Beyond the Arch: Preserving St. Louis architecture
Suppose a Godzilla-like figure were to stomp through St. Louis. What parts of the city’s architecture would you immediately appeal to preserve? Most would save the Arch, Union Station, the Wainwright Building and Central West End. To many, the list of landmarks that immediately pops into mind may end there.
But to Esley Hamilton, adjunct lecturer in the architecture school, St. Louis architectural gems also include Soulard, Lafayette Square and Washington Terrace—familiar names of communities boasting beautiful Period Revival houses, hardly found in such a preserved state anywhere else in the country. “Nowadays, people use the umbrella term ‘period house,’ which could mean English, Tudor, Spanish, French or Rennaissance,” Hamilton said.
Despite the fact that St. Louis may not be known for its architecture, our city plays host to a variety of well-known constructions. In fact, if you look around when walking on campus, you’ll be surprised at what you find.
According to Hamilton, not much was written on St. Louis architecture in the past, but, as preservation historian for the St. Louis County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Hamilton has been taking steps to right this wrong. He has invested years researching and documenting architectural sites in the city, preserving neighborhoods and buildings that are important to the county.
“The historic neighborhoods are what give the city its character,” Hamilton said about his work, assessing locales in danger of deterioration or of demolition. “People from other parts of the country are just amazed by Soulard and Lafayette Square, Compton Heights, Washington Terrace. There are very few places in the country that have that left.”
Throughout the years, neighborhoods like Parkview, which borders Wash. U. to the north, have been known to be highly attractive to artists, writers, mayors and the like, including Stanley Elkin, the famous writer and Wash. U. professor. Most of the neighborhoods surrounding the University are now listed in the National Register thanks to the efforts of the historians developing important new literature about St. Louis historic landmarks. These communities, a stroll away from campus, boast a variety of visual styles—surprising given the short span of time in which they were built, from the late 19th century into the 1930s.
But it’s not just the lovely residential surroundings that Wash. U. students should keep an eye out for. While we come to this school to study, we are also unwittingly treated to four years of a one-of-a-kind architectural experience every day—namely that of walking and learning within a National Historic Landmark. Hamilton himself wrote the nomination to the National Register of Historic Landmarks for the Hilltop Campus, now dubbed Danforth Campus.
“There’s only about 2,500 National Historic Landmarks of any category in the whole United States,” Hamilton said. “[The Hilltop Campus] was listed for its architecture ahead of Princeton, Yale and Harvard because it’s one of the best examples of the Collegiate Gothic style that started in the 1890s. It was really a style that was formulated by Cope and Stewardson, who were the original architects of this campus.”
The competition to decide which architectural design would be selected for the University attracted Carrere & Hastings—designers for the New York Public Library—and several other leading architecture firms of the time. The current campus layout was picked among other options for its emphasis on spaces rather than overwhelmingly large buildings. The design was chosen so that the campus could grow organically as buildings were added to it, instead of requiring that pairs of buildings be constructed at the same time in order to look aesthetically pleasing.
Wash. U. presents the kind of situation in which historical preservation and present style collide; however, Hamilton argued that this concept of organic growth is no longer at the heart of the renovations happening on campus.
“The buildings are just plopped down on the ground, and whatever space is left over is not considered at all,” Hamilton said. “It’s really a shame to see the campus so crowded and with so many unused places.” Some areas in campus have been redeveloped “like canyons,” like the Anheuser-Busch building that towers over the stairs at either side of it.
This perceived inefficiency is not, conceded Hamilton, entirely removed from the current state of the architecture profession today. Leading architects are not inclined to work with the kind of style that Wash. U. demands. One sees in Wash. U. precisely the difficulties historical architecture faces when subjective dismissal is large.
“Many architects that grew up with the international modern style refuse to consider period revival buildings to have any merit whatsoever. Just the very fact that the campus has chosen to try to emulate the Collegiate Gothic style puts them totally out of bounds with these architectures and critics. But that’s really not fair,” Hamilton said. “The style of the building shouldn’t determine whether it’s a good building or a bad building. It’s determined by the quality of the constructions and the spaces within.”
Assume some past generation had deemed Wash. U. an architectural disaster and had torn down the current façade. Would it have been a social wrong? Perhaps the benefit of historical preservation lies in allowing, in the most fundamental sense, for a person to decide what to think about a visible, prevailing, slice of history.