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An obligation to preserve and to put to good uses

4:45 pm on Wed, 03.14.12

The Beacon prides itself on taking folks places they’ve never been before, and in June, we’ll be tour guiding in person as part of our annual Beacon Festival. We have nothing, however, on Esley Hamilton, who is preservation historian at the St. Louis County Parks.

Hamilton is recognized as one of the best-informed authorities on St. Louis history and the buildings that speak of that history so eloquently. He also is editor of the News Letter of the Society of Architecture Historians in this region and author of many of the articles that appear in it. This publication is not only a reliable source of information on local architectural history but also is a conscience of a sorts, a reminder of our obligation to protect our built past.

In the last News Letter, Hamilton announced a tour of two important buildings on North Union Boulevard. Both are in need of renovation; both have great potential as cultural resources. In the headline of his article, Hamilton promised treasure. His promise was no exaggeration. Those of us who joined the tour, led by Hamilton and his collaborator Mimi Stiritz, a frequently consulted source of his, surely did find treasures, plural, not singular, and the treasures are the two buildings themselves and what we saw and experienced inside their walls.

Together as representatives of a moment in time, and individually as distinctive works of the building art, they speak an eloquent language of function and of form.  In one, a group of stained glass windows glow forth with exceptional quality and originality. In the other, a tiny jewel of a theater begs to be brought to life as a vessel for small ensemble performances. Although these buildings unquestionably show the effects of time, both maintain the aesthetic muscle to take your breath away.

Both the buildings are for sale through the Hilliker Corp. They are the former Unitarian Church of the Messiah at Union and Enright Avenue, and its next-door neighbor to the north, the former Artists’ Guild.

To fully appreciate the importance the Church of the Messiah building, you have to go back to the first half of the 19th century, when the legendary William Greenleaf Eliot arrived in St. Louis from Boston. In 1834, Eliot was newly graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. In St. Louis, he founded the Church of the Messiah, the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi.

He would go from his pulpit to success after success here. He was, for example, father of Washington University in St. Louis; its first name was Eliot Seminary. He was committed to educational excellence for women, so he also founded Mary Institute, and named the school for a beloved, deceased daughter, Mary Rhodes Eliot. His grandson was the poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot.

The origin of the St. Louis Art Museum can be traced to William Greenleaf Eliot, thanks to its original status as part of Washington U. Other of Eliot’s efforts include an impressive list of civic and educational organizations and causes. He was, for example, an advocate of women’s suffrage. A Washington University website notes that when Ralph Waldo Emerson came to St. Louis on a visit, he met Eliot, and having heard of his accomplishments dubbed him “The Saint of the West.”

Eliot’s congregation passed through several homes before landing on a location at Locust and Garrison streets. For that site, Eliot summoned the firm of Peabody and Stearns from Boston to design a fitting church building for the ever more important and influential congregation. Some of the most distinctive and artistically significant elements of that now-long-gone building were its windows. A Scot, Daniel Cottier, created them. They are indeed treasures -- rare examples by an artist whose work was celebrated and esteemed in its day but whose name is largely forgotten now. Ironically, an artist he influenced – Louis Comfort Tiffany – eclipsed Cottier.

The Unitarian congregation left Garrison and Locust in the early years of the 20th century, and when it moved, it had the good sense to take its Cottier windows along, and we are so lucky someone had the presence of mind to protect them. The St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden designed the new Messiah on Union to accommodate them.

Besides their remarkable beauty, they reveal an evolution in Cottier’s career. The earlier windows, fitted into the south wall of the nave toward the back of the building, are prettier and sweeter and more the sort of window one expects to find in a church. The later windows are more adventuresome and robust, and remind me of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. No surprise, because Cottier, like Rossetti, studied with Ford Madox Brown. In light of that tradition, Cottier’s windows depart courageously from the usual narrative fenestrations of early 20th century ecclesiastical buildings.

The building next door to the church had high artistic purpose. It was built for the Artists’ Guild, and if you look carefully at its façade, you’ll see a delightful frieze of repeated paint palettes and brushes proclaiming an intention of the building. Like the Church of the Messiah, the Guild building occupied an important niche in the life of the community, providing space for exhibitions, lessons, meetings and performances and an atmosphere conducive to discussion, and, more than likely, arguments.  One of its principal patrons of the Artists’ Guild was the great St. Louis capitalist, philanthropist and highly regarded collector and patron of the arts, W. K. Bixby. Bixby Hall, home of Washington U.’s Fine Arts School, is named for him.

The Artists’ Guild building (1907) was designed by Louis Spiering, who also was architect of many buildings for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, as well as the Sheldon Concert Hall, celebrating its centenary this year.  In 1916, an impressively rigged theater, designed by Laurence Ewald, was added to the Guild building. Interior alterations have dimmed what must have been an extraordinary gallery, theater and meeting place. Its good bones, its character and its graceful proportions are easily discerned, however, and its vaulted, multi-columned basement is a wonder to behold.

During the age in which the Artists’ Guild and the Church of the Messiah were built, the stretch of North Union between Delmar Boulevard and Cabanne Avenue was a Parnassus, home to public and private schools, churches, the Cabanne Branch library, and a YMHA that was not only a center of physical strength but intellectual rigor as well.

All of this brings us back to the subject of treasures, and what’s to be done with them, and what I regard as an obligation to preserve them.

As often noted here, a good measure of the luster of St. Louis, and no small part of its fame beyond our regional boundaries, is its architectural inventory. If, first, we as a community recognize and embrace this heritage, we will be better able to carry forth preservation and maintenance to the next step. While it is certainly better to preserve historically and culturally significant buildings than to capriciously let them fall into ruin or to rip them apart and tear them down, the better, more substantial, more responsible strategy is to combine preservation with reuse, and further, to weave this strategy into a tight braid with context.

Such an opportunity is on North Union Boulevard.  The church and Guild buildings, as Hamilton says, are the heart of an incredible ensemble of institutional landmarks that distinguish this stretch of the cityscape.  One of the resident buildings, the Union Avenue Christian Church, is home to Union Avenue Opera. That company has established itself as an important fixture of the St. Louis musical scene. As such, it could provide a foundation for the development of a dynamic cultural center, perhaps a satellite facility for a college or university in need of room to grow.

Such an expansion – an institutional evolution really --  one that involves putting strong, existing buildings of genuine architectural and historic merit to good uses, does more than the important work of protecting the architectural integrity of this region. It would do that, but at the same time, would perform one of the most important  functions of an intelligent and responsible population.   

That function, at once conservative and progressive, establishes a tradition with its own integrity, and sets forth an example of cultural responsibility for future generations to see, to enjoy and to emulate.

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