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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Certainly This Will Be an Impressive Monument"

On the afternoon of Monday, July 20, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald officially issued the demolition permit for the DeVille Motor Hotel (formerly the San Luis Apartments) at 4483 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End. Ahrens Demolition had already been working on interior demolition and abatement, and wasted no time removing windows and concrete panels. By mid-week, the east wing of the old modern motel was reduced to a shell after Ahrens obliterated the exterior envelope and started in on the concrete structure.

The previous Friday, July 17, the Friends of the San Luis filed a petition for injunctive relief in circuit court. We contended that our right to appeal issuance of the demolition permit, which could only be exercised after the permit was issued, was moot if the wrecking ball was swinging. Judge Rober J. Dierker, Jr. denied our initial motion for a temporary restraining order and then, on Monday July 27, dismissed our petition. The legal wrangling had no impact on demolition activity, of course, but the loss is now a fact of life.

This is a sad end to a building whose idiosyncratic modern form was once hailed as innovative. Architect Charles Colbert designed the motel to rise far above the ranks of the Holiday Inns and Downtowners springing up in urban settings across the country. While definitely automobile-oriented, the DeVille had a sense of urban setting many of its contemporaries lacked. The motel made deft use of its site, reserving only the existing setback on Lindell for a lawn and building out the rest of the site.

Yet the mass, site and style were not the only features noted in the press. When the builders broke ground in October 1961, they were making local building history. The new DeVille Motor Hotel would be the first major building built after the city's adoption of a new building code earlier that year.

Prior to the 1961 building code, large buildings were restrained by requirements that the majority of wall surface area meet a defined thickness. Materials like concrete panels and glass had to be employed within larger wall systems, and could not be used to clad an entire building. Before 1961, construction of a glass high-rise in St. Louis was not permitted by code. The removal of the old restrictions allowed St. Louis to embrace the building technologies that allowed for fully modern architectural expression.

Mayor Raymond Tucker was an enthusiast for the DeVille project. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from 1961 ("$4,500,000 Hotel to Be Built at Corner of Lindell, Taylor," September 30, 1961), the mayor raved: "Certainly, this will be an impressive monument to the perseverance of those far-sighted citizens who worked on our code for more than five years."

Greater modern expressions would rise in St. Louis, of course, but the DeVille was the first to fully embrace the code. For 46 years, the DeVille remained an impressive monument to the potential of modern design.


Andrew R said...

Thank you for your efforts with regard to the San Luis. It's sad that narrow-mindedness and judicial activism (of a retrograde sort) has resulted in this loss.

Our community will hopefully have learned some important lessons that will come in handy on the next significant battle over the historic preservation of mid-century modern works.

Doug Duckworth said...

I hope so, but unless this is appealed they have the cards in their hands.

Anonymous said...

Save up your money and buy stuff like this yourselves instead of impinging on property owners rights.

Good riddance!

Anonymous said...

Ah, the old property owners' rights shtick.

What if I bought the house next to your and parked a monster truck in the front yard, had parties in the bed of the truck until 4 a.m. and painted my house lime green?

Hmmm. Don't like that? Huh? What about "property owners' rights"?

Anonymous said...

Sheesh! The Archdiocese had the demo equipment on the San Luis quicker than a priest alone with an altar boy. Why the rush to create a surface parking lot?

Anonymous said...

Maybe they'll put up a CVS on the site; we don't have enough corporate chains in the city yet.