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Front vs. Back

The fronts of late 19th Century office buildings are frequently heavily adorned with ornate stonework and terra cotta reliefs. Look to the sides and back, however, and these same buildings become simple, functional and mostly lacking in ornament. Due to demolition of their neighbors, or simply because another tall building was never built next door, we can often see the somewhat tawdry and non-public sides of many buildings in St. Louis.

Let’s look at the north side of the 700 block of Olive St (the south side is a recently built and unneeded parking garage).

The first building in view is the Chemical Building, notable for its ornate cast iron(?) reliefs on the first two floors along the street. The ornament continues to the roof, but simplifies higher up. The backside, however, reveals a much plainer, and anachronistic stairwell slapped on the back of the building:

Note to the left of the red brick is the back side of the Union Trust building, which is the eastern neighbor of the Chemical Building. Its current owners, obviously uncomfortable with its bland, red brick backside, have commissioned a trompe l’oeil painting on the side of the building. All of the white stone ornamentation is merely an illusion in paint. The front of the Union Trust is impressive in its own right:

Update: The Union Trust Building was renovated in 2018; see the new balconies added onto the north side of the building in my 4,000th post here.
Designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan, the Union Trust originally possessed large round windows on the second floor, which are still intact on the less public, alley side of the building.

Such divisions between the public front and private, utilitarian back continue to this day; many suburban house use brick on the front of the house but rarely on the back or sides.

2 Comments

  1. I like that stairwell on the back of the building. More than once I’ve stopped to wonder about it.

  2. My Mentor (an old scool mason/bricklayer always says “look there… they got a 1/4 a brick house!’1st time reader… good blog.

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