Modernist treasure hidden for decades in U-Haul building set to reappear in the spring | St. Louis Public Radio

Modernist treasure hidden for decades in U-Haul building set to reappear in the spring

Dec 8, 2015

For two decades at least, exotic swirls of extraordinary biomorphic beauty hung in obscurity above the heads of the temporary truckers, the moving box buyers and the storage facility renters who came to do business at the U-Haul store on South Kingshighway and Northrup Avenue, just north of I-44.

In the 1990s, a drop ceiling was installed by U-Haul over the original sculptured ceiling. It was further obscured by partitions added to break up the space. This truly extraordinary but concealed mid-century masterpiece was created by the sculptor, stage designer, landscape and furniture and lighting designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Most everyone interested in it was resigned to its being hidden forever. 

But here’s good news. In 2016, perhaps by springtime, U-Haul plans an enlargement of its Kingshighway showroom, and in that process the dropped ceiling truly will be dropped and the sculptured ceiling will be cleaned up and fully restored.

Earlier this fall, a St. Louis on the Air segment on local mid-century modernist treasures prompted a lively discussion in a local history Facebook group on the subject -- with many calls for the ceiling to be opened up for all to see. Now, that wish is becoming a reality. 

The original ceiling can be seen behind some boxes.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Two U-Haul employees relayed this information to us. First was Sam Bowen, a salesman in Kingshighway  store here. He gave us a peek at the still-under wraps ceiling and said it was his understanding the false ceiling and partitions would be removed. He referred us to the media relations department of U-Haul's headquarters in Phoenix. There, on the phone, we had a conversation with happy-sounding Jeff Lockridge, manager of media and public relations for U-Haul International. He in turn cleared the path to an announcement with Stephen Langford, who represents U-Haul’s marketing efforts in St. Louis.  

The U-Haul Building was built soon after the end of World War II as headquarters for the American Stove Company-Magic Chef Co.  Harris Armstrong was its architect, and nowadays – in the national wave of enthusiasm for mid-century American modernist works – Armstrong’s designing is receiving well-deserved attention. Other major projects in Armstrong’s portfolio are the (1935) International Style building for the orthodontist Leo Shanley at 7800 Maryland Ave.  in Clayton. It won the Silver Medal of the 1937 Paris Exposition of Art and Technology.

He also designed the Helen Tredway and Evarts A. Graham Sr. house on a bluff over the Missouri River in Florissant; the Grant Clinic Building at Taylor Avenue and West Pine Boulevard in the West End; and the Ethical Society building on Clayton Road in Richmond Heights.  Armstrong was also one of five finalists in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition,  won by Eero Saarinen and his now 50-year-old Gateway Arch.

The Magic Chef building, which dates from 1947-’48, is a landmark modern building in St. Louis. Its striking massing of stripped-down architectural forms; the intricately laid brick masonry on its prominent east-west-facing monolith;  and its generous employment of glass in the south and north elevations of the building, now covered up – all contributed to its national reception as a masterwork and its surviving reputation among connoisseurs.

The building  was a product  of Armstrong’s aesthetic engine hitting on all 12 cylinders. He not only arranged for the commissioning of Noguchi to see to the lobby ceiling, but also designed (or designated with his keen aestheticism) fixtures such as door handles, stainless-steel sheathed doors and a  delicate and whimsical sculptural arrow pointing a visitor to the elevators. That bit of Armstrongiana hangs from a still-visible section of the Noguchi ceiling in the elevator lobby, where the use of glass blocks on the western face continues to bring the afternoon light into the building with abundant warmth.

When you think about it, like so many great buildings, the Magic Chef office building was constructed not only of bricks and mortar – but also very much of light. Further, Noguchi’s illuminated ceiling contributed – and once again will contribute -- to the region’s architectural heritage and the pleasure of visitors.

A maquette of Isamu Noguchi's sculptured ceiling for the Magic Chef building from the "St. Louis Modern" exhibit at St. Louis Art Museum. A photo of the original interior of the building, courtesy of the Harris Armstrong Collection, University Archives
Credit Robert Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio

The ceiling and the Magic Chef building are important features of the many impressive aspects, material and literary,  of “St. Louis Modern,” the special exhibition now at the St. Louis Art Museum. For a while, the only way the Noguchi ceiling could be visualized was by examining a maquette of it in the permanent collection,  given to the museum by Harris and Louise Armstrong and prominently displayed in the show, along with a dramatic night-time photograph of Armstrong’s masterpiece, shown in all its former glory.

The exhibition, organized by decorative arts curator David Conradsen and including photographs, textiles, paintings and sculptures, furniture, objets de virtu and architectural material, brings forth Armstrong and a number of his contemporaries and competitors into sharp focus in an indelible picture of St. Louis and its artists and designers at a rich and high-yielding moment of our history.