Weese & Kiley’s Mid-Century Forest Park Campus Threatened

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Thousands of students descended on the modern new campus on opening day in September 1967. There were housewives and veterans, recent high school grads and draft dodgers. They were future nurses and medical assistants, technicians, musicians and tradesmen. Many were educationally disadvantaged students who otherwise had little chance of an education beyond high school.

Many had come to this location as children, for they gathered at the site where once had stood The Comet, Amerca’s tallest and longest roller coaster with nine drops, a double dip and a 500-foot tunnel. On Friday July 19, 1963, after a restaurant fire, the Comet had watched as the rest of Forest Park Highlands burned to the ground beneath it. The Comet was disassembled and the charred remains of the Highlands bulldozed. In its place rose what then was known as Forest Park Community College.

Opening in 1967, college construction would continue for three more years. By 1970, William Moore could note in Against the Odds that 307 other community colleges already had sent representatives to Forest Park Community College to observe and learn. Forest Park was designed to be a leader that other colleges follow.

And the best designers lay behind plans for the new campus. From 1964 to 1967, acclaimed mid-century architect Harry Weese and younger brother Ben (later one of the Chicago Seven) had worked with landscape architect Dan Kiley—the father of modern landscape architecture—to design an integrated, modern campus.

Fifty years later, St. Louis Community College plans to demolish two of Weese’s mid-century towers at the heart of the complex on Oakland Avenue and construct a new Allied Health building on Kiley’s lawn.

Harry Weese, Urbanist & Preservationist

A midwesterner trained at MIT and Yale, Harry Weese studied urban design at Cranbrook under Eliel Saarinen. His fellow students included Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia and Florence Knoll. He worked briefly for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York during the late 1940s before opening his own practice in Chicago.

Harry Weese loved old buildings, loved cities, loved public spaces, loved modern design and loved alcohol. All these he loved greatly. Before the last of these loves finally took its toll, Weese made major contributions in all of the other areas. As a juror in the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, his was the voice that advocated against great opposition for Maya Lin’s wall of names. In his 1998 obituary, the New York Times describes Weese as “the architect […who…] produced some of the most powerful public spaces of our time.”

Weese was among the second generation of modernist architects like Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. Though Weese never achieved the same international fame of Saarinen or Johnson, in some way his impact was greater. A rare advocate of historic preservation among modernists, Weese was partly responsible for saving Chicago’s Navy Pier, and in 1978 he even proposed that that city’s “L” stations be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1967, he undertook the renovation of Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theater in Chicago. He supervised the restoration of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and Union Station in Washington.

Weese was also unabashedly an urbanist. Weese argued that the post-war boom in suburban development was wasteful and inherently unsustainable, and he advocated for higher density middle-class housing with access to public spaces and amenities. In an article in Places Journal, Ian Baldwin argues that Weese’s “unrelenting urban boosterism and deep commitment to public life and preservation made him arguably more influential than any of his contemporaries.”1

Weese’s Kinder, Gentler (Humanistic) Brutalism

Weese brought an independent voice to his design work. At a time when modern architecture conjured images of cold and expansive concrete brutalism, Weese brought in warmer materials and local textures. His 1958 United States Embassy in Accra, Ghana included louvered mahogany bays floating above delicate white pilotis. The overall effect is organic, warm and modern.

In his 1962 First Baptist Church in Columbus, Indiana—the church is a national historic landmark—Weese made use of warm red brick in a sculptural design that makes for a kinder and gentler interpretation of the brutalism then dominant in Europe and America. When much modern architecture had become formulaic, Weese’s 1968 Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist on Chicago’s Wacker Drive provided an expressive solution to an awkward site along the Chicago River, and it did so with a massing that addressed the monumental scale of the neighborhood.

1962 First Baptist Church—Columbus, Indiana:

1968 Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist—Chicago:

Much of Weese’s work is in the warmer materials of stone, brick, and wood. Yet he also experimented with steel, albeit the warm corten steel beloved of so many modern sculptors. In The Architecture of Harry Weese, historian Robert Bruegmann notes designs that push far beyond the orthodox International Style of Mies van der Rohe. Weese’s 1968 Shadowcliff is a home office suspended from corten beams cantilevered out from a Wisconsin rock face high above Lake Michigan. A window in the floor allows for views in all directions.

The Graham Foundation describes the work of Weese and Associates as syncretistic.

Although Weese was a self-avowed modernist, his early work … disregards numerous modernist conventions. Unfettered by the philosophical preconceptions of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, Weese appears, like Saarinen and Aalto, to subscribe to a more humanistic modernism. … Weese’s buildings provide insight into a uniquely American approach to mid-century modern architecture that never lost sight of the social, political, and economic realities of contemporary life.2

 

Weese is perhaps best known for his design for the Washington Metro. At the height of the Cold War, the Metro’s graceful concrete vaults—now threatened with white paint by government bureaucrats—were designed to contrast with the fussy ornament of Moscow’s Stalinist subway stations. Good modern design has an economy of form, and Weese’s Metro remains a monument to the subtlety of the modern vision.

The Design for the College at Forest Park

The Junior College District of St. Louis and St. Louis County planned for a college on the site of the Highlands. It was one of three colleges backed by a $47 million bond issue, which at the time made it the most ambitious building program in the history of public higher education in the United States. According to the District minutes, the 35-acre Forest Park site was intended to house 7,000 full-time day students.

For their design for Forest Park Community College, Harry Weese and Associates and Dan Kiley envisioned a four-story complex arranged along two horizontal spines. Terraces and a sunken gathering space would tie the buildings together. Circulation would be by exterior walkways along the spine on the ground floor. These walkways would connect individual towers. Lecture halls were to be on the lower level, with labs on the top floor and classrooms and offices on the floors in between.

Kiley recently had finished his role with Eero Saarinen in designing the grounds of the Gateway Arch. For the college, he and Weese planned a series of courtyards connecting the spines at the western end of the campus. Trees would shadow the courtyards, the largest of which would step down to a large fountain, providing an exterior auditorium when dry.

A lawn to the north (facing Forest Park) would slope gradually down to a lake, which was never built. At the far eastern terminus of the spine, Tower A would stand atop a tall earthen berm. That berm and Tower A would jut out into the lake like Cahokia Mound rising above the flood plain. Across the lake would stand the theatre.

With the exception of the lake, much of the complex was built as designed. It has seen few alterations in half a century, with the exceptions of the ever growing surface parking lots to the south and the removal of some trees.

Weese’s structures float above a first floor of brick pilotis (piers) set on a concrete base. A fourth floor projects out from the mass of the building. Stair towers on the south side of the spine break up that facade, while the north facade accentuates the horizontal line of the complex. Weese designed bands of windows set back deeply from the brick facade, providing dramatic shadow lines. Perpendicular passageways pierce the spine at regular intervals, providing transparency through the brick spine. The red brickwork itself provides a texture and warmth not often seen in brutalist works from the period. Kiley intended his trees, once mature, further to soften the massing of the ensemble.

Together, Weese and Kiley created a modern center for public education that was simultaneously dense, urban and green. The master plan was approved in February 1965 and the initial building designs in June of that year. Rallo Construction and Kloster Construction built the complex. A spread in the Post-Dispatch on August 20, 1967 noted that between 4,000 and 5,000 students were inspected to enroll that fall, even though half the buildings were still under construction.

Thirty years after its construction, an article in Inland Architect extolled the design.

The student union, library, classroom and theatre buildings are models of how well buildings can be designed. Really virtuoso performances of structural/architectural spatial configurations, superb natural lighting and well-appointed materials, and the brick cladding is beautifully detailed.

 

Demolition for Towers A & B

Brutalism in architecture drew its name from the French brut—raw—referring to the raw or unfinished concrete surfaces favored my many mid-century architects. Even where brutalism adapted to other materials, it was typically massive in scale and sculptural in design. Brutalism was a reaction to the perceived frivolity of much modern design, a way of communicating the seriousness of architecture and of buildings and of the uses they serve. As such, brutalism found its most common expression in government and educational uses. But brutalism always had its detractors who perceived many such buildings as cold, totalitarian and … well … brutal.

After being maligned for decades, movements now are underway to preserve brutalist designs. In a culture that prioritizes the new, a 50-year-old design is often the most endangered. And Weese and Kiley’s design is now in its fifties. If the campus of St. Louis Community College—Forest Park is brutalism, then it is a very subtle, warm and humane brutalism. If you can look beyond the unfortunate parking lots and the bathrooms and fixtures that haven’t been updated in fifty years, the fact remains. Weese and Kiley’s design is stunningly good mid-century architecture.

In architecture, there are permanent buildings and then there are buildings that are disposable.

The school administration’s current plan is to build a $32 million 65,000 square foot Allied Health Building on Dan Kiley’s lawn facing Oakland Ave. The school will demolish Weese and Associates’ berm-topping Tower A—the most graceful in the complex—as well as Tower B. They will preserve the school’s surface parking lots.

In 1994, Weese and Kiley’s design for Forest Park Community College won the first ever 25-Year Award bestowed by the American Institute of Architects, St. Louis Chapter for buildings that have “withstood the test of time.” Twenty-three years after that award, the school’s leadership is seeking demolition.

Here we have the work of Harry Weese, that modernist who stood out for his advocacy to preserve our built history, and who simultaneously made history as one of the greats of modern architecture. And here we see a landscape by Dan Kiley, the father of modern landscape architecture. Here we see something permanent. And here we see plans to remove it for something disposable.

Notes:
1.https://placesjournal.org/article/the-architecture-of-harry-weese/
2.http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/5086-creative-syncretism-the-early-architectural-works-of-harry-weese-columbus-indiana

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  • Dahmen Piotraschke

    Great article..so much important history. However, the school is a nostalgic STL landmark that has been “brutally” neglected and left to the elements. Without landscape changes and upkeep, the school was destined for this final destination. A’s a great 60’s MCM dream realized, it should have been rehabbed and modernized with some investment. Now it’s not cost-efficient. Student debt and higher tuition makes the Comet amusement center a more fitting solution come full circle.

  • CWEnder
  • Presbyterian
  • Pingback: Rainy Day Brutalism – St. Louis Community College, Forest Park -Harry Weese – Dan Kiley – The Dassler Effect()

  • Blake Eastwood

    I’m very sad to hear of the plans to tear down the towers. How the buildings are viewed by the masses is irrelevant. The fact that the buildings and campus were designed by Weese and Kiley should trigger an automated protection clause. We need to save and preserve our city’s few MCM architectural treasures, not tear down and replace with more midwestern mediocrity.

  • kjohnson04

    A & B Tower are integral to the building. The massive surface parking lot is not. Build on that. Considering that the campus is served by a branch of the 59 and the 95, 32, and 14 are routed in the nearby area, the ridiculous amount of parking isn’t warranted.

    • Steve Kluth

      If the parking is used, it’s warranted. However, it could be accommodated by a parking structure and the new building built on some of the current lots. Ideally all the surface lots would be eliminated and anything not needed for the new building and parking structures would be green space.

  • Tim E

    I’m of two opinions,

    Either embrace the neighborhood again by investing in a through street along the south side of the campus and start divesting some of the surface parking to developers. The addition of so much surface parking truly took brutalism to new level and IMO it hurt the campus in long run.
    ..
    Or truly seek a new urban campus within downtown or near downtown within walking distance of metrolink or along a new N-S streetcar alignment. I believe Laclede’s Landing and or Cupple’s location would work well. Both locations in my opinion would offer great metrolink access as well as space north riverside or Choteau creek to develop recreational facilities beneficial to the student body and downtown residents.. It also offers a truly different campus feel from the rest. Heck, I think CORTEX embracing community college for a dense campus near Boyle ave metrolink station or SLU incorporate the community college as part of a bigger Grand Ave station/Armory development would work.

    • kjohnson04

      They wanted to run MetroLink down 40/64 at one point, but MoDOT didn’t want mass transit upstaging their “fixing” of 40/64.

  • Bill Wischmeyer

    Pretty sure Ben Weese is Harry’s younger brother, not his son

    • Presbyterian

      Good catch. Harry was a Harry Jr. and his and Ben’s father was Harry Sr. I’ll see if we can correct that.

      • Presbyterian

        Article has been corrected. Thanks again.

  • Chicagoan

    Weese & Kiley is hard to beat, in terms of a mid-century design duo.

  • Matt B

    In all honesty, I’ve never been a fan of MCM architecture and MCM Brutalism even less so. I can remember the first time I saw these buildings, I thought they were a prison (not really a message one would want to convey on a school, in my opinion) but they are still significant. Just because it’s not as old or as beautiful as earlier architecture, it doesn’t mean it’s no relevant or important to our cultural heritage, especially given their design being by a notable architect.

  • STLrainbow

    My ideal world would be the STLCC system sells this campus and moves to a downtown location that is accessible to Metrolink and multiple bus lines; in turn the campus is redeveloped in a creative manner that saves its essential elements while adding mixed-use density to a highly desirable location. What would that ultimately look like? I don’t know but it would have to involve re-surfacing that lunar surface known as Oakland Avenue!

    • STLEnginerd

      This. I will admit I have a greater appreciation for these buildings but not enough to significantly lament their loss.

      I will say it makes more sense to me to divest the gymnasium and softball field than classrooms both because of their relative location on the campus and their relationship to the central product of the college.

      Secondarily it depends a lot on what allied health is proposing to build. It’s a little disconcerting no renderings or site plans have been released prior to announcement of demo.

      Long term moving the campus downtown or downtown adjacent makes a lot of sense to me. Forest park adjacent properties have a lot of potential for redevelopment and downtown needs more activity and youthful energy. I always liked the idea of a campus at Chouteaus Landing…

    • Presbyterian

      They’re actually selling their downtown building to help pay for the rebuild at Forest Park. There’s an article in this week’s Business Journal.

  • CWEnder

    I really treasure this building. I just bought “This Brutal World” (Phaidon) last week. Now this.

  • Framer

    I love these buildings! I’m very upset to hear of this demo plan. We’re losing another landmark. When will people ever learn?

    Absolutely insane, and obviously unnecessary. For god’s sake, BUILD ON THE PARKING LOTS!

    (Great article, Greg)

    • Presbyterian

      When I look at the St. Louks Art Museum, they built their addition on a parking lot and did so in a way that was sensitive to the original design. There are great models out there for how to add to an existing work by a respected architect. It seems to me that the bulldoze-and-replace approach isn’t needed here.

      • Adam

        Well… they could have been more sensitive. I will NEVER get over the fact that they cleaved off the decorative elements around the eastern entrance. Completely unnecessary and disrespectful, IMO.

  • Wayne D

    The faster these ugly buildings come down the faster STL CC can become more attractive for new students. It looks like a prison. All to often I read articles on this site that are in favor of saving buildings because of the architect who designed them and that argument is pointless to many people, they may have once been great buildings for their era but in todays world they are non functional and need to demolished and rebuilt to adhere to today’s needs/standards. Out of all the great architecture in this city this building is one of the last ones anyone should make an argument for saving…..even if God built it himself!

    • Brian

      The same could be said of Union Station, Railway Exchange, Scottish Rite, etc. These buildings are essentially non-functional and do not meet today’s standards/needs. The same argument was made in decades past regarding the Old Post Office, the Wainwright, and the WashAv Garment District, all of which were considered by some to be candidates for demolition. Have you ever taken classes at FoPoCoCo, or even spent time on the campus? My five children did (the most recent one in 2015), and they received a good value in education. The facilities are not plush, but they are functional. FoPoCoCo prepared my kids well enough that they all went to 4-year residential colleges essentially cost-free (including room and board), and have completed 4 graduate degrees (Belmont, UMD, and Yale), with more to come in the future.

      • Wayne D

        I’m not contesting the value of the education they received, I’m sure it was great, however they are losing students at that location because the customer feels the same way I do. Its extremely uninviting, very boring and again looks like a prison. I’m not 100% but I believe the plan is to only take down half of the long building to the east to give it a more open and inviting feel and a better aesthetic look from HWY40. The plans I’ve seen are a drastic improvement. I also don’t think its fair to compare the architecture on this building to those you mentioned downtown. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder I guess but fortunately most people feel the way I do about this campus.

        • Adam

          “…but fortunately most people feel the way I do about this campus.”

          have you conducted a survey? i appreciate that you don’t find them attractive, but let’s abstain from asserting things that we can’t corroborate.

        • Brian

          The Old Post Office was a candidate for demolition in the 1960’s. I remember a letter my mother wrote that was printed in the old St. Louis Globe Democrat arguing against the demolition. At the time, the building was seen as outdated, ugly, and without value. It took several years and tens of millions of dollars of public money to change this perception. The same might be true of FoPo. If Busch Stadium II had lasted another 20 years, it might have been preserved for the ages like the Coliseum.

  • WikiWild

    Not sure how functional the buildings are for the students/faculty but there sure is a lot of green space and surface parking for an “urban campus”. (Appears to be more surface parking than SLU with their new additions).

    • Presbyterian

      Perhaps that surface parking woud be an excellent location for a new allied health building.

      • kjohnson04

        Yes. Please. The parking is so ridiculous you need a map and campus to find your car. They could literally build a second campus just on parking lot, and still have green space.

    • There’s no dorms, and it’s not an “urban campus”- students come from all over the region. Parking is essential.

      • Dorms??

        Did someone mention dorms? Also – SLCC at Meremec is not an urban campus. SLCC’s Forest Park campus is flanked by regional urban assets, multi-story apartment buildings with structured parking, office buildings, and an urban neighborhood. I’d say this area definitely merits a discussion about structured parking replacing some of the surface parking.

      • kjohnson04

        It isn’t. There are two MetroLink stations within a 15 minute walk; it’s served by at least 4 bus lines, and on of those has a tripper that runs from CWE to FPCC only several times a day. What the campus does need, however, are bike racks. And the that unbuildt lake.

  • David Hoffman

    I don’t think the buildings compare aesthetically to any of the other architecture you refer to. I’ve never thought of the Forest Park CC buildings as architecturally significant. They seem just a step above temporary buildings to me.

  • Brian Randazzo

    Great Article. Historic preservation has to be an intentional effort and should always be considered.

  • John

    Thoughtful article with excekkent photos and references. When should buildings be saved versus when have buildings fulfilled their useful purpose? These are not easy questions with unanimous answers.

  • T-Leb

    I think for institutions, it’s not that NEW is in and old is out. It’s that efficiency, LEED is needed and old is a bad investment. Technology needs have changed in the classroom as well, can the old building support it and be cost competitive? Unless someone can come up with some cost scenarios where rehab an older inefficient building is better financially than a new LEED lower cost building, I’m not compelled to care much for the 50 year old building. The light public history

    • JO

      Rehabbing existing buildings typically has a lower environmental impact then tear-down and rebuild. When considering future Energy costs one should compare new to upgrading existing with solar etc…
      Only a quality engineering study can determine…