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Maritz and Young Lecture This Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 7:00 PM, Missouri History Museum

Maritz cover

Update: This event has already passed.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a review copy of the Missouri History Museum’s publication, The Architecture of Maritz and Young: Exceptional Historic Homes of St. Louis, by Kevin Amsler and L. John Schott.  If you’ve never heard of the firm of Maritz and Young, you’ll be interested to hear that you’ve almost certainly been driving by their houses any time you’ve been in West St. Louis, Clayton or Ladue.  Architectural history in St. Louis sometimes stops at the County line, but it’s important to realize that St. Louis’s architecture continued to evolve and move further west in the decades between the World Wars.  The houses built in Clayton and Ladue in the 1920’s and 30’s were built at a time when the wealthy now commuted to the city by automobile, and their designs reflect that new reality.

I must admit that the massive, sprawling houses of Maritz and Young do not immediately evoke the most positive feelings from me.  Perhaps it is the “forced picturesque” and “intentional unintentionality” of their often irregular and asymmetrical designs, which while accurately evoke the spirit of many fortresses and other castles of France and England, that ultimately does not work for me.  I have seen the buildings in Europe that the Tudor and Norman Revival styles so popular with Maritz and Young evoke, and the very fact that those historic structures possess a certain slipshod, centuries-old construction history, born out of necessity or poverty, is what makes them special, and successfully picturesque.  Maritz and Young’s houses, planned from the beginning to appear picturesque, lack the soul of their forefathers.  Likewise, I see the emergent influence of Modernism, and its distaste for ornamentation, creeping into their designs; it almost seems as if they were afraid to accent their revival style buildings with enough accurate ornamental encrustation to make their houses look truly authentic to their forebears.  Castles, and any old building in Europe for that matter, always have a strange build-up of a patina clinging to their walls, whether it’s bad patchwork in a chapel, a random lancet window cut in a stout wall, or an odd statue here and there set into niches.

But I am being too harsh on the architects; many of their designs (and one has dozens to choose from in the book) are successful, if looking sometimes like the sets of 1930’s Hollywood movies.  In fact, the American popular imagination of what a wealthy individual’s house is supposed to look like bears a striking similarity to Maritz and Young’s style.  So while that giant stone turret on that house in Clayton was never really a military bastion and therefore lacks a certain gravitas of a real French fortress, it still looks pretty cool.  Maritz and Young’s architecture can never be accused of not being imaginative.

That being said, I was glad to read a book about St. Louis architecture that challenges my preconceptions of what I consider to be authentic and valid design in St. Louis.  And maybe the most fascinating aspect is how the authors, perhaps unintentionally, give us a clue where the modern McMansion derives.  I am in no way claiming that Maritz and Young are guilty of promoting the vapid, bloated fake historicism of today’s McMansions, but it is intriguing to see how so many of their designs have been callously adapted for today’s wealthy residents of St. Louis County.  In fact, we need more architects with Maritz and Young’s understanding of grand style to combat today’s often architecturally uninspiring wasteland.

Come out to the lecture at the Missouri History Museum and learn more about this important epoch in St. Louis architectural history, and buy a copy of this important addition to our understanding of St. Louis’s built environment.

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