Remembering Larry Giles, Founder Of Sauget’s National Building Arts Center
Five years ago, Emery Cox was volunteering with the State Historical Society of Missouri when a friend alerted him to another treasure trove of regional history: the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois. Soon, Cox reached out about volunteering there as well.
“[They asked me], ‘Hey, do you want to help us catalog some books?’ And it just went from there,” he recalled to St. Louis on the Air. In 2017, the volunteer gig turned into something more: a part-time librarianship. And up until last month, it involved working closely with the only other person regularly on site: the organization’s founder, Larry Giles.
“Larry kind of made me fall in love with the idea of historic preservation and understanding architecture and trades, and the built environment and stuff,” Cox said. The two colleagues became fast friends.
But on June 12, Giles died at the age of 73 after a struggle with leukemia. He’s remembered by Cox and many others who knew him as decent, honest and tough. On top of that, Giles was, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently put it, “the man who saved St. Louis.”
“When he started [his salvaging business] in the early 1970s, St. Louis was literally being torn apart,” explained Michael Allen, a local historian, preservationist and teacher, noting that when Giles saw how many things weren’t being saved, “he was drawn to that.”
For many years, Giles ran the St. Louis Architectural Art Company, buying materials and selling them to rehabbers in the city and “putting buildings back together,” as Allen put it.
But his passion for the work didn’t stop with his business. Inspired by Gateway Arch architect Eero Saarinen’s long-ago proposal for a museum of American architecture on the St. Louis riverfront, Giles found a way to bring one to life just across the Mississippi.
Over the past few decades, Giles built the National Building Arts Center into the nation’s largest collection of building artifacts. The center is now home to many hundreds of thousands of artifacts, including a library with roughly 300,000 different printed materials alone, Cox said.
The materials range from architectural documents to entire building facades, such as that of the demolished Ambassador Theater that once sat at the corner of 7th and Locust streets in downtown St. Louis.
“One of the biggest things [about Larry] was sort of this uncanny ability to sense what was needed in terms of local preservation and national preservation. … He really is a pioneer in that field,” Allen said.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, he and Cox joined St. Louis Public Radio’s Shula Neuman to share more about Giles’ life and legacy — and how they intend to carry on his mission.
Allen, a longtime friend of Giles’ and board member for the center, is now the organization’s president.
“I feel duty bound to succeed and to do his job well,” Allen said, adding that his predecessor left the mostly volunteer-run center in “really, really good shape financially and in terms of mission and projects.”
What: Larry Giles Memorial
When: 4 p.m. Aug. 7
Where: National Building Arts Center (2300 Falling Springs Road, Sauget, IL 62206)
Site tours and a reception begin at 4 p.m., with the main program at 5 p.m.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.