St. Louis may have lost its Arena, but the distinctive Lamella roof design lives on
A 9-second video on YouTube shows just how quickly the St. Louis Arena went from being one of the city's most beloved locations to mere rubble.
But the Arena's architect Gustel R. Kiewitt and his legacy lives to this day in some of St. Louis' historic structures such as Ladue Middle School, St. Elizabeth Academy and Lutheran High School South.
Kiewitt specialized in the Lamella roof design, best described as pieces of lumber joined together in a net-like fashion to cover large spaces in one clear span. This eliminated the need for large view-obstructing pillars. When the Arena was constructed, it was the world's largest clear-span roof structure.
Ask anyone who lived in St. Louis between 1929 and 1999 and they will likely have some memory of gazing up at the Arena's unique 476-feet-long and 276-feet-wide dome-like structure. It could have been a Blues hockey game, a concert, the circus or even the Gypsy Caravan.
“I still know the address: 5700 Oakland Ave.,” said Rick Dent, of Maryland Heights.
Dent said he remembers the first time he took his son to a hockey game and even where he was the day the Arena was demolished.
“I remember watching it on the news and seeing people crying. They had a big crowd outside,” he said.
Dent, who works on the maintenance crew at Ladue Middle School, said he didn’t realize the school's gymnasium roof was designed by the same man who designed the city's treasured Arena.
To learn the Arena's architectural history, talk to Kiewitt's daughter Kitty Mollman and granddaughter Melanie Mollman Hancock, of St. Louis.
“No one really knows (Lamella roofs) still exist around here,” said Hancock.
She said she went to Ladue Middle School as a child, which still has her grandfather's Lamella roof design intact.
Lamella roofs were developed in Germany in the early 1900, said Kitty Mollman. Because they used light-weight, pre-fabricated pieces, Lamella was ideal for low-cost housing. While Mollman's father didn’t develop the Lamella roof, he was the first to truly take off with the design in the United States for a large-scale structure.
Despite the design's lessening popularity, Lamella roofs can be found all across the country. Kiewitt also designed the Astrodome in Houston and the Superdome in New Orleans. Mollman said many exhibition centers now opt for retractable and more mechanically advanced roofs.
But the strength of Lamella roofs is clear. A tornado ripped a hole in one portion of the Arena roof in 1958 but the rest of the roof's condition was fine, Mollman said.
“That's testimony to that design,” she said.
Kitty Mollman said many individuals and organizations worked to save the Arena before it was demolished in 1999.
"Lots of people tried to find lots of uses for it,” she said. “Washington University School of Engineering and Architecture had a big day-long meeting trying to find out what to do with it.”
Landmarks Association, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to preserve historic architectural structures, had also tried saving the St. Louis Arena, Mollman said.
“The difficult thing was to find someone to pay to modernize (the Arena). It was really, very expensive,” Mollman said.
Much of the building's interior would have to have been reconfigured, such as the Arena's steep seating that proved difficult to reach for those with a physical disabilties.
Beacon Festival: We’ll meet at the Thomas Jefferson School to learn about the roof system, with observations and memorabilia presented by Kitty Mollman. The event is co-sponsored by Thomas Jefferson School, whose chef is preparing a reception following the talks.
When: 5 p.m. June 20
Where: Thomas Jefferson School, 4100 South Lindbergh
How much: $35
She said she sent a letter to the demolition company requesting to have a piece of the roof as a memory but never received a response.
“I was kind of hoping it wouldn't fall down," she said. “It's really a shame that it's gone.”
Mollman's daughter Melanie said she was on her way home from a horse show the day one of her grandfather's greatest architectural feats was demolished. The timing was such that she changed her route home so she could avoid seeing the empty space.
“All your life you drive past the Arena and you look at it and you know 'my grandpa built that' and then it's not there anymore,” she said. “If you have a connection to it, it's a whole other ball game.”
As part of the 3rd Annual Beacon Fest, Mollman will speak June 20 under a Lamella roof at Thomas Jefferson School in Sunset Hills about her father's roof designs. In preparation for the event, she and her daughter have been digging up some of Kiewitt's original Lamella roof drawings.