Seventh Year Anniversary of Saint Louis Patina: Defining St. Louis Architecture


What is St. Louis architecture? I have been pondering this in the months leading up to the seventh anniversary of this site. But first, a little reflection. Did I really think that this website would still be around in 2014. I dont know if I even thought about it. This site largely started out as a humble homage to sites I had found while still living out in Washington, DC. I was back in December 2012; I was shocked to see how much it had changed, but it wasnt change that I liked. The patina of the old city was being erased for expensive, but cheaply built luxury condos, whatever those are. Does anyone build non-luxury condos?

A city that gets too expensive drowns out creativity. Interestingly, despite having twice the population of St. Louiss metropolitan area, Washington has no equivalent of Ecology of Absence, no B.E.L.T, no Built St. Louis, no Vanishing St. Louis, or St. Louis Patina. It almost seems like being a little downtrodden helps breed creativity. Creativity of course is the child of necessity; someone who has everything, including a newly built luxury condo doesnt need to be creative. Its certainly not to due to the lack of beautiful buildings in Washingtonfar from it.

But I digress. What is so great about St. Louiss architecture, or any citys architecture? I think it comes down to that adversity; the beautiful cities of the world were built out of necessity, and rarely out of luxury. Ive had the opportunity to travel extensively over the last twenty years, and the great cities Ive seen have all developed their own personalityso much so that I can recognize these cities from just a generic photo of their streets. They are beautiful because they borrowed from their surrounding, whether it was dark gray limestone and granite in Edinburgh, tufa in Naples, travertine in Rome or red brick in St. Louis. As I always tell my students, most cities had to draw from local quarries and forests, and couldnt head to Home Depot to buy granite countertops made to order.

Perhaps the easier way to define beautiful architecture is to define what is ugly. Ugly architecture uses cheap materials, saving on cost now at the detriment of quality and longevity later on. As I put it before, architecture has become as disposable as McDonalds wrappers, and just as forgettable. But that doesnt mean that architecture cant be innovative; in fact, a lack of innovation, a dwelling on past styles is just as bad a failed new idea. Perhaps what is most lacking in todays architecture is the lack of craftsmanship; there is nothing enjoyable about a poorly rendered, and cheaply made Corinthian column. Its beauty comes from the quality of its execution, not that it tries to look like something beautiful.

But finally, what is so beautiful about St. Louis architecture? Perhaps because it was so democratic for so long. Those long rows of stout, beautiful row houses everyone admires probably didnt even have an architect. Only the most lavish and ambitious buildings in St. Louis did. Instead, there was ingrained in St. Louis builders and craftsmen a sense of beauty that didnt require a college degree. Chances are your average house in St. Louis was built by highly skilled, but practically illiterate workers. But they understood what made a house beautiful, through the passing on of traditions and skills. I often times imagine that a master faade brick layer, the upper class of their trade, probably imagined the individual details of the house they were working on completely spontaneously. They possessed such a broad pallet of bricks of all different designs and patterns at the fingertips, and could choose according to their mood or the feel of the street upon which they were working.

Can you identify the following cities based off of their architecture?

Rome Trip 989

100_0066 Rome, Urbino, Milan 130 Washington, DC and Baltimore 540 Rome, Urbino, Milan 287 Washington, DC and Baltimore 078 Rome Trip 1683

England Scotland 120

Update: Correct answers, from top to bottom: Rome, London, Urbino, Baltimore, Milan, Washington, Naples. Edinburgh.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Ann says:

    Happy 7th anniversary, Chris!

  2. Tom Maher - Kirkwood MO says:

    Great essay, Chris! It deserves wider distribution.

  3. Chris says:

    Congrats on the seventh year, Chris. Your work is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in St. Louis, urban America, or architecture in general–especially as so much of it here is disappearing right before our eyes. It’ll be a sad day when you decide to wrap it up… but here’s to many more posts before that happens.

  4. Drew says:

    Congratulations on seven informative years Chris and thank you for sharing your great city with us today… and also with the historians of the future.

  5. Daniel says:

    Congrats on seven years, Chris!

  6. Paul says:

    New York
    St. Louis

  7. jenn says:

    Several of those look like Rome to me, but I’ll go with:
    A hill town in Italy
    Italy again, Milan?
    UK, so maybe London

    1. Tom Maher - Kirkwood MO says:

      OT a tad, jenn, but your last item, London, would seem to be spot on. Look at the centuries of coal grime built up on those structures!

  8. Dawn says:

    #1. Feels like Paris to me.
    #2. Is NYC.
    #3. Feels like Italy. I would say Rome, but am unsure about that. Florence, maybe?
    #4. Seems to be Philadelphia.
    #5. No idea. It feels European, for sure.
    #6. Chicago?
    #7. No idea, again.
    #8. London.

  9. Charlie Long says:

    congrats on seven years…I love this site!!!

  10. TTTStLou says:


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