Friday, December 19, 2008

The Ghost of Christmas Past: The Fall of the May Legacy in St. Louis

Lowering the Famous Barr sign from the top of the Railway Exchange
above the Downtown store. Photo by Lynn Josse

2005 was a year that must have left Morton D. May rolling in his grave. In February, the May Company's longtime arch rival Federated Department Stores announced that it would acquire May for $11 Billion. Several years of flagging sales due to the company's inability to adjust and adapt to the new realities of retailing in the new millennium left it vulnerable to takeover.

More than three years later, The 21 story Railway Exchange Building, May Company's former headquarters stands dark and empty above the seventh floor. Fortunately, the building is in no danger, and in fact was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.

Just a few months after the downfall of Morton's namesake company came the destruction of his Ladue estate. Lost was undoubtedly one of the most significant examples of International Style architecture in St. Louis. Built in 1941, the home was designed by Samuel Marx, a successful Chicago architect and furniture designer who was May's uncle by marriage. Besides architecture and furniture, Marx was an avid art collector and influenced May in building his own collection.

A vintage photo of the north facade of the home from Modernism magazine

The home was demolished by Felix and Susan Williams, owners of The Screening Room in Frontenac so that they could build a new Super-size McMansion with a total living area of almost 19,000 square feet according to St. Louis County records proving that no matter how many truckloads of money you have, you cannot buy good taste. According to the Post-Dispatch, this atrocity was not the Williams first crime against modern architecture. In 1999, they bought and demolished a neighboring Harris Armstrong house and had it demolished simply so that their existing home would have a bigger yard. So next time you need to put a home theater in your basement, go to Hi-Fi Fo-Fum instead of the Screening Room.
Click here to see a vintage photo of the staircase

The living room had a large planter sunk into the terrazzo floor

The roof terrace off the master bedroom

The Williams are not the only ones to blame though. The 9 acre property had been marketed and was sold by real estate agent Anne Ryan as a teardown. Unfortunately there is a self-perpetuating fallacy amongst narrow minded real estate agents in the area that there is no market for modern homes in St. Louis. This small-minded thinking has led to the destruction of dozens of mid-century modern houses in the last decade.

When I heard that the homes days were numbered on a whim I grabbed the video camera in addition to my still camera. Below are two video segments documenting the estate. As you may gather from the video, I was almost as awe struck by the home's siting on its 9 acres of ground as I was with the home itself. To see more photos of the home, check out my set on Flickr.

When I returned a week later, this is all that was left

All is not lost though. Morton D. May left an extensive legacy with his art collections which he generously gifted to the St. Louis Art Museum, Washington University's Gallery of Art (now the Kemper Museum). Over the years, SLAM was the recipient of over three thousand works of art including the majority of its Pre-Colombian collection and its renowned collection of German Expressionists including Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and many others. May was also instrumental in the construction of the Gateway Arch president of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.

While Famous Barr is history, Macy's is still open in the original store Downtown, and has so far remained committed to keeping its presence there. This year more than any, the Downtown store could use your patronage, so if you have an urge to hit the post holiday sales, skip the mall and head to 6th & Olive. If you are there around lunch time, Papa Fabar's is still serving on the 2nd floor, and while it may not be as polished as it once was, the St. Louis Room on 6 has a lunch buffet featuring a different menu daily. Thursday's fried chicken and Monday's meat loaf and bread pudding are quite tasty, and yes you can still order the Famous french onion soup in either restaurant. Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukkah.


Chris said...

It doesn't help when the last owners of the house clearly put little to no money into maintenance. If it hadn't been in such bad shape, the myopic realtor might have actually tried to market it as a valuable house in its own right.

Anonymous said...

The people responsible for this should be arrested.

Anonymous said...

did you know that the papas home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright may soon be up for sale? I hope someone comes up and buys this gem

Anonymous said...

I think the last owners were a chinese family who sold the property and now live next door on upper warson. From what i was told their son went to country day so they had plenty of money but must of had NO taste and a disregard for preservation.

Anonymous said...

McMansions are sexy.

Chris said...

China is long overdue for its own preservation movement; much of its history is being swept away right now for the building of "new and better" buildings.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what Chinese McMansions are like?

Andrew R said...

As an example of a reasonably mild version (from the exterior anyway) of a Chinese McMansion, check out this image.

In actual fact, I believe the long time owners of the house were Korean. I'd contacted them many years ago (early 1990s) and discussed how they could bring the house up to current standards while maintaining its architectural integrity.

Three few facts made it abundantly clear that they had no sympathy whatsoever for the house.

First, they asked what could be done with the steel columns (located along the long glazed south wall. I made a few comments about how they could be refinished. They responded by asking how they could be turned into marble columns with capitals, etc.

Second, they asked me what could be done with the white-painted brick exterior. I again made some suggestions about repairing and refinishing the exterior brick surfaces. They responded by asking, "How can we get rid of the brick?"

Third, at the time they purchased the nine acrea property on which the house sat (along with gardens, pool, pool house, meadow, and other landscape features) they immediately subdivided the property placing the property line directly through the center of the house itself.

Clearly they had no intention of investing any money into the structure and could only foresee selling the property for it's real estate value. I'm certain they were visited over the years by many developers salivating over the prospect of that wide open land there on South Warson Road.

I helped to curate a traveling exhibition that included photographs, drawings, and other documentation on the house.

Andrew R said...

Here's a link to a real Chinese mansion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention, we at Fum love old arcitecture, just look at our building...

Totalrenovering said...

The owner is the first person to be responsible to protect this house and preserve its beauty. So if the owner abandoned it, it means they don't care and not protect their house. But I know there's a hope for this house for its new look. Thank you for posting.

Anonymous said...

The destruction of this house is an idiotic and sad travesty! This is not as is suggested by this blog and its followers the fault of the owners but the fault of the community. The architectural preservation movement has been well underway for a good twenty years and there is no reason that a house with such strong ties to the social fabric of St. Louis should ever have gone unprotected. This is a no many houses of this style and quality could there be in St. Louis- by no less than the famous Samuel Marx. WAKE UP ST. LOUIS!!

Spazzolinolini said...

Are there any existing plans to the house? I collect and maintain international and Mid Century blueprints, and have even rebuilt demolished homes. I'd love to get a hold of either an original or a copy. Is there any info that you know that could help?

Vanishing STL said...

I will admit that I have not done an extensive search myself, but they must exist somewhere since a portion of the floor plan shows up in Liz O'Brian's beautiful book: Ultramodern Samuel Marx. There is a chapter of the book devoted to the May house.

Here is her contact page from her website: