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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The nation's first Post WWII suburban subdivision historic district

As promised, here is the historic district of suburban MCMs that has made its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. It's called the Arapahoe Acres Historic District, out of Englewood, Colorado--some seven miles from Downtown Denver. Some are distant cousins to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie and Usonian styles, while others forge a wholly new, 1950s modernist vision of the good life.

The Beville House, 1955

The Boxer House, 1955 - Streamlined Prairie?

The Fish House, 1953 - A more modest example...

The Frison House, 1952 - ...and a much more bold residence.

The Holland House, 1953 - The classic barely peaked roof, the orange brick, and the noticeable but not flamboyant car port all make this MCM example field guide worthy.

The Perdue House (no date given) - Notice that even the garage sports a half peak roof in imitation of the main structure.

The Irish House, 1953 - This one looks like a nearly direct FLW inspiration.

The Halpin House, 1952 - This structure could be mistaken for commercial architecture in a different context (say, a large road). Several gas stations and automotive shops of the 1950s might have even featured a larger relative to the mini-car port that this house boasts. The "glassiness" is a marker of the era and will eventually sugue into the even less ornate and more glassy "International" style craze of the 1960s.

The Orr House, 1955 - A pronounced break from pre-War classicism and yet an appeal to simplicity and mutedness define the MCM period. This house, though odd in its proportions, somehow manages to pay some respect to its natural landscape.

If you'd like to see more (and read descriptions), try clicking here.

More Modernism Mania

Le Corbusier did a lot to villify the notion of modernism, especially to the 21st Century urban booster. After all, his "skyscrapers in a park" concept for reimagining the urban landscape scorned neotraditional values like historic architecture and pedestrian-scaled environments.

So Modernism is an easy target for criticism. Most pro-urban scholars of the 1960s and 1970s lashed out at the sprawling collections of ranch houses. Their assemblage in floral-esque, curvilinear subdivisions; their awkward angularity; their conspicuous, even ostentatious display of car ports; or even merely their newness and perfect conformity combined with their contrast to the crumbling old Gilded Age buildings across most of America's struggling Rust and Frostbelt: all of these things made Modernism seem like an easy scapegoat, or punching bag, for those frustrated at the misfortunes of their once grand central cities.

It is ironic today that the rise of the post-modern neotraditional mansion in many American suburbs (derided as "McMansions" by many, even academics) has reframed the whole notion of the evils of mid-century modernism. In comparison to today's grotesque caricatures of historical styles, with their distorted scales, unnecessary eaves, and frontal four car garages, mid-century moderns seem quaint, unique, and--shall I say it--historic.

One has to wonder what preservationists fifty years from now will think of this McMansion--from St. Louis suburbs, by the way.

This is the area of my research at the University of New Orleans. I wish to analyze the preservation movement and its change over time as it must continually redress its definition of historic--both to include structures now within the magic "50 year old" time frame to be invited into history and to assess whether or not structures or neighborhoods of cultural significance should see some recognition as well.

After all, is the Post-War subdivision not the ultimate cultural statement of the 1950s? An era in which Joe McCarthy's witchhunt for the Reds inspired dutiful, utterly American, owned, clean, sane, safe neighborhoods in which productive and capitalist citizens would reside? Of course, this is too simple a view of mid-century subdivisions, and, as you will see or have already observed, mid-century architecture is wholly unique and deserves more than a second look.

Coming soon, I will post on what touts itself to be the nation's first recognized Post-War suburban subdivision historic district. But it's a surprise for now.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

About this Blog

The Blog, Generally

Dotage St. Louis discusses a range of topics, but its primary purpose is to document St. Louis's one-of-a-kind built environment and offer commentary on how St. Louis could be improved. As an urban planner and historic preservationist by trade, I believe our unique built environment is the key to reviving the city; it's our asset over other cities and even our own suburbs. If I had to select a genre, Dotage is a historic preservation blog, but I also delve into politics, development, transportation, local businesses, and more.

About Me, Generally

Matthew Mourning, 24

I'm an urban planner interested in all things "urban"--especially St. Louis.

I was born in St. Louis and lived there until I left for graduate school in New Orleans in August 2007. For those interested in neighborhoods, I grew up in Bevo practically in the shadow of the landmark Bevo Mill. I later lived briefly in Tower Grove East and Lafayette Square, before getting a "real" apartment (as in, my name was on the lease!) in Forest Park Southeast above Sweetie Pies. I went to St. Louis University for a bachelor's degree in urban affairs. Being in Midtown nearly everyday really makes one reflect on the state of St. Louis's built environment.

I attend--soon to be attended--the University of New Orleans for urban and regional planning. My focus within the program is historic preservation, though I think my "community development" coursework is nearly on par with it. My professional goal is the same as my personal goal: to see to it that America's great older cities with their important, though fractured infrastructure are not pushed aside entirely for something newer, less sustainable, and less beautiful.

My boyfriend, Michael, is a sort of ghost writer on this blog, having inspired many posts. He got a job in Washington D.C., and by some strange and circuitous circumstances, we were forced to essentially abandon New Orleans on a couple weeks' notice and somehow ended up living in Baltimore. I miss New Orleans now, in addition to St. Louis, but am loving Baltimore. I especially love the incredibly easy access to D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and so many other American cities of note.

When Did You Fall in Love with St. Louis and Why Did You Start this Blog?

I have a very specific reason for being so enamored with my hometown.

I attended St. Louis University High School, where I was in a severe minority having grown up inside city limits. My fellow classmates regarded the surrounding neighborhood, Kings Oak, with an irrational degree of fear. While I had had suburban relatives that mocked the city and deemed it off limits to those who sought to excel in life, anti-city bias really hit home when I saw that my family was no anomaly.

In 2000, I volunteered for a service "trip" to south St. Louis to deliver donated food to newly arrived Eastern European immigrants. I partially volunteered, I must admit, because I was so excited to show some of my friends--all from the suburbs--my urban neighborhood. I thought that they would be fascinated, intrigued, inquisitive--not disgusted, fearful, and ignorant, as they turned out to be. They played "count the crackhouse" and were ducking for cover upon seeing pedestrians, who they assumed wielded guns. Why did they have this reaction?

Their presumptions about my neighborhood, and the city in general, led me on a lifelong journey to defend my city. In historical research, and, later, countless hours of driving and walking the city, I found an undeniable American urban gem who shouldn't have to try so hard to win affection.

I started this blog to document my thoughts on the city from afar; to keep in touch with goings-on; to hopefully insert ideas from New Orleans and now Baltimore onto the St. Louis scene; and to monitor our important, fragile built environment.

What's "Dotage" and What Does it Have to Do with St. Louis?

The word "dotage" (that's DOHT-ij) has two primary meanings. The most common meaning is essentially senility, or a fading of the mind with age. I see this as an analogy for an aging Rustbelt city, slowly losing its built environment, its links to its past. But dotage also is the noun for the verb "to dote [upon]". Doting upon something means that you have a sort of unshakable affection for it, as from a parent to a child. Again, this hits the spot for my purposes: I view the city, somehow, as so ingrained in my own identity that its sufferings are mine. Does that sound over the top? Read this blog and you'll know it's no exaggeration.

Can I Submit Something for Publishing?

Yes. I am always open to submissions. I do reserve the right to edit them for clarity or grammatical issues. Please send me an email at for more details.

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Yes, but, as you can see from my layout, you may not get the most visible spot. Send me your information and a small advertisement and I will place it in my sidebar above my tag cloud. Currently, this service is free, though with increased interest I may charge a nominal fee.

Can I Use Photographs and Other Media on Your Site?

Of course. Make sure to properly attribute the source. Often I borrow from other web sites. In that case, you  might want to source the item as "Courtesy of [Blank], via Dotage St. Louis" with a link to the particular post.

I Have a Question Not Addressed Here...

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Language Houses safe for now?

The latest update on SLU's next demolitions is that they may not include the Language Houses after all--yet. SLU has vacated the language programs out of these structures and into Notre Dame Hall, but so far they have not released their plans for the three buildings (a fourth is privately owned).

The current rumor is that buildings on Laclede closer to Sarah have a date with the wrecker. One I get more information, you will know where to find it.

The concrete monuments of the old Daniel Boone Expressway

Thanks to VanishingSTL for the post lamenting the latest assault on our modern history.

The "New I-64" project has been underway since the start of the year, closing St. Louis's most used east-west highway and effecting a media phantasmagoria filled with horrific visions of how commuting suburbanites would have to leave their houses three hours earlier to get to their destinations. I've been a critic of the project from day one, of course.

There have been a couple suggestions thrown out by local politicians, bloggers, and civic boosters. One is to reopen I-64 (known as its U.S. Route number, 40, to locals) with a leg of the region's light rail system running right down the middle. To many urbanists, a commuter line right down the highway spells trouble. After all, it is not the most comfortable experience to be dropped off in the middle of traffic whirring by at 70 miles per hour. Nor would such a line be very pedestrian friendly, as the farther you travel from the city, the less likely you are to even witness that strange alien conveyer belt that us urban types call a sidewalk. Still, for those concerned more with carbon emissions than pedestrian-friendly transit, this could be a solution to the throng of autos that makes its way downtown every morning and leaves every evening.

Another floated proposal, by famous local urbanist blogger Steve Patterson, is to close the highway entirely and turn it into a large urban boulevard replete with stop lights and a lower speed limit. Of course, it would also feature sidewalks, on street parking, and hopefully buildings to anchor the roadway on each side. This wouldn't be ideal either, but is a better solution than doing away with the highway altogether.

Anyhow, I have digressed entirely. The New I-64 is chugging along with relatively little controversy (so far). The plan? To dismantle a segment of the roadway between Spoede and Sarah Streets (about 17 miles of the highway if I were to guess), demolishing every dated bridge and adding a couple lanes.

VanishingSTL's blog contains some lovely pictures of the streamlined modern bridges that will be replaced by a neotraditional piece of "functional" architecture. Art Deco and Art Moderne influences abound, as much of the former "Daniel Boone Expressway" was built up in the 1940s or earlier. Take a look at the old and what will soon be the new here.

St. Louis University continues with its tradition of Jesuit humanism and defunct urbanism.

I regret to inform you that, on this blog, St. Louis University will appear as a recurring villain. I can almost assure you of this given its past track record: for every Coronado saved, there's a Livery Stable. And for all the support they've poured into Grand Center, they've given equal or greater force to demolitions in adjacent neighborhoods.

The latest news (presently unverified) is that the next victim on the SLU demo chopping block is the set of "language houses" on Laclede. Laclede was a once residential street (an uncle of mine used to call a brownstone walk-up on Laclede home). Today, SLU has replaced much of the streetscape with mundane campus buildings or their trademark "greenspace" (read: deadspace). So few urban scaled residential buildings remain that, in fact, the language houses of Laclede appear out of the context they once dominated.

According to ever reliable forum members of Urban STL, these venerable buildings will soon be replaced with--who knows? Another failed coffee shop? Another statue? Another grassy knoll? Expect a follow-up report when the time comes.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Miami Modern - a success story for "auto age" preservationists

To Miami residents, this is not news. For those of us in harsher climes, this relatively new historic district (as of 2006) may seem groundbreaking. Miami fought to get a swath of Biscayne Boulevard (BiBo to locals) preserved in order to save it from the wrecking ball. Sounds like a familiar preservation effort, right?

Well, the structures to be salvaged are mostly post World War II concoctions, in a style that locals have dubbed "Miami Modern." As a city that pioneered the first (and now widely loved) Art Deco historic district in the country, Miami again appears on the forefront of the preservation movement. Mid-century modernism just might have a fighting chance if word of Miami's spearhead catches on. Granted, "Miami Modern" is just a wee bit on the ornate side compared to the more subdued Mid-Century Modern ranches found up north. Still, it's worth noting that somewhere in our country, mid century architecture has been dubbed historic.

Other notables about the district? It's Miami's first historic commercial (as opposed to residential) district.

See pictures below of the Miami Modern (MiMo) / Biscayne Boulevard Historic District:

The requisite introductory words...

I am hoping that this blog will actually be regularly updated; will feature essays on St. Louis architecture and urbanity. I am hoping to decry the demolitions, mourn what's missing, praise what's presently left, and fight against a fulsome future. If it sounds negative, rather than uplifting, you're probably reading correctly.

Unlike many cities, praise for St. Louis--a parochial, slow growth city--must come in a form that challenges its (that is, its leaders and its residents) very reality and daily functioning as a city. The present reality is one of a city that cannot ever recover from its former World's Fair era glory, its short run as the nation's fourth largest city. So then why try?

Well, because the same great city that 850,000 once called home is still, in physical form, there before our eyes. That is, what has survived the ravages of urban renewal and years of flight to the suburbs is anyway. And we, as lovers of this city, should be fighting to preserve that heritage.

Ironically, this is the future of St. Louis, in looking at its past. Supporting a city that cherishes small scale neighborhood retail and restaurants, beautiful (even when it's plain and unindulged) historic red brick architecture, and the ability to walk, bike, skip, or whathaveyou to your destination. And that's just the tip.

The decay of St. Louis, ever present in some areas and more and more quickly disappearing in others, has held a mirror to St. Louisans for quite some time now. The refracted image is ghastly but beautiful in its abandon; for all its spookiness, it appears a saner alternative than miles of strip malls and disjointed post-modern manses with their backs turned to history, culture, and a heritage in which to take pride.

With this blog, I hope to supply images and essays that convey the potential of this overlooked river town not to realize an idealized version of the Victorian period, but a sensible and attainable way of delivering a preserved St. Louis into a post-post-modern future and all of its present realities.

I call the blog "Dotage" because, at times, there is little else to my favor for St. Louis than fond affection. I often boast of my hometown with the disclaimer, "I can't explain it but..." There's a magnetism there for some of us urbanists that transcends our roles as the uniformed observer or even the planner who's read tract after tract on urban design and urban history. It should be noted that "dotage" is also the loss of one's memory over time, through old age, so please note the double entendre.

It's a unique, if suffering, place finally poised for a rebirth. So let's explore.

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