Originally: DeVille Motor Hotel
Architect: Charles Colbert
After college, I lived in the Central West End for a while. I remember walking around and seeing lots of beautiful old mansions and ornate 1920s apartment buildings, and being baffled and revolted by their Modernist successors, those strange and alien intrusions into the landscape.
Oh, the folly of youth!
Today, I see these buildings not only as part of the rich layering of architectural history, but also as having a beauty and style of their own. Their clean lines and expressive materials illustrate the essence of their times -- a time of hope, of belief in the future, of assurance in technology.
One such building is the former DeVille Motor Hotel, just west of the New Cathedral on Lindell. Designed by a prominent New Orleans Modernist, it served as a hotel into the 1970s. At that point, the St. Louis Archdiocese took it over, and converted it to elderly housing, a noble purpose appropriate for an urban building. Recently, however, the San Luis was cleared out. The Archdiocese wants to tear it down to provide additional parking for nearby Rosati-Kain High School.
Being a building of Modernist pedigree, the San Luis doesn't always inspire easy support. For years, I saw only a bland concrete box, seemingly desolate amid the extravagant excesses of the pre-war architecture around it.
But now that I look again, I see something else: soaring lines. Generous windows. Open and sunken courtyards, sheltered from the street. A certain funkiness in the expression of stairs and elevators, and in the repetition of these elements across the building's three wings. An awareness of the building's siting, as the north-facing wall gets unbroken window walls, while the other three sides provide more solid walls to protect against direct sun. Bold and powerful massing. Cleverly integral parking decks. A durable building that barely shows its 40 years of age.
It's really easy to look at a building like this and simply say, oh, it's ugly. Tear it down. But I would urge the reader to consider the long view, to consider the changing nature of tastes and history. Remember the 1950s, when Victorian mansions were "old", "dark", "heavy", and therefore "ugly" and "obsolete". It was a poor judgement, and the weight of history has run strongly against it. If we cannot find a higher and better use for the land, let us not destroy a work of architecture and a piece of our urban fabric simply because we find it "ugly". This is the Central West End. You're telling me nobody can find a use for an 11-story building in the Central West End?!
Anyway, the Archidiocese wants to tear it down for a parking lot. Even if my prose and photos can't persuade you, surely the alternative of a parking lot on one of St. Louis's most grand urban boulevards suggests that the San Luis should be preserved. Surely St. Louis can show more recognition for its great urban spaces than to degrade them with parking lots.
The links below have further information and text on the controversy;
Photographs: August 2008
More on the San Luis:
B.E.L.T. features an incredible write-up on Lindell's rich Midcentury Modern architecture.
No Parking Lot on Lindell! - a coalition of urbanists dedicated to saving the San Luis. Features much nicer photographs than my own.
The St. Louis Beacon - article on the building and Modernism in general.
Landmarks Association of St. Louis - statement supporting reuse of the building.
Ecology of Absence weighs in.
Vanishing STL details the proposed "campus".
Urban Review STL - Steve Patterson argues that the San Luis is not an urban building, but would still be preferable to a parking lot.
Dotage - a response to Patterson's post.