“St. Louis Patina is a field trip to the hidden corners of St. Louis that many of us have never visited or noticed even though they’re right in our own back yard. Updated almost daily with great photos and researched articles on forgotten landmarks, St. Louis Patina is a love letter to the dwellings, structures and architecture that define our city.”
The Story behind the Genesis of this Site
I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis; the city was that strange place twenty miles away from my home that I only visited on the weekends, and then it was really just the central corridor of St. Louis and the standard tourist attractions, give or take a mile to the north of Highway 40 or a mile south of Interstate 44. I realize now that as a child I was for some reason a die-hard Modernist (though of course I didn’t know what that was at the time). When a crumby old building was torn down and replaced with a shiny glass box designed by HOK, I got all excited. I even drew pictures when I was ten years old of run-down Victorian period boarding houses sitting next to gleaming, Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers (I’ll have to dig them out some day); the message was clear when I was young: old is bad, new is good. Even more bizarrely, I remember anxiously awaiting the demolition of the final blocks of downtown for the Gateway Mall in the late 1980’s. That sad, forlorn building housing a Kentucky Fried Chicken standing in the way of the completion of the Gateway Mall was my enemy as a child: dirty, run-down, poor and obsolete.
What happened to that young Modernist child? Well, quite frankly, I grew up and headed off to college at Truman State University. Kirksville, the home of the university, is not what I would call a wild and crazy town, but it had the best run-down Victorian Period houses you can find anywhere in the Midwest. What had once been professors’ houses one hundred years ago were now where students packed into slum like conditions to save money and have a social life outside the teetoling confines of the university. The first week I was in college I realized that I wanted to one day live in one of those run-down, historic houses. The summer after my sophomore year, my dream came true; I moved with my friends into a rambling, decrepit firetrap one block from the university at 515 S. High Street. While the house certainly could have gone up in firecode violation flames any night I lived there, I fell in love with living in an historic house those final two years of college. 515 S. High may have had seventy year old wiring, rats and hornets, a furnace that worked for only one year, but it had the remnants, scattered here and there throughout the house in bits and pieces of beautiful millwork, large, light flooding windows and solid wooden panel doors that would be the envy of any carpenter today. Rather interestingly, the portions of the house built one hundred years ago were in better shape than the shoddy 1950’s addition at the back of the house. It dawned on me; the craftsmanship of the past rivals or often surpasses the cheap, flimsy construction that has dominated the American built environment for the last fifty years.
Logan Circle, Washington, DC
I left college and headed off to grad school in Washington, DC at George Washington University. I soon discovered that our nation’s capital boasts some of the most amazing, and most banal, architecture in the country. My tastes, as I grew older, began to change. My love for the adolescence of American architecture, the Victorian Period, grew as I walked down some of the most beautiful streets in America. The neighborhoods of Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill, Adams Morgan and Kalorama Heights feature the best in what America has offered over the last two hundred years of American architectural history. Washington, DC also offers the worst of what American architecture has to offer, summed in the name of a single thoroughfare: K Street. Perhaps best described as Modernism run amok, the twenty blocks of K Street through downtown Washington show how ugly, and dispiriting, bad architecture can be. I realized over the course of late 2000 into early 2001, that I was beginning to gravitate towards the humanly scaled, eclectic and playful architecture of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries and away from what I then saw as the cool, Brutalist, “Darth Vader” experience that pervades much Modernist architecture.
The summer of 2001 turned out to be a watershed in my development of my love of the architecture of America’s past. Through shear coincidence, my industry’s national convention was held in St. Louis, and I found myself in the unique, and fascinating role of being a tourist in the very city I grew up in. But was it the same city? The “city” I grew up in was West St. Louis County, literally twenty miles from Downtown St. Louis. Never, in the eleven years before college that I lived in St. Louis had I once simply strolled the streets of Downtown. What I found, quite frankly, amazed me: I still remember wandering into the lobbies of the Union Trust, Security and Chemical Buildings. One of my most distinct memories is buying a Coke from the Walgreens in the now destroyed Century Building.
The Chemical Building, Downtown St. Louis
Years later, after initial forays into the city while home on vacation from Washington, DC, I slowly realized that St. Louis was where I should return to eventually. I came back in December of 2006 and found that the old St. Louis I remembered was still here in bits and pieces, but yet a new and exciting, and to be honest, an old and exciting, St. Louis had grown up in the ten years that I had been gone. In May of 2007, I began the St. Louis Patina Blog, and despite one moment where I lost my motivation to continue, I’ve never looked back.
How the Site is Organized
I have tried to break away from the standard, late 20th Century designations and borders. I still have North St. Louis and South St. Louis sections, but I also created a Central St. Louis section of this website. I believe this city needs to get over the tired idea of the city consisting as a north and south half, when the reality is much more nuanced.
I also took the liberty to gerrymander the boundaries of neighborhoods to reflect a more historical and realistic approach to the way neighborhoods exist as urban villages interacting with each other. I apologize if your neighborhood was edited out of existence, or if you feel like you don’t live in the neighborhood I say you do. For example, I consolidated the Dogtown neighborhood into one, cogent whole, ignoring the three or four smaller neighborhoods that the city claims to exist. Talking to people who grew up in Dogtown, no one ever called their neighborhood Clayton-Tamm or any of that nonsense. Likewise, I admit to not knowing a lot about large portions of the city; I just have never been down the streets of a vast majority of the city. The purpose of this site is to celebrate and explore in an honest manner the architectural and human accomplishments of the city, and to rail against the forces who are attempting to destroy them in a vague, senseless attempt to turn the city into the suburbs.
Also, I do not abjectly hate the suburbs of St. Louis, and see in them many triumphs of great architecture and occasionaly great urban design. Other portions of the site feature the good and bad of all parts of the St. Louis area from Chesterfield to Webster Groves, from Granite City to New Town St. Charles. Finally, as a break from the St. Louis area and to form comparisons and contrasts, other cities I have visited in extensus such as Chicago and New York are featured. If you have something to contribute to this site, such as photographs of your favorite buildings that you would like to see on my website, feel free to contact me about the possibility. Likewise, if you have an essay or memories you’d like to share about growing up or just moving to St. Louis, I would love to put them on my site. Conversely, I do not want stories about how your beloved neighborhood went down hill when “those people” moved in; my website seeks to address the failure of America’s urban core in the last sixty years, not to assign blame to one racial, ethnic or economic group. In truth, everyone in America has dropped the ball over the last half century in regards to this nation’s cities, and everyone will have to work together to restore their greatness.
Chris Naffziger, Originally Written Fall 2008, Revised Early 2012