Stunning St. Louis Architecture + 12 Sites To See, With Preservationist Michael Allen
Cover image, Lafayette Square
To understand the refined architecture of a city like St. Louis, Michael Allen, the city’s resident building preservationist, architectural scholar, lecturer and historian, begins with the existential question, “Why do cities even exist in the first place?”
“Cities exist because they are strategically related to trade routes or natural resources. St. Louis has both. That’s reflected in our architecture,” he says, citing the fact that the entire city is actually built on a limestone bluff near clay beds. The rest, he recites like a verse from a poem. “We are close to granite and iron deposits, forests and lumber. We’re close to beds of slate, marble and granite mines. Every possible resource you can think of that goes into building old houses can basically be found within a 100-mile radius of St. Louis. Very few cities have the same advantage.”
The result wasn’t just stunning architectural facades and ornate attention to detail reserved for the upper-class homes, churches or government buildings. It was everywhere. “In St. Louis, every common building, really, from our boom time, has details that are extremely refined and in many places would have been very expensive and only found in the homes of the wealthy. But most of the architecture we think of today as St. Louis architecture, with its abundant red brick, was built for working and middle-class families. They were living in small palaces.”
The home in which Allen lives, located in the St. Louis’ Gravois Park neighborhood, was built over 100 years ago, in 1910. Remarkably, many of the building’s signature stylizations have remained untouched. There are original light fixtures and light switches, but the air conditioning has been on the fritz—not ideal for managing triple-digit heat and humidity in the middle of the country. “I looked at like, 20 buildings before this one. I was really excited by how original pieces of it were,” he says.
Allen founded St. Louis’ Preservation Research Office in 2009. “Preservation is kind of a pessimistic field in some ways. It’s all about keeping things the way they are, holding time still,” he says. It is an interior yearning that has cemented stalwart support of the city’s buildings and Allen’s place in St. Louis.
Allen says there isn’t one particular label that encompasses everything one might find in St. Louis architecturally, but there are evident influences—predominantly a late hybrid 19th-century/early 20th-century streetcar architecture. “[St. Louis architecture] doesn’t really fit a certain style. You could say there’s a St. Louis movement of sorts: combining brick and enamel and stone, which are unique. They’re very different from facades in cities like Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Boston. So I would say the influences here include the Arts and Crafts movement, Romanesque architecture and classical notes—but it’s all through material. These aren’t pure academic styles.”
Keep reading for Allen’s list of must-see St. Louis buildings and historic districts, residential and commercial.
1) Wainwright Building—111 N 7th St.
“Widely considered the first skyscraper—not in height, but in form—in the U.S. A masterpiece of the acclaimed architect Louis Sullivan.”
2) Former Swift Printing Company building, now Schlafly Tap Room—2100 Locust St.
“This building shows the place of machine-made materials—like brick and terracotta, as well as machine-hewn materials like timber and stone—that mimic handcrafted materials. An Arts and Crafts-style building made from industrialized processes, which also shows the brilliance of material craft in St. Louis.”
3) Lemp Brewery—3500 Lemp Ave.
“With its powerful brick forms and almost no ornament, the Lemp Brewery shows the power of simple red brick.”
4) Union Station—1820 Market St.
“A progressive work of architecture, Union Station is vital to understanding St. Louis. It breaks from classical design, as the skeleton of the train shed is just as important to the structure as the head house.”
5) The Shanley Building—7800 Maryland Ave.
“An international prize-winning work of modernist architecture, this building brought the International Style of architecture to St. Louis.”
6) Lafayette Square
“This neighborhood is full of the richness of Gilded Age pre- and post-Civil War styles—a strong testament to the power of preservation to renew old architecture.”
7) Tower Grove House—Missouri Botanical Gardens
“A refined Italianate villa, this is one of the best-designed residences built in the city before the Civil War. It was designed by the city’s first trained architect, George I. Barnett.”
8) Second Presbyterian Church—4501 Westminster Place
“Probably the finest brick masonry of any church in the city, and a faithful Lombardi Italian work.”
9) Central Library—1301 Olive St.
“A dazzling work of Cass Gilbert, and a master work of Italian Renaissance styles. The ceilings alone make it one of the city’s finest buildings.”
10) Old Courthouse—11 N 4th St.
“An example of Greek Revival architecture with a Roman dome, creating a brilliant mismatch. The dome predates the U.S. Capitol dome, showcasing advanced structural engineering in cast iron.”
11) Priory Chapel at the Saint Louis Abbey—500 S Mason Rd.
“Breathtaking modernism with an amazing quartet of makers (Gyo Obata, Pier Nervi, Dom Columba Cary-Elwes) who combined architectural, engineering and religious convictions to make a column-free building. Every detail has a meaning—probably the most completely symbolic work in St. Louis.”
12) St. Louis Hills Neighborhood
“The most architecturally unified city neighborhood, made possible with the availability of mass-produced building materials.”
All photography by Attilio D’Agostino
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