During the February demolition of the antebellum St. Bridget of Erin Roman Catholic Church (1859) on Jefferson Avenue near the former Pruitt-Igoe site, preservationists raised the cry of lament. Many observers decried the destruction of a beautiful red brick church where men may well have prayed before heading into Civil War combat, and whose role in north side Irish-American history is undisputed. The silver lining – if it is precious metal at all – is that the church falls to expand LaSalle Middle School, not for another vacant lot. Still, vacant lots surround the site.
After demolition, the often-sagacious Alderman Terry Kennedy (D-18th) offered a different – but not necessarily incompatible – view to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Bryant. Kennedy made a good case why architectural preservation does not resonate always with black St. Louisans. According to Kennedy, people whose relatives may have been denied access to endangered old buildings could have a less than sanguine view of their retention.
Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard (D-5th) gave Bryant yet another perspective by pointing out that north city’s deepest problems may not be threats to old buildings – at least as far as residents were concerned. Hubbard did not resent preservation as a problem, but reminded those of us who work to conserve architectural heritage that it may not be a priority in many communities in need of hope.
Kennedy and Hubbard offer stark truth, as do the preservationists who were appalled by St. Bridget’s destruction without so much as a public hearing. St. Bridget of Erin, like many historic buildings, slipped through the gaps in the city’s demolition review process. The city’s preservation ordinance allows alderpersons to decide whether all or part of their wards have any protection for historic resources. The Fifth Ward, where St Bridget is located, has no protection beyond officially landmarked structures. St. Bridget had no designation.
Lack of preservation review for much of the north side may seem freeing for communities lacking the resources or market demand to tackle large vacant historic buildings, but it also reinforces disparity. The map of city historic districts show blanket coverage for south city and the Central West End, but little designation north of Delmar. Monthly demolition permits record the depletion of buildings across the north side, while construction permits make clear that capital is flowing into preservation south and central.
Still the preservation cause seems disjointed from the realities of the north side. While St. Bridget of Erin raised dissent, the fight of homeowners and churches in St. Louis Place against the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has not seemed to attract the same advocates. Yet the same thing is at stake in both cases: a sense of cultural heritage far greater than a single building’s future.
In the case of St. Louis Place, the preservation effort is not as much about architecture as it is about a living, breathing culture. The people who live within the possible NGA footprint comprise the cultural heritage that Kennedy thinks is missing from preservation discussions that focus on architecture.
In fact, the Programmatic Agreement between NGA, the City of St. Louis and other parties acknowledges that the relocation would have impacts both architectural and cultural. If NGA indeed lands in north city, some work would be required to record oral histories and identify sites of memory with local residents as guides. This is unprecedented, progressive preservation thinking that outgoing Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley championed.
The NGA work is considered “mitigation” of lost cultural resources protected by federal law. However, a greater mitigation is needed – the reversal of a city preservation ordinance that has allowed for the inscription of erasure of so much of the north side. This is needed not because residents should be forced to abide with buildings valuable primarily to professional historians or communities that fled the neighborhoods, but because it would empower residents to defend the buildings that they identify as important parts of the cultures of neighborhoods as they are today.
While St. Bridget of Erin may not seem like part of living heritage in north city, Grace Baptist Church on Cass Avenue – the small church founded by Pruitt-Igoe resident Joel K. Davis in the 1960s – does. But Grace Baptist Church needs the people who admired St. Bridget’s so much to survive – just as the St. Bridget effort could have benefitted from more local support in surrounding neighborhoods.
Historic preservation need not be about buildings. In fact, at its finest, it is all about people – not people who used to inhabit places, but people who do so now. Cultural heritage suffers if people don’t have access to education or employment, so preservationists need to be allies to related causes. We need a collective, inclusive practice of preservation in St. Louis that builds new geographies and empowers new dreams – and transcends old divisions through common cause.
A version of this article appeared in the St. Louis American on March 24, 2016.
This essay first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of All the Art, under a different title.
When I first set out for the Granite City Art and Design District’s first opening in July, I felt some apprehension. How could the often-conceptual, sometimes in-joke world of local contemporary art mesh with a working-class inner ring industrial suburb whose downtown was in full decline? There are many histories unresolved in Granite City – the immigration that helped capitalists build industry, the city’s legacy of being the Metro East’s most notorious “sundown town,” the decline of the downtown and decades of air pollution.
Which of these histories would intersect with the quirky aims of the Granite City Art & Design District? Would residents of Granite City see any real connection between their lives and this implanted art world? The words of Roberta Bedoya came to mind: “Before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.”
There is no perfect way for art to belong to a community, or vice versa. The relationship is a complicated transaction, which one work at the Granite City Art and Design District opening strove to enact with fitting quirk. Artist Laurencia Strauss presented The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air, which consisted at first view of a fleet of vintage tandem bicycles sporting sanguine windsocks (a warning system, perhaps?).
Already, the site of gleeful pairs of people engaged in the staccato movements of starting and braking broke through this writer’s anxiety about the place situation of the larger project. Here were people exploring, and roaming blocks of a downtown that most probably had never beheld before. Still, music volleyed from the VFW Hall across the street raised a question: where were the people of Granite City?
Strauss had the answer. She had spent weeks interviewing residents about the air of their city, which is famously dense with the scent of the massive United States Steel plant’s various emissions. The air of Granite City carries both the promise of prosperity and the threat of annihilation. Conversations that Strauss recorded about the air lead back to the fragility of being human.
On the bicycles, these recordings were available through ear buds for the passenger to listen as the driver navigated. I jumped on a bike twice, playing both roles. Listening to residents talk about their city, the air quality and perceptions of health and happiness came close to mythic. The voices of Granite City residents could have been eternal voices, woven back through the steel town and into the times when the Six Mile Prairie – where the city stands – was a primitive place.
The streets of downtown Granite City hardly are active on a weekend night, with more shuttered storefronts than not. That is the condition that led to the rise of the art-play on State Street. That condition, sadly, could well reinforce an attitude about the city that it is something other than a place where thousands of people dwell. The emptiness could pose a frontier to the unfamiliar. There is nothing wrong with a frontier, of course, when one gets to be the settler. Being the unexpected obstacle is no joy – and other voices fused with the deep prairie history still weep for past frontier episodes.
No one left Granite City that night thinking that it was an edge, unless they skipped over Strauss’ inventive investigation into the common act of breathing that has no edge, and no center. We all take in the air, and when we do this collectively – seen or unseen – we can find an awkward and uneven experience. Until we reach a rhythm, and then we belong to the wind. Together.
On a warm, gray November morning, St. Louis’ fleet bronze man was standing in a dry shell. At Kiener Plaza, the fountain was drained around William Zorach’s The Runner (1966). The statue famously runs westward, a siting dynamic that writer Barringer Fifield rightfully compared to the city’s own migration away from the river and the polyphony of the central city. Without fountain jets providing a sense of triumph over obstacle, the figure seemed less heroic than stilled. This state is fitting for a statue that will be the only relic that will survive the reconstruction of Kiener Plaza.
Kiener Plaza’s cracked walkways and loose bricks resonate with the fading sidewalks and pavement of Washington Avenue across downtown, which have recently attracted public scrutiny (a regrettable step away from the 2011 “Great Street” award from the American Planning Association). While Washington Avenue’s civic landscape only needed a little more than a decade to show clear decay, Kiener Plaza’s two halves followed the path of over 50 years to reach a moment where destruction was proposed. The fates of these two public spaces illustrate the pitfalls of durational urbanism – the production of space to serve the momentary fits of downtown’s pursuit of reinvestment. From the perspective of heritage conservation (or historic preservation), the rapidity of decline and replacement of such spaces poses a major challenge. How can there be a robust cultural consideration of the significance of landscapes whose impermanence seems intentional, and which fall outside of both intellectual consideration and legal protection offered by preservation?
Perhaps the deeper lesson is that rapidity of revision is as much as problem as the individual choices that are being made about landscapes. Sanctioned preservation guides, such as the National Park Service brief Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes by Charles Birnbaum, compel identification and planning to protect “cultural landscapes” — ranging from parks to neighborhoods to even sidewalks. Birnbaum writes: “Like historic buildings and districts, these special places reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features and the ways they were used.” The National Park Service’s recommended approach, however, privileges designed elements (which are often very distinct from the “cultural”) to assert that “integrity” of cultural landscape derives from physical resemblance to some supposed origin. Most landscapes, like Kiener Plaza and Washington Avenue’s streetscapes, are far more fluid in both origin and threat.
The pattern of landscape decay and replacement also seem to be calling for a remedy that does not simply freeze one iteration as the “pure” form of a place, but instead one that disrupts the cyclical destruction of landscapes in tune with adjacent projects such as real estate investment and public works projects. Historian Pierre Nora wrote about the “acceleration of history,” which can literally displace sites of collective memory, which are forged through real human interaction, and give rise to narratives of history, which can be used by actors to organize or edit the past. Kiener Plaza and Washington Avenue are edited, contrived sites whose histories serve to provide symbolic and economic utility. They are little utopias with shelf lives, and they are set up for destruction to serve the next invented “history” of place. How many times can St. Louis rebuild its civic landscapes, and at what cumulative cost to a diminished city government and limited local economy?
Walking across Kiener Plaza, one is reminded of the virtue of maintenance — and the legibility of decay. Decay writes its own future relief. American urban history is the history of the anxieties of remaking places. Even historic preservation in America accepts the fable that J.B. Jackson calls “the necessity for ruins.” We can’t make any place without breaking it in some way, and reshaping its visual weight or meaning. The impetus to remake seems artistic, but ultimately is an expression of political economy.
Kiener Plaza itself is an agglomeration of place-making gestures that were spearheaded by downtown real estate and business leaders seeking a way to generate surplus value for adjacent property. The first instance of the plaza came in the 1960 document A Plan for Downtown St. Louis, and its utility was spelled out: the park blocks would be part of a park mall that would spur investment in new office buildings surrounding it. That vision, later called the “Gateway Mall,” largely came to pass. Today the drive for reinvestment is compelling the execution of the older landscape, and Kiener Plaza will be destroyed and remade soon.
Kiener Plaza was fashioned in two incongruent phases: the tepid formalism of its eastern half where Zorach’s athlete holds court, completed in 1962, and a more imaginative and inviting western amphitheater completed in 1987. The two sections are joined by a closed section of Sixth Street. Kiener Plaza is a showcase of the changed iterative priorities of landscape architecture in a twenty year period. A revised classicism of the 1960s bows tenuously toward the postmodern sunken garden of the west. One vision, born in the era of perceived urban turmoil and mass reconstruction, presents an orderly and controllable space. The later addition offers a symbolic staging ground for civic pageantry that has indeed attracted uses ranging from Cardinals rallies to Occupy.
To the general public, the western half — officially named for civic giant Morton D. May – constitutes “Kiener Plaza.” The pomo recreation of Trevi, framed by the pergola of cast stone Doric columns and flimsy-looking fire engine red steel Howe truss pediments, is a public icon. Designed by Team Four Architects at the height of 1980s aesthetic over-reach, there is a campiness to the endeavor. The Roman fountain stands inside of a ghosted Green temple, while the hardscape is shameless in its red brick proto-St. Louis conceit. Yet there is also a dramatic sense of history, with the nods toward antiquity, the open agora of the European plaza, Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans and – most clearly – the form of the Old Courthouse to the east (Greek). The visual relationship between the Morton D. May Amphitheatre and the Old Courthouse is one of the few satisfying relational moments in all of the Gateway Mall.
Few today recall the origin of Zorach’s runner, which arose from steel company executive and former Olympic track competitor (1908) Harry J. Kiener’s gift of $200,000 to the City of St. Louis to fund the work of an architect and sculptor to design a statue with athletic theme set in a fountain. Kiener preferred Forest Park, but the Busch Memorial Stadium project led civic leaders to forecast siting near the new athletic facility as more appropriate. Kiener’s gift propelled an all-star mid-century jury committee chaired by St. Louis Art Museum Director Charles Nagel, and including St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.; Mrs. Eero Saarinen; architect Edward Durrell Stone; and Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Washington University Kenneth Hudson. While Kiener stipulated that the sculpture need at least one athletic figure and be inscribed with his name and birthdate, he left the details open.
Kiener entrusted execution to David R. Calhoun, Jr., president of the St. Louis Union Trust Company. Calhoun deliberately selected Mrs. Saarinen and Stone based on the Gateway Arch and Busch Memorial Stadium projects, and thus suggested that the project should coordinate with the new modernist architecture remaking the look of downtown. Alexander Calder nearly won the competition process, in fact, but his abstract mobile offended a literal-minded Calhoun, who reminded the jury that there must be a human figure. Thus Calder was nudged out by Zorach’s inspired runner. Zorach had already seen installation of his work at Radio City Music Hall and in the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in the District of Columbia, among other places. His heroic sprinting male figure seemed to echo the abstracted realism of Carl Milles’ figural group The Meeting of the Waters just eleven blocks west at Aloe Plaza — except for its obvious inferiority. The construction of the fountain started in May 1965, and the sculpture was placed in October 1966 to tepid welcome.
Perhaps Zorach’s lack of familiarity with cast sculpture spurred a work strangely lackluster, set in a modest circular fountain of somewhat superior grace, designed by Murphy & Mackey (same architects as the domed Climatron). Something about Zorach’s runner, beyond his westward pulse, bothered St. Louis. Architecture critic George McCue wrote in 1966 that the sculpture was “quite unequal to the occasion that is proposed by the site” and enumerated the site’s relationships to the Old Courthouse, Wainwright Building, Gateway Arch and Busch Memorial Stadium as reasons compelling a great work. Civic leader Howard Baer described Zorach’s statue as “less than second rate” in his autobiography, and many critics since — including St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic E.F. Porter, Jr. — have concurred. Why is it, then, that The Runner will be the sole remnant of Kiener Plaza to remain intact after the forthcoming revamp?
In 1976, city Parks Department Director Georgia Buckowitz lauded Kiener Plaza as “the No. 1 spot for downtown activity now.” Kiener Plaza hosted hundreds of permitted events that year, and even an outdoor café operated by John Abramson called “Café Marguerite.” Still the plaza’s heyday was short. By 1982, with an official plan for the Gateway Mall blocks between 7th and 10th streets adopted, and the block to the west eyed for addition to the official Kiener Plaza, the original design met scorn. In April 1983, the City of St. Louis, the American Institute of Architects St. Louis Chapter and the Washington University School of Architecture hosted a design forum on Kiener Plaza. Eight teams of architects presented designs, and public input was recorded (including a suggestion to remove Zorach’s statue altogether). The question of preservation of buildings to the west in the path of the Gateway Mall was met with a comment that “old buildings are nice, but St. Louis needs to be redone.” Within thirty years, Kiener Plaza itself would be felled by such logic.
The forum took place at the Buder Building, demolished the following year for the Gateway Mall, and included a talks by renowned urban planner Ed Bacon and Project for Public Spaces leader Fred Kent. According to an April 18, 1983 article by Post-Dispatch arts editor Robert Duffy, all eight teams called for removing Zorach’s statue and the fountain pool by Murphy & Mackey. One plan, designed by Kyu Song Woo of Woo & Williams Architects, introduced the sunken plaza idea along with a never-pursued plan for subterranean connections between Kiener Plaza and new downtown office buildings. Charles Blessing, an architecture professor from Detroit, called for enclosing Sixth Street as a glass shopping arcade.
Most bombastic was the claim by Terry Wendt, director of the Crosstown Development Corporation in Kansas City and participant. Wendt claimed that his team’s plaza design constituted, in Duffy’s words, “a plaza so magnetic that it would persuade young professionals to flee the suburbs and to move downtown.” This refrain was an explicit utterance of a refrain downtown boosters still sing. Wendt’s proposal included an open-air theater, running track and fountain. These “active” landscape features are today commonplace in urban landscape design. At the time, the results of the forum – including Washington University School of Architecture Dean Joseph Passoneau’s rejection of the need to demolish any more buildings downtown to create open space – challenged both the downtown booster view of public space and earlier landscape architecture precedents.
Acquisition of the block west of the original section of Kiener Plaza started in 1984, but languished when Charles Cella’s Southern Real Estate and Financial Company sued the city to prevent condemnation of a parking garage that it owned on the block. Eventually the suit was settled, and the city assembled the land through purchase of 25 percent of the block and lease with Cella’s company for the rest. The American Café and Bar at 524 Chestnut Street, owned by Rick Yackey (still active in city development), was demolished. In June 1986, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority unveiled the $3 million plan for the new block. Sixth Street would be closed and the western block would give rise — or fall — to the sunken amphitheater plan.
Architect William Albinson was principal project designer for Team Four Design, stated the project’s design principles: maintain symmetry to emphasize an east-west axis to sync with the Gateway Mall project; activate the site with features like the fountain and 500-seat amphitheater that would draw people; echo the architecture of the old Courthouse; create an “outdoor room.” Subtract the symmetry, and the goals seem generic today. This raises the question of whether the function of Kiener Plaza truly is obsolete, or simply its symbolic value.
Albinson’s design, which was completed in October 1987, caught the scorn of Post-Dispatch critic E.F. Porter, Jr., who mocked its jocular classicism as “Tinkertoy Palladian.” The brick plaza and cascade across quadrilateral concrete elements and granite would become popular elements, but the defining pergola-style surround never found its constituency. Albinson publicly posed the assembly of cast-concrete Doric columns, standing-seam roofs, templar forms and steel tracery pediments and beams as playful. Porter countered that the design seemed flimsy, especially because of the red steel component. Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli was an obvious reference point, but one that set up a dismissal. Another source, albeit apostasy in architectural history, could have been the minimalist modernism of Mies van der Rohe, which embraced the ahistoric use of the color-neutral steel beam. The historicized steel beam in St. Louis Cardinals red offered quite a fun modernist pastiche.
The durability of the landscape was always in doubt, especially when details such as the decision to give the white ash trees permanent Christmas light cladding emerged. Was the Morton D. May Amphitheatre more than civic spectacle, presenting an obviously contrived and invented past? The interrogation of the design at its inception seems appropriate, and a precedent that is not being followed today when critical writing more or less accepts the CityArchRiver design program as if details of construction budgets and street widths were the only lingering political openings. Porter may have been quick to appraise Albinson’s plan without the benefit of historic distance, but his assessment of the locus of the project in the tortured history of the Gateway Mall was sagacious. Porter even hinted at the nature of ephemeral public space as a function of capitalist value extraction. In a June 7, 1987 review, Porter wrote: “Over a century the Mall has become a symbol of indecision, uncertainty and unfulfilled expectations, complicated by touches of perfidy, tastelessness and greed.”
Almost thirty years later, the same malaise is receiving a new cloak. Today’s civic push to generate value in downtown real estate demands a new face and the amphitheater will be demolished soon. CityArchRiver included a revamp of Kiener Plaza in its plans for remaking the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a project that nearly faithfully recreates the entire downtown placemaking program of the 1960s across conterminous geography. The utopia of the 1960 downtown plan, surmounted by the utopia of the 1980s city enshrined in the amphiteatre, will be subsumed again by today’s utopian architectural script. Each revision has required destruction – first of the historic city fabric, then of the earlier era of urban renewal, and now of the last revision to the postwar urban renewal’s visual manifestations. The domino game seems unlikely to guarantee that the new Kiener Plaza, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, will last a generation without some major alteration. There is the anxiety of decay.
Van Valkenburgh’s $20 million plan for Kiener Plaza addresses the visual disconnect across the park block, while applying some generally good ideas about arrangement of space. Taxpayers foot the bill this time again, with funding coming from a sales tax increase passed in 2012 for Great Rivers Greenway and CityArch River. The plan reduces assembly space slightly, from 22,500 square feet down to 20,000, and brings the space to the center. The size of the park will expand, due to narrowing of Market Street. Of the current features, only the Runner will remain. Architect Nate Trevethan in Van Vankenburgh’s office told St. Louis Public Radio in 2014 that public comments were strongly tilted toward keeping the statue on axis with the Old Courthouse. Public comment questioning the need for surgery, or valuing the amphitheater’s now-historic role in civic assembly, was summarily discarded by CityArchRiver and Van Valkenburgh.
The new Kiener Plaza throws shade on past ideas, without acknowledgment. Critic Porter opined back in 1987 that Kiener Plaza should have simply been articulated as “a grove of trees.” That idea itself is a continuation of Richard Serra’s poorly-implemented, beautifully-dreamed plan to surround his sculpture Twain with a grove of oak trees. Other sources are less concealed. There are shades of the use of a “hallway” and algorithmic asymmetry found in The Office of James Burnett’s Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and even the reliance on planting-border curvature found in Van Valkenburgh’s own Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Even the city’s preservation apparatus failed to give Kiener Plaza consideration as a designed cultural resource. In October, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to approve the proposed redesign from architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. The city’s Cultural Resources Office made a recommendation to the Board that refrained from any identification of either the 1962 or 1985 section of Kiener Plaza as a cultural resource, and also from any evaluation of whether either designed component rated as “merit” or “high merit” under the city’s preservation ordinance. Landscapes remain ambiguously protected under the city’s preservation ordinance, and the architectural achievements of postmodernism continue to evade historic preservation consideration ahead of their annihilation.
The Cultural Resources Office staff recommendation did make a recommendation – not explicitly endorsed by the Preservation Board – that the logic of reconstruction bow to consideration of the visual relationship of the park space and adjacent buildings, especially the Old Courthouse. The Office called form a “stronger visual, civic relationship between Kiener Plaza and the Old Courthouse.” Furthermore: “Without this link, no signature backdrop will be available for public events, such as ralleys; the Old Courthouse is the obvious iconic background for such events.””The recommendation also included a call for “a sense of permanence and longevity” in public spaces and a valiant assertion that the city use its preservation ordinance to “temper current trends in landscape design with some long-held design principles for civic places.”
In the case of Kiener Plaza, the design principles that would impair constant reinvention seem elusive, but they might become more apparent through an explicit examination of the cultural heritage components of the landscape. The use of the amphitheater for all manner of public events ought to bestow some consideration of the designed elements as “cultural resources,” especially since at least a few members of the public have expressly made such claims. Beyond that, the coordination between the original fountain and statue design and the modernist remaking of downtown seems very significant. In light of the city’s own survey of non-residential mid-century modern architecture, and the current St. Louis Art Museum exhibition St. Louis Modern, the confusing Murphy & Mackey/Zorach design moment via a jury that combined Pulitzer, Stone and Saarinen seems worth some pause on the part of authority. The preservation of historically flawed space is not necessary, but compels a strong evaluation of design merit and public reception. Kiener’s own legacy clearly is profoundly intriguing. Yet no civic remorse has been offered for the gesture of erasure of any of these aspects of cultural heritage – even the designed cultural heritage more easily identified as protected by the city’s preservation ordinance.
The durational instability of Kiener Plaza’s landscape makes it clear that the process for making and remaking public space in St. Louis is not effectively constrained by considerations of cultural heritage, architectural merit, cultural appreciation for the recent past, preservationist willingness to conserve postmodern architecture and landscape architecture, material durability, public input and fiscal restraint. Fundamentally, clarification of the preservation ordinance’s protection of recent past and landscape designs is needed. A larger step would be the adoption of a public commission – not a nonprofit advisory board, but an actual public body – to govern the revision of public parks.
In the end, however, the Kiener Plaza story – like that of the Washington Avenue streetscape – is one in which durability, cost and longevity of civic space design have been clearly subordinated behind the civic imperatives for economic growth and symbolic spaces. If St. Louis is to replace Kiener Plaza or any other space with a design that will last longer than thirty years, it will need to reconsider the ways in which the city initially creates public spaces – and the casual (and expensive) ways it discards its own celebrated spaces when the party is over. The cycle of utopia and oblivion could even come to a rest at some point.
I’m pleased to offer two varied architectural tours tours in the coming weeks:
The People’s Guide to the North Riverfront
Sunday, November 29 at 11:00 AM Hosted by Dabble
You don’t have to be Stan Kroenke to envision what could happen amid the riverside warehouses, factories and power plants of the city’s north riverfront. In fact, a lot of other people are already looking. Recent projects have included a chocolate factory, a biker bar, transitional housing for the homeless, the city’s largest mural and more. This class consists of a guided walking tour that tells the story of the rise of the north riverfront as a key industrial district of the city. Participants will learn about remaining and lost buildings — ranging from a bath house to the city’s longest and skinniest building — the role of the river, the railroad lines that once pulsed through the district and the recent efforts to renew the area. While the Rams plan has given St. Louis a business baron to discuss, the district’s late 19th century development actually is due to an even more aloof and more powerful historic counterpart. The tour will explore how capital builds, melds, rebuilds and destroys cities.
St. Louis Mid-Century Modern Architecture Bus Tour
Saturday, December 5 from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Sponsored by the St. Louis Art Museum
The St. Louis Art Museum recently opened the first-ever major exhibition on the influence of modernism in regional architecture and decorative arts, entitled St. Louis Modern. The exhibition and accompanying catalog will pave the way for long-term appreciation and scholarship. This bus tour offers the chance to connect the exhibition to sites as diverse as the Priory Chapel, Mansion House Center, Pruitt-Igoe and the buildings along Lindell Boulevard. See and learn about highlights of midcentury modern architecture throughout St. Louis on this lively bus tour presented by Preservation Research Office director and architectural historian Michael Allen. Michael will share insights into both well-known and obscure examples of St. Louis modern architecture built for residential, commercial, and public clients. Departs from the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Advance tickets required. Please purchase your ticket here.
Fifty years from now, Americans will turn to the official record of their cultural heritage and find designated as a National Historic Landmark (or at least National Register of Historic Places district) the site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. Visitors who seek to learn on site will find a rich and rewarding environment illuminating some of the 20th century’s most problematic history as well as the 21st century’s most promising resolutions. On the ground also are some traces of the 19th century urban development of what was one of the nation’s ten largest cities, and a long-term ecological heritage that is not easily reduced to a simple historic narrative. In short, the Pruitt-Igoe National Historic Landmark presents a robust, complex and significant part of American urban history.
The designation of the Pruitt-Igoe National Historic Landmark site acknowledges the embedded multiple histories of the site, each of which honors a claim on the site’s heritage by a different constituency. The site’s longest duration was as unsettled terrain, until around 1853. Then its longest epoch as settled space came in the near-century it was a diverse walking DeSoto-Carr neighborhood built out with vernacular architecture, of which two Roman Catholic churches and two dwellings remain. This neighborhood housed Irish, German, Polish, Greek, Macedonian and Russian ethnic groups, before transitioning to an African-American enclave during the Great Migration. After 1952, the 57-acre site was transformed by the 33 high-rise public housing towers of the Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, finally demolished in 1977. Since 1977, the site has been partially redeveloped as a public school complex, with the majority left fallow and wild. By 2066, succession has led to a spectacular urban forest whose longevity approaches the occupation of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood.
The designation of Pruitt-Igoe includes the forest, the schools built in 1994, the 19th century churches and houses, a modernist school built to serve the children of Pruitt-Igoe, a former health clinic built for the residents, and several buildings on the north side including a church founded by a former resident. The landscape is architectural, cultural and ecological, and the nomination form presents the simultaneous associations of these landscapes. The question of physical integrity is resolved by the nomination’s acknowledgment that there never was a pure, original form of the site, and that its most famous historic episode was inexorably its briefest. The wilderness of the forest, in fact, may be its truest condition.
Designation of Pruitt-Igoe addressed a late 20th-century malaise in American historic preservation. As the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act approached, preservation found itself in a potentially stultifying condition, pulled between the broad cultural and political diversity of likely constituencies and the regulatory-bound frameworks of the government agencies and non-profits preservationists sought to create and sustain. The lack of congruence of the American practice with international consensus on cultural heritage, including the American refusal to sign the UNESCO charter on intangible heritage, nearly drove many historians, activists, building rehabbers and planners to abandon the historic preservation movement altogether — or to call for an Australian intervention that would have replaced the National Historic Preservation Act with the Burra Charter.
Simultaneously to the irresolute state of historic preservation in America came a moment of anxiety about the population declines in older American cities, called “legacy cities” by many. Since the end of World War II, older cities had been pulverizing historic fabric to attempt interventions designed ostensibly to reinvigorate economic growth, increase population and eradicate substandard housing. In truth much of this activity was governed by an ideology of spatial austerity that sought to conquer the disorder of the American urban condition, manifest in both building vacancy and in human poverty. The program of urban renewal had propelled dissidents to form the historic preservation movement in the first place. Yet the movement circled back to the intersection. In her 2014 Letter to US Mayor, architect Keller Easterling wrote that “the major building project for most mayors in the US is the removal of building.” This statement seemed less revelatory than a frank recollection of a half-century of clearance at varying tempos.
By 2016, the mode of official urban erasure slowed to a selective demolition practice called “right-sizing.” Preservationists accustomed to advocacy borne from fighting large-scale clearance found themselves stymied by “right-sizing.” To some, the selective removal continued the modernist program of removing cultural heritage in the name of order; to others, the discretion of right-sizing was in accord with a new way of looking beyond the significance of individual buildings at social, economic and environmental factors. The right-sizing discussion opened up the inadequacy of the bureaucratic practice of preservation in addressing cultural heritage management and conservation. Reliance on standards that privileged architectural appearance and normative history placed the movement out on sync with urgent work happening in cities and rural areas to address vacancy, resource scarcity and public identification of local heritage.
Thus it came to be that the unwieldy, unruly Pruitt-Igoe site became worthy of designation on the nation’s list of official historic sites. Preservationists came to see the reliance on physical “integrity” found in the National Register of Historic Places and local landmark codes to be arbitrary and exclusionary, as well as in conflict with general public recognition of history. Integrity of public recognition seemed more significant than integrity of embodiment of a professionalized ideal. Preservationists revised rules and practices to acknowledge the presence of multiple histories in individual sites, and that the greatest authority in site knowledge was most local. Preservationists saw that a site like Pruitt-Igoe was not fragmentary, but rather polyphonic; not broken or degraded, but evolutionary and changing alongside its larger setting; not problematic but intrinsically expressive of strands of urban, racial and political history indelible the identity of 21st century Americans.
Alongside Pruitt-Igoe’s designation came reappraisal of practical approaches to the management of other places, ranging from Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood, to the slipcover-clad commercial buildings on Main Streets across the nation and the vinyl-protected I-houses of the Midwest, to the postmodern office towers of the Chicago Loop and the crumbling ruins of the packing plants and steel mills around East St. Louis. Some would always see significance in the look of the place, while others would find it inside, in memories. All would consent to protecting the places that mattered to people, so that each could continue to find meaning in her own way. Thus ended an American exceptionalism to the practice of historic preservation — which incidentally came to be called many other things, among them “heritage conservation.”
I have admired the work of printmaker, artist and spatial-architectural thinker Sage Dawson since I first came across her work in the solo show On Streets Like Ours, at the sadly-now-shuttered Good Citizen Gallery, in 2013. While the imagery in that show based on an abandoned house in Springfield, Missouri were compelling, what startled me most was a table of artifacts from the house. Each artifact was spray-painted white, and laid out with forensic precision. What I saw on that table was the transformation of the profane into the sublime.
Since then, I have caught Sage’s work intermittently, until last month when her exhibition Dust opened at DEMO Project in Springfield. DEMO Project itself is a liminal space, since its house is slated for demolition. Sage’s prints explored the impending death of this modest gabled house, whose carpenter-fused details provide only scant stylistic detail. There are houses like this in every corner of America, just like the house in Springfield. How Sage locates higher truths and significances in these places continues to astound me. Ordinary buildings house the majority of the world’s hopes and traumas, and yet often find little room in the pantheon of serious art and cultural reference. Sage’s work probes past image to essence and experience, showing those who engage it that all spaces capture memory. The most obvious architectural containers might not locate the most profound moments.
Recently, I joined Sage for coffee at Sump, and turned on the recorder. We ended up talking for over an hour. The resulting transcript, edited to reduce repetition and laughter, appears here.
Michael Allen: To start, I really wanted to ask you how your work has come to find points of interaction with architecture so frequently. It is not all that you do, but it is a lot of what I know of your work. I don’t know if that has always been the case, or where that comes from.
Sage Dawson: It’s not always been the case. My early work dealt with landscape, actually. There were some architectural components, but by and large they were looking at and thinking about the landscape and sublimity. I was living in New Mexico, and it was the first time that I had lived outside of the Midwest. When I moved to Albuquerque I was struck by the harshness of the landscape. It’s a common thing for artists, at least graduate students at the University of New Mexico – which is why I was there – to be influenced by the landscape. And so it was true for me as well. Albuquerque has a mountain range on one side of the city, and it slopes down to the Rio Grande. Most of the time when you are in the city you can see so far, and you see the horizon line. It is almost always present.
Growing up in the Midwest, I never had that experience. There were always trees interrupting the horizon line. It changed how I thought about space, and how I moved through it. The light in New Mexico was different, too. Just so harsh, and stark. I started making work about the landscape, and that’s when I started looking around myself, and moving away from previous work focused on personal narrative.
MA: What kind of house did you grow up in?
SD: Well, I moved around a lot. Some of my childhood was spent in a house in Sedalia, Missouri. It was a tiny rental house. Most of my memories are of being outside of the house, actually, of being in the yard, reading books in trees, building forts, riding bikes and that sort of thing. The other house was in the Old Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City. It’s an older neighborhood. It had a butler’s pantry, pocket doors, and several living rooms. Up on the second floor was an additional living room. It was an ornate house. We had this beautiful spiraling staircase. There were lots of places in the house to hide, especially up in the attic. I spent a lot of time up there. There was this one room up the attic that was unfinished that I would go up to a lot. It had a tiny little window, and I would just sort of sit at that window in a chair and look out over the neighborhood.
MA: Do you think that there is any seed of your architectural imagination in your childhood?
SD: Living in that house was probably the start of developing some sort of aesthetic, or thoughts about the aesthetics of a house, and what feels comfortable and is interesting.
MA: It is interesting to hear about the influence and impact of the landscape of New Mexico. That foregrounds some of my next few questions or thoughts. John Cage wrote that all sound is music, and sometimes I think that all space is architecture to some extent. There is an impulse to divide built items from landscapes that might be natural or manipulated. Sometimes we extract a building from its setting. One of the things in your work that is so powerful is the grounding of a building in landscape through aerial views and also the use of building elements to compose these other visual landscapes in which the elements become points on a fictive map. I wonder, when you approach a building or a site are you drawn by the building as an object, or these relationships. Where do you find your entry point to get invested in a site?
SD: It usually starts out accidentally. I stumble upon something. There’s a site that has already become a part of my life that I maybe did not yet define as something to explore. That was true of the abandoned house that I worked with in Springfield, Missouri. It was across the street from mine. I ignored it for six to nine months, and it was by chance that I noticed it because the front door blew open on a windy day. That spiraled into investigating the house.
When I moved to Georgia – so one of the last bodies of work that I created was about Summerville, which is this neighborhood district in Augusta, Georgia. I moved there and started noticing things about the neighborhood that were peculiar. In particular there were a number of houses that had burned down. Also, I had never lived in a sub-tropical environment and I was intrigued by the decay. Neighbors were always hacking back nature, trying to keep it at bay. There was a lot of mold. It seemed to speed up decay in a way that I had not experienced before.
Summerville is a small neighborhood that originally was outside of the city of Augusta Georgia, and today it is swallowed up the city. At the time it was built as a summer getaway. The thought was that in the heat of the summer, people could go to a summerhouse at the top of the Summerville hill and experience more of a breeze to cool off. What ended up happening was that anybody who had money – the wealthy and influential – built these massive summer homes at the top of this hill.
Those mansions still line the top, but if you go down to the base of the hill there are lower income housing and government housing projects. That stood out – this contrast of both of these things happening near to each other, which happens in a lot of places. It’s not rare. You can see the class distinctions and socioeconomic shifts as you move up and down the hill.
MA: You have talked a little bit about new landscapes providing inspiration. Do you think that there is an aspect of novelty that makes a building or site more attracting to you for your work – encountering something new?
SD: I think so. There are a lot of projects that I get excited about, but they lose their interestingness. Definitely, any time I am experiencing or learning something new, that’s something I want to stick with for awhile and absorb.
MA: Getting back to the idea of landscape, building and element. In a lot of your prints you isolate parts of the building. They almost become synecdoche for the larger building and for something intangible that for me seem to be lost human connections to that place. What is going on when I see these elements of the building repeated sometimes across a print? To some people on a first glance, it is almost technical – like architectural blueprints. Yet through repetition or unexpected imposition on another view of the house they can almost be startling or uncanny. What is going on? What are they? Why do you do that?
SD: Are you thinking of the large-scale piece?
MA: The large scale piece.
SD: The repetition of patterns?
MA The repetition of patterns, brick and other elements. The other views – the repletion of porch details or other elements over the aerial view. These little elements that come from the building are projected back onto the building, around it and through it.
SD: The repetition makes a lot of sense to me as a printmaker — to use the multiple. When I was a student, I did a lot of editioning and that became a part of my practice. Repeating, repeating, repeating. Creating these multiples. So in some ways I think it has become an ingrained part of my practice.
The large-scale print, Dust, which my recent exhibition at DEMO Project [the gallery in Springfield, Illinois] is named for, is about building something. That piece integrates, like you were mentioning, some of the different architectural components of the house. There are moments when you see these forms, like the chimney or the address sign from the porch. I think of the piece as an index to the house, or a map. Having architectural forms scattered and woven into a print is a subtle way to suggest things to viewers and hope for a response to the site. I’m posing questions that I hope visitors will answer for themselves.
MA: For Dust at DEMO Project the reception of your work took place in the building that it was representing and interpreting. Yet I first came across your work at Good Citizen Gallery. This work was related to a house hundreds of miles away in Springfield. It was a completely different sort of experience to make sense of that. What is your intention when you make these works? Do you ideally see them being presented where the building itself can almost be a reference guide, as you were saying with the DEMO Project, or is there as much meaning to find when they are isolated and seen elsewhere?
SD: They are different ways of presenting information. When I think about the Mary Street house in Springfield, Missouri, there is this aspect of wishing that people could interact with the house in some way. It is essentially invisible compared to the DEMO Project house. That said, there is something to not being able to see a site. There is a certain amount of trust that the viewer has of my interpretation, which is interesting as an idea to think about how selective the mapmaker or artist is as they are presenting and interpreting information for an audience.
MA: With the Mary Street presentation, all of the objects laid out, spray-painted white created this very stark feel of otherness that was arresting. Especially out of context. Those same objects in the house itself would have been mundane. Do you think that there is an otherness that is inherent to vacancy in these two houses? Essentially there is one house vacant and neglected, and the other repurposed ahead of its death. Is there an otherness to these empty buildings that your work draws out?
SD: “Otherness” as they relate to another?
MA: As they relate to us, to habitation – to a lot of people that could be an impediment to that space. One does not want to enter that space. People tell stories about the awful things that happen in abandoned buildings, like ghost stories. The transmutation of that cultural or human space can be intimidating or scary to people. Your work is delving into that, with these two projects. The thing about that table of objects is the implication, for want of a better word, the creepy dimension of being in those spaces or looking across the street at the house in your own neighborhood. Something is not right. Yet your work is not creepy or intimidating. Your work has surmounted those aspects.
SD: Those sort of sites interest me because they are other. The Mary Street house is about people more than a house.
MA: That is what makes it so other, because they are invisible people. They are specters.
SD: The house and the personal belongings are an easier entry point into talking about these places where people lived and how a house goes from cared for and loved – can be a place where people make a lot of beautiful memories — and then in a short amount of time be abandoned or destroyed. There’s a lot of space there, parallels, between the house and people.
I read an essay by Jai Sen in Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat’s book An Atlas of Radical Cartography that was dealing with mapping tactics in India. The project was trying to take marginalized people, essentially the laboring poor in Kolkata, and map their settlements onto official city maps. At the time these sections of city maps were labelled “vacant.” If the city wanted to come in and build a road, for example, they could just displace people. The essay deals with mapping tactics as a way to make people visible. The bigger idea is that maps are tools of power. Taking something invisible and mundane and marginalized like the Mary Street house, and working with it, and coming up with tactics to make it visible – that made sense to me.
MA: Do you consider your work social practice?
SD: (Laughs) I think there are elements there, but I am hesitant to nail it down. Certainly social.
MA: Following up on the essay you read — it makes me think of your prints that are banner-like, announcing the addresses of various houses. That work carries this assertion of presence for these places that might, on official maps or at least in public consciousness, be dead spaces or empty spaces. Here are these banners with these street addresses at which no one has lived for so long. What has happened to that project?
SD: That project is ongoing. The idea is to keep adding to it as I encounter more sites. I typically add a house if there is some connection to it. It can be as small of a connection as a house that I walk by each day. The central idea of that project is about visibility, and trying to hold onto things that are lost or could potentially become lost. One house is on Lafayette Avenue. You probably know it. It’s the one that was there maybe three years ago, and it was demolished. It was connected to another house. When it was demolished you could see its beautiful stairway pattern on the adjoining house that was left behind and these layers– sort of like an echo of the house, which I thought was really beautiful. It was covered over, and it’s just an empty lot now.
For me, it was such a pleasure to drive by that house when it was there. And it was such a pleasure to drive by that empty lot before the staircase pattern was erased. If you were to drive by there today, probably most people wouldn’t notice it – might not even know what was there.
MA: It’s hard to connect to a site that has no face, or name.
MA: It really is a consummate anonymity. It really is like a ghost of a site when there is not even any trace there to tell of the past, or any visual connection that anyone would make. I find St. Louis to be full of sites just like that – that are dormant and almost repulsive. There is nothing to grab onto with the eye, the mind or the heart. There is no palpability. I know the rich human and architectural legacy that once inhabited these sites, and so it is frustrating when the erasure leads to landscapes that are foreboding in their blankness. You seem to find a lot of inspiration here. How do you approach St. Louis as a place to make work?
SD: I’ve been here a little over three years and I’ve been careful not to create anything about St. Louis until I felt like I got a sense of it and had time here. I’ve just recently, in the last six months, that I started making work about St. Louis. The brick prints in Dust – for me they are about the DEMO Project site but also about St. Louis brick. There’s an element of the experiences that I have here, of moving through the city, which come through in these more recent prints.
MA: You like working here.
SD: I love working here. I love St. Louis.
MA: Is there a site that you hope or wish to make work about here?
SD: There’s a house next door to me that our neighbor is losing due to the same issues related to the housing crisis. I’ve been watching him move his things out of the house for months now, and pare his things down. I was just in there recently with him. The house is mostly untouched. It hasn’t been renovated. We just went through, and we were cutting out some different things from the walls – plaster and wallpaper, tearing up linoleum bits. We found newspapers from the 1940s – St. Louis Post-Dispatch – all kinds of interesting things. I’m considering exploring that house, in part because I would like to talk more about when the economy tanked in 2008.
Another project that I’m interested in exploring is printing actual architectural objects from sites – trying to come up with ways to print up radiators, for example. Actually rolling up objects with ink and pulling prints off of those surfaces. This is something that I’ve explored a little bit before with the Mary Street house. I was rolling up the carpet with ink, and pulling prints off of that. Rolling up VHS tapes.
MA: I think that is unusual to meet any printmaker who is so immersed in the specific materiality of place. There is a lot of architectural printmaking, but it is more likely representation of image than divining anything from the marrow of a building itself. I wonder what other artists or printmakers have inspired or engaged or influenced your work?
SD: I like Gordon Matta-Clark; I respond to his work. Agnes Martin. You can see similar elements that come through in my own work, with order, structure, and color palette. Also I really like Louise Nevelson’s work. A huge influence is Mark Rothko’s work, and the Rothko chapel. His exploration of the sublime. Early American landscape painters like Bierstadt and Cole. I also really like nineteenth century Romanticism – the whole idea of sublime terror is interesting to me.
MA: In American literature and art, there is a tradition of presenting the sublime terror of architecture that is very rooted in domestic space. Houses loom large in poetry and paintings and films – haunted or otherwise vexing. In your work so far, you have engaged only houses. Mostly, right?
SD: Houses, neighborhoods. When I was in New Mexico I was dealing with vast landscape imagery that dealt with mapping and the sublime. But not sublime terror. More like grandeur and awe.
MA: Maybe there is something also about destruction that doesn’t bother us as much when there is utility. Destroying a factory or a hospital or a school for something new, but destroying a house is more painful to endure.
SD: Well, it is this ritual space. There is something to that, for sure. I find the demolition of houses much more disturbing than, say, a factory.
MA: Is impending destruction integral to your artistic vision?
SD: I think that the possibility of it, definitely. Loss, yes. I guess it depends on how you define destruction. Some of the pieces are about destruction and that sort of doom, but other pieces deal with the idea of death and transcendence. There is the idea of growth and collapse at the site.
MA: There is a certain death of a house, if it is unoccupied – no longer living space.
SD: Those overlap at times, but not always. For one of the projects for Summerville I pick up plants from all over the neighborhood, dried them, and turned them into lithographs so the plants for that project are drained of life and color. They speak to – and they stand in as symbols for – these other concepts about the neighborhood. They will be presented in a box with gloves so that you can sift through and hold the plants. It’s a more intimate way to get the viewer closer to what it would have been like to pick them up.
MA: Is it the process of erasure, or the form of a building, or both, that would interest you? These things that you explore could happen to any house anywhere.
SD: I usually notice things because there is this possibility that they could be erased from the landscape.
MA: So there is no possible limit?
SD: What do you mean?
MA: I mean, in terms of building styles, ages or materials.
SD: Not so far. I haven’t edited out any buildings for those reasons. I’ve been drawn to all of them because of the possibility of erasure and because there was some kind of a narrative that felt worth tugging at.
MA: Have you ever met an occupant of one of these houses?
SD: Yes, a former occupant at the Mary Street house. By chance I got in contact with a woman who lived in that house in the 1960s as a child. I spent a weekend at her home interviewing her to create what would later be a sound piece of her talking about different memories in that house. I really liked that aspect of the piece because it twisted and turned and led me in directions that I couldn’t anticipate. There were aspects of that sound piece and things that she shared that were completely out of my control. It was my task to interpret and put together the information.
Plus, to meet somebody who lived in that house at a time when it was cared for began to answer some of my questions. Who lived here? What happened? How does a house go from cared-for, and the neighbors remember playing in it as a kid, to being this eyesore that nobody wants in the neighborhood? It was satisfying, but it was also anticlimactic. I’ve said that I like nineteenth century romanticism but I try to be careful to not romanticize these sites and to keep a certain level of distance from the narrative.
MA: There is a lot of art made about architectural ruination and decay, and some of it errs on the side of romanticizing the ruin. That is not necessarily a bad gesture, but it is an incomplete one.
SD: I think that it’s a bit of a one-liner. I don’t think that it acknowledges the complexity of these sites.
MA: It takes a starting point as an end point.
MA: At least to me, an abandoned building is a revelatory thing, it is not this finite, enclosed hermetic object. It is a gateway into so many intertwined histories of people and place. It unfolds into multitudes. On the other hand, you make prints. There are edges to the prints. There is a great unknown beyond that. Do you think that there is a limit to our collective human capacity to remember place? Do we lose what is outside of that print?
SD: Yes. I think so – at least within my own experiences. The first thing I think of is memory, and how it’s always shifting.
MA: There is an urgency in some of the prints at DEMO Project because there are these edges. Anything that slips out past that line gets lost forever. Ultimately the house will be lost. Yet whatever can be contained or remembered isn’t lost, at least for now.
SD: I have an impulse to try to hold onto something.
MA: On paper.
SD: On paper. I’m cataloging, I’m archiving information. It’s about not losing something, holding onto something, having it after a demolition. The body of work, Dust, isn’t really complete until the demolition of DEMO Project. There’s a certain component to seeing the demolition through that will legitimize the work in a new way — at least re-contextualize it.