1911
Provided by Andrew Raimist

In her informative blog, “The Wellston Loop,” independent scholar Linda Tate covers the Wellston area scene with thorough authority.

She writes, “The streetcar system in Wellston had become one of the major transportation hubs in St. Louis and, some have said, in the Midwest. A.J. Fink, general superintendent in the 1940s of the Public Service Company, which served the part of Wellston located in the City of St. Louis, said, 'Four street car lines and three bus lines of the PSC operate to and from Wellston. In a day they will move some 40,000 passengers in and out of the section'.”

Such was the case all over the region. The trolley-car system was robust and darn near ubiquitous. It was practical, sustainable, efficient. Eventually competitive forces and political corruption pushed the streetcars off their tracks to form a stationary history at once bright and ignoble. And as so often has happened in our world, the private automobile was one of the villains, driving the streetcars off their tracks, and as they crashed, clang, clang, clang went their death knell.

So it was with Wellston, too. It’s particularly noticeable along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where, on a recent evening, no doors were open except those with young women standing in the wan light or characters that looked as if they might be in the drug trade.

Like the streetcar system itself, Wellston Station is falling down, at the moment anyway.

5930 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.

The good news is there is Community Development Administration Block Grant money allocated for earmarked for stabilizing the stati0n. According to CDA director Fred Wessels, $200,000-plus will be spent to put a new roof on the building, new downspouts and gutters, work that Raimist says is scheduled to begin in December. Perhaps the work being done on the J.C. Penney building and the Wellston Station will spark a renaissance in a town that has suffered punishment and neglect for about 50 years.

A new Wellston could become a welcome new piece of the urban puzzle in the St. Louis area, a bright spot in a region in the process of reinventing itself for the better. 

The Wellston Loop Family Reunion, featuring free music and food, along with videos, photos, stories and tours of the J.C. Penney building, is from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21. The Penney’s building, 5930 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, is the starting point. Displays will be mounted along MLK from Hodiamont Avenue to Blackstone Avenue. If you have stories or photos to contribute, contact raimist@wustl.edu.

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