This photograph of Saint Louis modern architect Harris Armstrong, FAIA (1899-1973) in the guise of a Hollywood movie star reveals two things. First, he saw himself in the spotlight playing the part of a hero, overtaking the retrograde aspect of Midwest culture to build anew Saint Louis as a brave new world. Second, he considered himself to be a bit of a dandy, rather charismatic, and quite the lady's man.
I became interested in Armstrong's architectural work as a graduate student in architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis (1986-1990). In the lowest level of Givens Hall, an archive of his works was installed, but appeared to get little attention. The installation included a light table which i took occasion to use when preparing slides for presentations and lectures. I began to wonder about this fellow with the De Stijl inspired logo pressed in porcelain enamel, but didn't do much at the time except imagine and dream what sort of work he might have done.
After graduating and working for several local architects during my internship period, I began searching for appropriate material with which to explore the particular difficulties in preserving, restoring, and renovating modernist works of the twentieth century. After speaking with various architects and several professors, I met with Professor Emeritus Leslie Laskey. His daunting demeanor always impressed me, especially considering that he'd studied art with some of the original Bauhaus faculty (after relocating to the U.S.).
Laskey suggested a few buildings, but zeroed in on one in particular. Harris Armstrong's Magic Chef Building of which I was only vaguely aware. It had been a stunning example of a modernist high-rise structure in Saint Louis and had recently been demeaned by being transformed into a self-storage facility. He talked of Isamu Noguchi's sculptural ceiling which was then still partly visible near the cashier's desk where boxes and packing tape were for sale. I told him of my idea to write an article about the difficulties in achieving an appropriate renovation of such modernist buildings when new uses create needs.
At the time, I somewhat naively felt that architecture created at least in part on functionalist grounds would be able to be modified more easily (at least intellectually) than updating historic nineteenth century heavy masonry construction. The special blend of function, economy, form, and modern construction materials gives such structures a unique character in the realm of historic preservation. Clearly, historic modernist structures like Wright's Taliesin, Mies' Farnsworth House, or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye merit treatment as museum pieces. But what about the many outstanding buildings designed by other architects of this period. How does one respect the original architect's intentions without either blatantly, facilely mimicking it or, at the other extreme, creating an 'intervention' which challenges the basic concept of authorship?
Professor Laskey's recommendation was, "Forget about the article. What you need to do is save the Magic Chef Building. Its being destroyed right now, so go save it!"
I left him feeling a bit bewildered and confused. How could an unlicensed, architect-in-training, save a significant architectural work? I hardly felt sufficiently experienced to take on such a task. So, after visiting, photographing, and thinking about this structure, I began to consider how I could possibly convince someone to invest the money, time, and energy involved in bringing such a building back to its original state. Gradually, I realized that only by writing about the design and its architect, could I hope to influence others to even begin to envision the potential for rejuvenating the Magic Chef Building.
[ . . more to follow . . ]