Book Celebrates Our Great American City

AmericanCitycoverIf you’re like me, you love to marvel at the sometimes hidden, and often under-appreciated collection of beautiful architecture that still stands in our fair city. Unlike many major cities in the U.S., St. Louis has a deep treasure trove of many styles of architecture, both commercial and residential, that has been well-preserved for well over a century. Sure, some of it is lost–destroyed or left to crumble by short-sighted owners or caretakers over the years–but a large stock still exists, and you don’t have to look too hard to find it.

The wonderful publication I’m highlighting in today’s post, entitled  American City: Three Centuries of Classic Design, superbly chronicles some of our most notable structures, with crisp color photos that perfectly complement the work of the architects that created them. Many of the documented structures are familiar to us: Like the Old Post Office, the Central Library (vastly refurbished since the book’s publication), the hulking Merchandise Mart, the Civil Courts Building and the Missouri Athletic Club. Landmarks all, to be sure. Other treasures aren’t quite so obvious, but are all deserving of an examination: The Wainwright Tomb in Bellefontaine Cemetery, the Compton Hill Water Tower, the Lionberger House, and the Bee Hat Building, to name but a few.

Author Robert Sharoff provides a concise description of the great variety of structures he includes in the book. William Zbaren’s photographs are masterful tributes, capturing both the overall majesty of the buildings, as well as small inset shots depicting the most minute details. Even these shots are miniature masterpieces.

Mark Twain once stated, “The first time I ever saw St. Louis I could have bought it for six million dollars and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it.” Well, no matter what it was worth on that fateful day in Twain’s life, it is, thanks to our architectural treasures, priceless today.

Compton Heights: Still Stately After All These Years

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For my first informational post, I’d like to take you to my all-time favorite St. Louis neighborhood: Compton Heights. I became intimately familiar with many of the monumental homes in this stately and historic area during my 13 years of playing saxophone in the Compton Heights Concert Band. During those years, I had the great privilege of helping to organize fund-raising house tours to benefit the band. It was a lot of hard work, but also a great way to take a trip back in time to enjoy a true insider’s look at some of the finest homes in a city with a great deal of wondrous residential architecture.

Compton Heights consists of two streets, Hawthorne and Longfellow boulevards, which form a long lima bean shape between them as they curve gently from Grand Avenue on the west, to Russell Blvd. on the north. The streets were designed and laid out by Julius Pitzman in 1889-1890. From its beginnings, Compton Heights was a favorite residential area of the city’s more prosperous German families, and a good number of them called upon the services of German architects to design their homes. Much of this work was dominated by two notable architects: Otto Wilhelmi and Ernst Janssen.

I’ve been out of the band since 1994, but I still return when I can, to stroll around the gracefully curving streets, remembering the years I spent in the shadows of these amazing homes. The home pictured above is a good example of what you’ll see in “The Heights.” Built in 1903, this French Renaissance-style home is located at 3263 Hawthorne. It was designed by Ernst Janssen for Louis and Bertha Stockstrom. Stockstrom is widely known for another home he later occupied in Compton Heights: His “Magic Chef” mansion at 3400 Russell.

On your next trip to the city, drive through and marvel at the turn-of-the-century elegance that stands as a testament to St. Louis’ rich legacy of residential architecture. Prepare to be amazed!