Lesser-known architectural treasures abound in St. Louis

By Mary E. Vander Linden - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

Styling: Mary E. Vander Linden - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

Photography: Mary E. Vander Linden - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

January 30, 2006

Bring up the subject of architecture, and the cathedrals of Europe or the towering skyscrapers of New York easily come to mind. But what about right here in St. Louis? There is, of course, the Arch – but that’s obvious. And many St. Louisans likely know of one or two other local structures with architectural significance – perhaps the Cathedral Basilica, with its breathtaking mosaics, or the Art Museum, magnificently perched atop Art Hill. But a city as old as St. Louis has many architectural gems, some designed by noteworthy architects, others simply gorgeous to behold, but most not very well known. Although asking people who delight in architecture and history to name a St. Louis favorite can be difficult – it’s like eating peanuts, most cannot stop with one – Sauce asked several experts to recommend a few of our city’s hidden architectural gems.

Michelle Swatek, executive director of the American Institute of Architects, St. Louis Chapter
Swatek had difficulty limiting herself. “I have two favorite places: one is the Law Library in the Civil Courts building and the other is Mount Grace Convent (home of the ‘Pink Sisters’). The library was redone recently and is so handsome, while the chapel is a peaceful, wonderful, timeless place.”

When visiting the Law Library Association of St. Louis, there are triple benefits. First, a visitor can enjoy the library itself, with its historic books; warm wooden bookcases, tables and shutters; chandeliers; and decorative ceiling. Second, the plaza and lobby of the Civil Courts building is interesting itself and, third, the views of St. Louis from the 13th floor and mezzanine, viewed through magnificent 42-foot Greek columns that seem to enclose the library and hold the top of the building in place, are breathtaking.

The Law Library has a long history in St. Louis, having been in operation since 1839. Before moving to the new Civil Courts building in 1930, the library was located in the now-demolished Old Brick Courthouse, the Old Courthouse and the Pierce building (now part of the Adams Mark Hotel). One does not have to be a lawyer to go to the Library.

The Art Deco-style Civil Courts Building was designed by Mauran, Russell & Crowell, a St. Louis firm. Located at the northeast corner of Tucker and Market, the building has two figures of Equal Justice and Law at the Tucker entrance. The pyramidal top of the building is supposedly a replica of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Inside, the lobby has marble floors, four huge black marble columns, polished stone walls and three great chandeliers.

Mount Grace Convent is one of the 18 existing convents of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters. It is located where East Warne and Adelaide meet, at the Adelaide exit off Interstate 70 in north St. Louis. The nuns were brought to St. Louis with the help of Mrs. Theresa Kulage, a wealthy Catholic from a brick-manufacturing family whose own home, a beautiful Tudor Revival house built in 1906 and maintained since, is located nearby at 1904 College Ave. The chapel was built in 1928 and is a glory of pink and rose colors and golden angels. The sisters, who pray and sing behind a grill, wear the pink habit while in the chapel.

Esley Hamilton, a preservation historian with St. Louis County and Steedman library trustee
Hamilton listed the George Fox Steedman Architectural Library as a favorite. The Steedman, located in an original light well of the Central Public Library at 14th and Olive streets, was constructed in 1928 and is open only to architects and students of architecture.

It houses a collection of rare books on architecture and related arts and is jointly administered by the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Public Library’s Fine Art Department. The room is decorated in 16th-century English style, with carved paneling, leaded glass windows and bookcases, a stone fireplace and carved oak furniture. Steedman gave the library his personal collection of 600 volumes (which has more than doubled since), an endowment and funds to construct the room.

“I don’t think that I have used a book there for professional research; I have just enjoyed looking at them,” said Hamilton. “There are wonderful illustrations in [the] 17th- and 18th-century books that you cannot find any place else. From an architectural point of view, the room is Tudor Revival style and radically different from the Italian Renaissance of the rest of the building.”

The rest of the building is spectacular. It was designed by Cass Gilbert (who also designed the Saint Louis Art Museum). Plans for the library began in 1907, and the building was completed in 1912. A grand marble staircase on Olive Street ends at bronze grilles before opening to the main floor. The building’s interior is Tennessee marble and hand-carved quartered oak. On either side of the central foyer are marble staircases illuminated by stained glass produced by Gorham Co. The foyer’s ceiling is painted with portraits and medallions of authors and scholars. Just to the west of the foyer is the Fine Art Room, where the huge, ornate door into the Steedman is located. The Fine Art Room, which checks out art reproductions and posters as well as books, has a plaster ceiling painted to look like wood and modeled after the ceiling of the Abbey (La Badia) of Florence, Italy.

Melanie Fathman, an architectural historian and former president of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis
Two churches appealed to Fathman: Third Baptist Church at Grand and Washington, next to Powell Symphony Hall, and Grace Methodist Episcopal Church at Skinker and Waterman. Both are examples of what “people did to survive and persevere, even with their architecture,” said Fathman.

“Third Baptist Church is a mystery,” said Fathman. “It is a very old-fashioned church inside an Art Deco modern church. Even when they needed more room, the people at Third Baptist Church decided not to leave the city as other churches were doing. They couldn’t buy any more property so they built over the existing church.”

Grace Methodist Church, in contrast, did move westward with its members. It used to be Lindell Avenue Methodist Church, and was located at Lindell and Newstead, across the street from where the New Cathedral now stands. The original building was designed by Theodore Link, and was completed in 1897. “The members tore the church down and rebuilt it,” said Fathman. “They just reversed the plan and took everything along, including the benches and windows. The top stones of the old church became the bottom stones at the new church.”

Julius Hunter, vice president of community relations at Saint Louis University and author of books on Central West End architecture
Hunter has many selections. “I have a special place in my heart for grand old Kingsbury Place, where I once lived, just west of Union, and I just love Westmoreland and Portland Places, just east of Kingsbury Place. Our home on Kingsbury Place had seven bedrooms and seven full baths, a library and a solarium. And I remember the living room was 38 feet by 17 feet. And the house had St. Louis’ first outdoor residential swimming pool – dug circa 1915!”

St. Louis’ private places are a joy to walk and are of some renown in the United States. The gates were often designed by influential architects: The east gate of Westmoreland was designed by Eames and Young, while both the east and west gates of Portland were designed by Theodore Link.

The only reminder of the first private place (Lucas Place, platted 1851) is the Campbell House downtown. After that, most of the private places were platted by Julius Pitzman. Benton Place in Lafayette Square, the second private street, was platted in 1868. Other private streets in the city are located in the Central West End, off Skinker and off Grand.

No need to head to Europe or New York to find beautiful architecture, because with just a little bit of digging, it can be found right here in St. Louis.

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