31 August 2022

What Can Color Mean?


Color chips of green and yellow at Coloring STL.

What happens when you examine the world through the lens of color instead of form? Is there cultural meaning that adheres to specific colors? Do colors transcend place and time? When you look for yellow, just yellow, and you cast aside what neighborhood you're in, does that change your understanding of the place? Can we go on a treasure hunt for particular colors in our city and appreciate them for their own sake? How do colors change our understanding of architecture and the city?

The diversity of places and structures referenced in the color chips in the Coloring STL exhibition raises questions of this sort for those with a keen sense of aesthetic perception. Colors indeed elicit emotions in us, just as smells do. Can we learn new things about the city by viewing it strictly through the lens of color? The series of grids with color swatches named for specific locales suggests a cross-pollination between our cultural associations with a place that color our understanding.

Photograph of a 2015 bus tour of university students visiting Lewis Place (© copyright 2015 Andrew Raimist).

Some visitors may not be familiar with Lewis Place, but the yellow hue embedded in the triumphal arch marking it contains is striking. You will always realize you're approaching a passing by this monumental feature in the urban landscape, and it becomes a spatial landmark. How many people know the story of the battle over land ownership in Lewis Place and its importance in St. Louis history?

You can get a sense of the story of Lewis Place by reading the article "Opening the Gates: Segregation, Desegregation, and The Story of Lewis Place" by Elizabeth A. Pickard, published in Gateway Magazine, Fall 2005, Vol. 26, No. 2 (© copyright 2005 Missouri Historical Society).

The opening pages of the article on Lewis Place suggest its importance in St. Louis history.

Once we comprehend the significance of the word "color" concerning Lewis Place, can we appreciate the beauty of its yellow separate from the people and the history it embodies?

Note: I will be presenting a concise, entertaining slide talk on Thursday, September 1, 2022 as part of "Mid-Century Mania" festivities including music, art, food, drink, and hands-on experiences. The event takes place from 5:30 to 8 pm.

"Mid-Century Mania."

Coloring STL at the Missouri History Museum

Coloring STL title logo.

The new exhibition at the Missouri History Museum, Coloring STL, is an accessible, entertaining show. A visitor can approach it as a fun romp through blown-up drawings of St. Louis architecture that invite you to contribute your colors, ideas, remarks, and more. There’s even an accompanying coloring book you can take home. The show features a great depth and breadth, covering all eras of architecture, from early structures like August Chouteau’s 1764 Mansion through recent high-rises like 100 Above. The show displays considerable thought in its conception and execution. If you prefer a particular era, style, or construction type, chances are good it’s represented here.

Dinks Parrish Laundry, Yeatman, and McKinley High Schools are starting to be filled in.

Visitors can choose dry-erase markers to color the buildings as they wish. The Pantone-inspired color palette suggests connections across ages, styles, neighborhoods, and materials. These “color chips” surround you on entering. Some details and places will undoubtedly elicit emotional reactions and tactile memories.

Pantone-like color chips offer a panoply of architectural references to spur your creativity.

The show has a decidedly egalitarian air. Elaborate Victorian Renaissance Revival structures are set cheek-by-jowl with gas stations and graffiti walls. The oversized color chips surrounding the entry provide wonderful juxtapositions focused on the quality of the colors rather than the pedigree of its architect or the social context of its historical importance.

By traversing from yellow to orange to red, you are encouraged to travel in time and space.

The clever use of striking photographs of close details emphasizing colors was a great way to reach people where they live. You don’t have to have read any books or watched certain documentaries to recognize and react to these vibrant, abstract details. This approach helps visitors connect with the visible rainbow St. Louis’s environment offers. One hopes that combining these color samples, drawn representations, physical objects, film, and texts will encourage visitors to look again at the buildings surrounding them each day. This exhibit is an excellent antidote to the closed-in lives many of us have lived during the Covid-19 years. At a minimum, the show encourages us to interact with the drawings on the walls and includes actual materials, which you are encouraged to “Please touch!”

In addition to representations of architecture in line drawings on the walls, we have sample reproductions of drawings by architects and artists as varied as Louis Sullivan, Hugh Ferriss, and Emil Frei. Their drawings and reproduction sketchbooks are inspiring indeed.

Door pulls salvaged from Baker's Shoes by Rob Powers.

Mid-century modern architecture and design are given their due without being overly sentimental or fetishizing. These structures are presented as built, referencing the economic and social contexts from which they emerged. Custom-designed homes and presented alongside subdivisions of repeated builder homes. Of particular note are fragments rescued from Northland and River Roads Shopping Centers by Toby Weiss. Aspects of her wisdom are legible in several displays.

An excerpt from Toby Weiss's "Northland Demolition Part 5" sets the mood for readers and thinkers.

Upon entering and reading the exhibition's foundational quotation, I saw had to consider another perspective on architecture culture. Quoting Goethe is de rigeur for architectural exhibitions, making the analogy between architecture and "frozen music." It's a high-minded view of architectural form as akin to the best symphonies humankind has produced. But this quotation was something else, remarking instead on the loss of architectural fabric and the resulting cultural degradation resulting from such wanton destruction. Such structures have defined aspects of our lives as "thawing music" like a "sorrowful, minor key symphony."

Facade fragments of Stix, Baer & Fuller at River Roads Shopping Center collected by Toby Weiss.

I looked for the source of this wry commentary on our throwaway society and realized it was the irrepressible Toby Weiss; I knew right away this exhibit would not be standard-fare. And to my delight, physical remnants of enchanting demolished mid-century structures collected by Weiss feature prominently in the display. Her foresight in collecting and documenting these discarded structures devoted to commerce has resulted in a powerful representation of the optimistic world in which they were imagined and fabricated.

Facade fragments of Stix, Baer & Fuller at River Roads Shopping Center collected by Toby Weiss.

The materials she collected from the Northlands and River Roads Shopping Centers are particularly striking. We're entering an era where decidedly modernist, forward-looking structures are represented in museums by building fragments. Seeing the actual terracotta remnants mounted to the wall expresses the physicality of these structures in ways that bring the photographs to life in terms of color, texture, shade, and shadows. The abstract, geometrical qualities of these fragments lend themselves to this kind of display. The museum is to be commended for the thought and effort invested in presenting these materials. The sculptural forms of these pieces create a vigorous, visceral impact particularly when viewed close up.

You'll want to bring your friends and family to this show. It repays each visit with more delight and satisfaction. I trust some enterprising folks will curate their own online version of the show by using #ColoringSTL.

Note: I will be presenting a concise, entertaining slide talk on Thursday, September 1, 2022 as part of "Mid-Century Mania" festivities including music, art, food, drink, and hands-on experiences.

"Mid-Century Mania"

03 June 2022

Authentic Midcentury Home by Harris Armstrong Available

Harris Armstrong designed this home at 616 Hickory Hollow Lane, Kirkwood, Missouri. Street view. (Photograph: © Andrew Raimist 2022)

A beautiful example of a single-story, post-and-beam home has come on the market. The house was designed by Harris Armstrong, FAIA, for Ernest K. Newmann. It was constructed in 1963 as a simple, elegant volume with high ceilings and large glass walls facing out onto a rear patio.

While the size of the house is relatively modest, 1,200 sq. ft., it includes everything a functional home in Kirkwood requires. The features include a living room with a classic Armstrong corner fireplace, a dining area, a kitchen that opens to the main living space, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a two-car garage.

Its L-shape composition is divided into two intersecting rectilinear volumes. The covered porch welcomes you; the lovely solid wood door makes the entry stand out visually and formally. To the left, screened from view, is the two-car garage. The layout couldn’t be more straightforward. The contrasting exterior textures of the horizontally aligned cedar shingles and vertically separated panels that suggest the structural system make for a rational, aesthetically pleasing composition.

Harris Armstrong designed this home at 616 Hickory Hollow Lane, Kirkwood, Missouri. Detail of entry porch. (Photograph: © Andrew Raimist 2022)

Previously, the house was painted in contrasting colors and tones that drew your eye to its elements. The current color scheme successfully unites the exterior. Given the relatively small size of the house, it makes for a harmonious, attractive home.

The home has been thoughtfully, lovingly restored to a coherent, aesthetically pleasing whole in sync with recent midcentury modern trends on the interior and exterior. The new landscaping is striking, making the house particularly impressive from the street.

It’s located at the end of a cul-de-sac off Craig Drive, near West Woodbine Avenue. It is a walkable residential area with nearby local businesses offering amazing croissants, drinks, dinner, child care, auto repair, convenience store, and more. This area of southwest Kirkwood is well-developed and maintained. There has been reasonably-sized in-fill housing built in the area in recent years that don’t overwhelm the neighborhood’s scale and eclectic styles. Other parts of Kirkwood have been entirely transformed by inserting oversized new homes out of scale with the original residential fabric.

Harris Armstrong designed this home at 616 Hickory Hollow Lane, Kirkwood, Missouri. View of rear. (Photograph: © Andrew Raimist 2022)

This design is the most compact of Armstrong’s 1960s work. In that era, many of his residential commissions were for large-scale custom homes for corporate executives in Ladue, Hilton Head, upstate New York, and beyond. This project is roughly contemporary with Armstrong’s celebrated Ethical Society of St. Louis on Clayton Road, by far, his best work of the decade. Armstrong essentially retired from active practice in 1965 and did only a handful of projects after that. His architectural office was located in Oakland on Singlepath Lane within the 63122 zip code, and he used “Kirkwood 22, Missouri” on his letterhead. He always identified his practice as located in Kirkwood, Missouri, and he identified personally and professionally with the community.

In past decades, I was concerned that the property might be targeted as a teardown like so many modestly scaled homes in Kirkwood. The improvements make that prospect unlikely as lovers of midcentury modern architecture are plentiful today. Its market value has risen steadily as appreciation for this home style has penetrated the St. Louis real estate market.

This part of southwest Kirkwood is quite desirable and sought after. Children walk to Robinson Elementary School, housed in a lovely William B. Ittner historic brick and stone structure. The location is roughly equidistant from Kirkwood Park to the north and St. Louis Community College, Meramec to the south. Kirkwood Park still features two Armstrong works from this era: the Amphitheater and the Community Center, which have been modified and improved over the years. The Amphitheater is particularly noteworthy and has been kept in excellent condition with repairs and upgrades to keep it fully functional for outdoor spring, summer, and fall events. Its design was donated to the City of Kirkwood by Armstrong in 1963.

Harris Armstrong's published sketch of the Kirkwood Park Amphitheater.

To find out more about this house which will undoubtedly sell quickly, see the listing on Zillow, which includes many more photographs and reveals the sound judgment of the current owners in updating the interiors. I have to offer kudos to them for taking a house with great potential and turning it into a leading example of restoring an Armstrong home consistently, thoughtfully, and beautifully. It will undoubtedly attract interested buyers who will appreciate its aesthetic simplicity. Even if you’re not in the market to purchase a house right now, this is an excellent opportunity to see a well-appointed example if you’re interested in Armstrong’s design work.

22 April 2022

Becoming Charles Eames: St. Louis (1930–1938)

I'll be presenting "Becoming Charles Eames: St. Louis (1930–1938)" on Tuesday 26 April 2022 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the online lecture series sponsored by the Steedman Architectural Library and the Society of Architectural Historians, St. Louis Chapter.

This presentation challenges the accepted narrative of Charles Eames's career and life in St. Louis. Preregister for the Zoom presentation by clicking REGISTER on the St. Louis Public Library page.