The Optimist International Building

Update: On August 23, 2021, the Optimist building’s demolition received another denial from the Preservation Board. No word on what the Optimists will do with their building in the future. The Engineers Club, further down Lindell to the east, is now threatened with demolition for a similar conversion to an apartment building.

As of this writing, the Optimist International building on Lindell Boulevard, at the southeast corner with North Taylor Avenue, has received a reprieve from demolition.

It is one of a number of Modernist office buildings built along that major artery, which once handled a gigantic amount of traffic back before the interstates were built, and before that, was lined with mansions. The Sanborn map below shows their footprint.

Detail Showing the Southeast Corner of Lindell Blvd and Taylot Ave, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, September, 1909, Plate 68.

Lindell is on the right, and the top three righthand houses are demolished, while the bottom right one still stands, as you can see below; you can sort of imagine looking west as if you are looking up on the Sanborn map.

Across Taylor is the Archbishop’s Residence, though from what I understand, he mainly lives at the seminary in Shrewsbury now to encourage young seminarians, and the huge mansion is more a formal reception hall.

There’s a towering apartment building that managed to squeeze into one lot that formerly held a stately mansion.

The front entrance looks like something from the set of the 1960s Star Trek series.

This is what was torn down for that apartment tower.

William Swekosky, Claus Vieths Residence, 4482 Lindell, 1960, Missouri History Museum, N06158

So let’s look at the “high merit” historic pavilion first, which was built in 1961.

I spoke with a gentleman who was picking up garbage off the sidewalk (he lives in an apartment building nearby), and he gave a thoughtful response to my question about what he thought about the possible demolition of the building. In summary, he said he would be sorry to see it go, but he had talked to employees who had complained about the lack of natural light in the offices. He also said he would miss the sculpture out front. The new design, at 6-7 floors, was much more palatable in his eyes than the massive 14-something story apartment building proposed previously. He also mentioned that while the Optimists are still a noble organization, he had heard they are not doing nearly as well financially as they were decades ago.

I could see how quality of working environment could be a problem with the size of windows, particularly on the partially buried first floor.

This mansion was torn down to build the pavilion; it was still standing in 1960.

William Swekosky, August Gehner House, Southeast Corner of Taylor Avenue and Lindell Boulevard, Built 1887. 1960, Missouri History Museum, N33798

The accompanying office building has extremely small windows, and was built in 1978.

It is not particularly remarkable in its design, though I suppose it matches the overall appearance of the original pavilion.

There is this ramp to nowhere in the back.

So what’s my opinion? Honestly, I could care less either way, which I’m sure will offend some readers, and perhaps surprise others. I recently told someone I’m a defender of quality, beautiful architecture, not a preservationist of buildings that are simply old, but that much of what I consider to be the former happens to be old. This building is indeed officially old now, but not particularly attractive, has major problems which need a savior to appear immediately to fix them or it will further slide into disrepair. I mean come on, the first floor floods frequently and it costs $20,000 a year to keep the elevator running?! A non-profit can’t spend that type of money in good conscience–in fact, it can be considered a violation of non-profit ethics to do so.

Let’s just repeat this one more time for the people in the back: the Optimists–which have shrunk dramatically in size since the height of their success years ago–can’t afford this building anymore, and preventing the sale of this building is causing them financial hardship because nobody wants the property for offices–potential buyers only want it for the land to build something new. If you would like to donate the millions of dollars needed to keep the Optimists in this building, and also provide them with a multi-million dollar building maintenance endowment, be my guest.

I will say this: the alder for the 17th Ward opposes its demolition, so that means that it almost certainly won’t be demolished unless she gives her permission. She also mentioned there is a non-profit looking into buying it. Really, the only hope is for an eccentric and very wealthy individual to buy and renovate the building. It has happened occasionally.

For some perspective, always remember, something else historic was demolished so the next “historic” building could be built. Imagine if this photograph below were still the view looking east down Lindell from Taylor. I know we can’t bring back the past, but neither can we prevent the future sometimes, either.

Emil Boehl, View of? Lindell from Taylor, c. 1887, Missouri History Museum, N38905

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan Lewis says:

    Excellent work Chris!

  2. Everett says:

    I agree that this building is not an outstanding example of Mid-Century architecture. Since we live in a era that is far from optimistic, I suppose the Optimist Society has become an anachronism and will most likely have to decamp to a more humble address. Bring on the ‘luxury’ apartments and abandon all hope.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      I sympathize with those wanting to save the building, but preservationists have to deal with the financials of the situation.

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