Carolyn Toft kept St. Louis from crumbling | St. Louis Public Radio

Carolyn Toft kept St. Louis from crumbling

May 6, 2008

Carolyn Hewes Toft, whose name is synonymous with historic preservation in St. Louis and whose reputation as a relentless advocate for the built environment and sound urban planning spreads nationwide, announced she will leave the Landmarks Association of St. Louis Inc. in September.

Toft, 71, became the first full-time employee of Landmarks in 1976, having previously worked for the St. Louis Community Development Agency. Over the years, she developed an encyclopedic sense of the architectural inventory of the city and also gained knowledge of every ridge, hollow, sinkhole and hill of the political landscape.

Even today, when developers have recognized the marketability and profitability of old buildings, fights develop over saving buildings that get in the way of what some call progress and others call architectural vandalism. Toft rarely retreats from a fight when a good building is concerned. She believes in helping buildings "earn their keep on our city's streets." Her idea of a good time is mano a mano with an adversary, be he or she politician, developer, bureaucrat or journalist.

The last year was challenging for Toft and the Landmarks Association she shepherded for almost 35 years. Problems arose in connection with an ambitious change of course for the organization. Toft said Tuesday that, to survive and to be a fixture in the civic establishment, Landmarks had to raise its profile, which actually meant moving down from a seventh story suite in a building on Locust Street to a more accessible ground-floor facility in the historic Lammert Building at 911 Washington Avenue.

For years, Landmarks has sponsored tours of significant and threatened buildings, and has conducted a program of architectural tours for children called "What Are Buildings Made Of" - WABMO. A decision was made to build upon those programs and to create Architecture St. Louis, an organization and facility to provide space for community discussion on architectural issues, for exhibitions, and for permanent, well-equipped offices for the Landmarks Association itself.

Plans proceeded relatively smoothly until a major donor to Landmarks and other St. Louis cultural institutions, Larry Cohn, did not fulfill a half-million dollar pledge to the organization. Evaporation of a half-a-million budgeted bucks precipitated a financial crisis.

However, thanks to aggressive fundraising on the part of Toft, Landmarks president William P. Wischmeyer, the Landmarks staff and the board, the situation is being resolved and the Architecture Center is on track.

"Construction is underway. We move in the first of July," Toft reported gleefully. Establishing its presence in the Lammert Building will create something of an architectural coalition: The St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects occupies space on the first floor of the Lammert Building as well.

Toft gave official notice at the board's meeting in April, and Wischmeyer notified the Landmarks Association's members in a recent letter of Toft's decision. In the letter, he said, "We have become the area's foremost voice for historic preservation due to Carolyn's leadership, rigorous scholarship and spunk. ... We will be forever grateful for her vision and dedication."

In an interview on Tuesday, Wischmeyer, an architect and senior lecturer in the Architecture College at Washington University, said, "Carolyn leaves the legacy of a strong organization with strengths in its staff and its sound financial position. Her legacy includes, as well, the vision of Architecture St. Louis - an initiative that began as her idea and was nurtured enthusiastically by her."

Toft's decision did not come as a surprise to anyone closely connected to the organization. As she wrote in her formal notification to the board in advance of its April meeting, a strategic planning committee "has spent many hours developing a succession timeline and an executive director job description."

Toft said, too, by the time she came to the organization in 1976, "much had already been accomplished by the founders who came together in 1958 to form a volunteer-based advocacy group. Over the next 32 years, Landmarks would play an important part in the remarkable transformation of the national preservation movement. it has for me been an exhilarating, frustrating, unpredictable and incredibly rewarding experience, but it is time for new leadership to help Landmarks establish Architecture St. Louis and take the next important step in its evolution."

Toft, who has a train journey planned to Winslow, Arizona, and other points west when she leaves Landmarks, has made a commitment to the board to be on hand when needed as the organization proceeds through its 50th anniversary. She said she leaves an organization "poised to enter its next phase."

A landmark program of the Landmarks Association is its annual Historic Preservation Week, which begins on Fri., May 9, and continues through Sat., May 17. The premiere event is the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3:30 p.m., Fri. at the Ludwig Lofts, 1004-06 Olive Street. Mayor Francis Slay, Alderman Phyllis Young and developer Craig Heller will operate the scissors. For more information and a complete schedule, visit the Landmarks Association's website, www.landmarks-stl.org.

Robert W. Duffy, associate editor of the Beacon, is a former board member of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis Inc.