St. Louis’ Distinctive Anonymous Architecture
Many years ago, I visited Room One at City Hall to look up my building permit record. Even for a tiny tract house, built-in 1910, it was quite interesting. It was funny to discover that my house’s style was “Modern,” which is what meant 108 years ago. One little detail intrigued me: The name of the architect/builder was “Peterson and Sons.”
Right there in Room One, I knew there was little to no possibility that any information would be available on this man or his sons. Peterson, whatever he was, was too common for a city this big as St. Louis. A builder of solid brick houses on the South Side of St. Louis would likely never get a long biography in an architectural magazine.
However, St. Louis is home to many well-known architects that have contributed their expertise to the city. Henry Hobson Richardson is the first name that comes to mind. He designed three houses in his Richardsonian Romanesque style in the late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the Isaac H. Lionberger House in Grand Center is gone, although the Samuel Cupples House at Saint Louis University’s campus, another architect of Richardsonian Romanesque design, is a fine example.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Russell & Ruth Kraus House in Ebsworth Park is another example of Wright’s affordable Usonian design. Theodore Link, a German-born architect, built Union Station. He also gave us his residence. It is a shining example of Shingle Style at West Cabanne Place.
Simply put, St. Louis is the ideal setting for architects whose genius has changed the history and future of Western architecture.
Despite this, I’ve always loved the anonymous “workhorse houses” in the city. They are often duplicated by the dozen or even the hundreds. If there’s no name on the building permit, it’s just as anonymous as Peterson and Sons. These houses are often referred to as “vernacular” in architectural history. This means that they were built following common patterns or designs learned by tradesmen. My house, for example, was probably not designed by a prominent architect. It could have been constructed by a skilled master mason. It is funny to see city residents criticize tract housing. However, a lot of St. Louis’s historic residential architecture was constructed in small tracts. The builders made sure to modify the facades to conceal the fact that the interiors were the same.
Below are three examples of anonymous, mass-produced houses that can be seen all over the city. Although they may not be famous architects, they are still a major part of St. Louis’s appeal.
There are many bungalows around the world. We often hear this term about the Arts and Crafts Style, which is a great example in St. Louis. In this case, I am referring to the various one-story houses that span around 1,000 feet. They are approximately 22 feet wide and 50 feet long. Many of these houses are in the Italianate style. JeffVanderLou and Ville have several. The basement is located halfway above the ground and the kitchen is downstairs. These little houses were modestly built with heavy wood cornice. It was made from pieces of wood and gave them a style. There are many of these houses down in Dutchtown, made from gray, brown, or gray bricks with glazed white brick accents. Even those with modest means can afford a high-end house in St. Louis. These houses can be built in two stories, but I don’t believe they are as attractive as the one-story.
Lafayette Square is well-known for its three-story Second Empire mansions. But I would like to draw your attention to a simpler two-story version. Contrary to what I once heard, the mansard roofing was and not a trick for the tax collector to believe a house is one floor shorter than it was. This would allow the tax collector to assess a lower tax rate. The Second Empire style was named after Napoleon III, French Emperor Napoleon III, who used the mansard roof extensively. The Second Empire’s two-story house is taller than its shorter counterparts. These houses can be found in areas such as Hyde Park and Benton Park.