The Optimist Building: A letter to the Preservation Board

The Optimist Building: A letter to the Preservation Board

To the Preservation Board:

People like to say that St. Louis does not do planning, and that the city agencies constantly react to what developers propose instead of creating strategies for public goals.

That is not quite true. In fact, one of the agencies most commonly deemed reactionary – the Cultural Resources Office – has been visionary in ways rarely credited. Foremost among that office’s visionary work is something that impacts the Preservation Board’s consideration of the preliminary demolition of the Optimist Club Building: the survey of non-residential mid-century modern architecture and its recommendations for designation and protection.

In 2009, preservationists including myself vociferously fought the demolition of the modernist San Luis Apartments directly across the street from the Optimist Club Building. A look across the abyss of automobile parking stuck in the city’s most vital urban neighborhood vindicates our fight. The loss of the San Luis robbed the Central West End of consistent density on its most-trafficked street, and also eroded the collection of modernist buildings on Lindell Boulevard.

Although the Preservation Board granted demolition at the time, the Cultural Resources Office responded to this battle – and the rising interest in taking the fate of modernist buildings, even average ones, seriously – by seeking public funding to survey modernist buildings across the entire city, craft historic contexts that help guide decisions about significance, and finally identify the modernist buildings worthy of designation as City Landmarks (the highest level of local protection under our preservation ordinance).

Although many buildings were researched, and a large number identified as worthy of further research, only 25 were finally recommended as those clearly and unequivocally worthy of designation as Intensive-Level survey properties. Not 200, not 50 – just 25. And the Optimist Club Building made the cut.

Designed by Schwarz & Van Hoefen and built in 1961, the Optimist Club Building shows the influence of neo-expressionist tendencies in architecture on a local building. The daring work of international stars including Oscar Niemeyer and Edward Durrell Stone easily displays here. Yet the Preservation Board is not deciding whether this building exemplifies some lineage that scholars like myself admire. Rather, the Board is deciding whether the loss of this building is in the spirit of the city preservation ordinance. It profoundly is not.

The preservation ordinance exists as a block against reactionary government. The ordinance itself is forward-looking, guiding the city by setting parameters on what sites and buildings are culturally inviolable. The non-residential mid-century modern survey builds on the ordinance by providing a public “cheat sheet” of sorts: here are those buildings worth the utmost effort of preservation. Again, the list is relatively short, and the Optimist Club Building is on that list – as it should be.

As cranes rise around the city, we can celebrate growth without sacrificing the accumulation of significant traces of all eras that tell our collective story. The redevelopment of Lindell Boulevard in the 1950s and 1960s speaks to a rekindled growth, the city’s attempt to stem the out-migration of businesses and fraternal clubs and coping with the aftermath of the 1959 tornado. Preserving just one trace of this past is not a volley against the city’s growth in our own time. It is a future-focused contribution that honors both the spirit of the preservation ordinance and the careful work of the Cultural Resources Office to identify significant modernist architecture without overstating the case. 

I support denial of the preliminary request for demolition of the Optimist Club Building.


Michael Allen

Editor’s note – Below find the letter sent by the Central West End Association Planning & Development Committee chaired by James Dwyer.

To: Preservation Board

       City of St. Louis

Re: Preliminary Review

       4490-4494 Lindell Blvd.

Chairman Callow and Members of the Board:

At the request of Mr. Alston, the CWE Planning & Development Committee hosted a ZOOM meeting on Saturday, June 26 at which the applicant presented plans prepared by Joseph Klitzing for a new seven-story/150 unit apartment building proposed for the referenced site. That proposal presumes demolition of the existing structures on the property. While there are numerous unresolved concerns regarding the suitability of the proposed design, the principal concern to be considered by the Preservation Board today is whether demolition will be allowed. Only then would the question of the merits (or lack thereof) of the proposed design be eligible for consideration.

As has been well documented and persuasively argued by others, including  CRO, the original three-story structure located on the western portion of the property (4494 Lindell) is a significant, high merit example of the Mid-Century Modern movement in St. Louis eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and should therefore be preserved. We agree. It is the consensus recommendation of the P&D Committee that at least the corner building be preserved and that demolition be prohibited.

In an earlier round of discussions with the architect and the developer, it was proposed to both that they consider a re-design that would incorporate the existing corner building (4494) into the base of a new, taller structure, thereby allowing both the preservation of that building and more intensive use of the site. That proposal was abruptly and summarily rejected by Mr. Alston without any consideration or effort to explore that concept. We believe it has merit, that it represents a practical way to reconcile conflicting objectives, and that it should become a foundational requirement for any future re-development of the site.

The proponents have argued (unpersuasively) that there is no prospect of a better development occurring on the site, that, in effect, their proposal represents the “last best hope,” and have offered other unsupported and/or irrelevant arguments in defense of their position that well-established principles of preservation and urban design should be subordinated to their interests. We disagree.

One can easily imagine a more sensitive approach to redevelopment of this prominent, highly visible site, located on an important urban thoroughfare.  Regrettably, the applicant in the matter before you today has declared his unwillingness to consider such an approach to the design of a project. Accordingly, we respectfully urge that you support the recommendations of the Landmarks Association, Preservation Missouri, the Cultural Resources Office, this committee and others, and deny the applicant’s request for preliminary review approval.

As always, thank you for your consideration.

James Dwyer, Chair


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