Apologies to Monty Python
Believe me I know how wrong something like this idea I am about to put before you can go when it gets in the hands of a committee.
First, a little information about Larry Giles. If you are not familiar with Larry you can learn much more about his work by visiting the website of the foundation that he created, the National Building Arts Center (NBAC).
Larry was a good friend to many of us who treasure our architectural heritage. We tragically lost him in 2021. You can read my article about him here.
Larry was one of the most gifted people that I have ever had the good fortune to meet. He was far too complicated to sum up in a couple of paragraphs but here goes. He was an architectural salvor for most of his adult life. He saved many of the most significant architectural pieces of the most significant buildings that have been demolished in the St. Louis area. His collection contains much terracotta from countless buildings including very large panels that once graced the crown of the Ambassador Theater. There are very many building parts of marble, stone, cast iron and wood. Parts from a few Maplewood buildings including the Masonic Hall that once stood where CVS is today and also some parts of our first high school building later the junior high that was at the location of Ryan Hummert park are in his collection as well.
Larry was also a scholar. He cleaned, cataloged and stored all of the aforementioned items and much, much more. He made the creation of the National Building Arts Foundation his life’s work. It includes an on site library of 300K+ volumes of arcane literature connected to the building arts. His 15 acre, 13 building site is just a short drive on the other side of the river in Sauget.
In 2003, I invited Larry to speak at a meeting of the short-lived Maplewood Historical Society. During his presentation Larry mentioned that he had 120+ cast iron storefronts in his collection.
I remember saying, “Wow Larry. We need some of those for the north side of the 7300 block of Manchester.” The more I thought about it the better an idea it seemed. (Those of you who are not familiar with our town should know every historic building on the north side of the 7300 block of Manchester was razed. The site is now the location of a Schnucks store that sits far back from the street.
I had found a few places where some of those cast iron storefronts had been re-erected. They are most often a sill that is as wide as the store with columns that allow for an entry door and display windows and a structural member overhead that may or may not be visible. One spot was in downtown Louisville, KY. I took photos but they all seem to have evaporated at the moment. I think they’re on an old hard drive.
I decided that the re-erection of authentic cast iron fronts wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. A better idea might be to create an outline of sorts of the facades of historic buildings that might once have existed on the site. Not an exact outline of the original buildings but just a minimized outline of what might have been there. This could balance the streetscape somewhat and provide visual interest to our whole downtown shopping area. I also thought that it would be interesting to add some original parts from historic buildings to the scene. I knew at that time where the stone was that had BANK carved in it from the facade of the Maplewood Bank that once stood on the corner of Sutton and Manchester. It would be fun to return it to roughly its original location in space. Likewise an ornamental corner column from a cast iron front could be located somewhere appropriate on this sort of remembrance of the historic buildings we once had.
I wouldn’t attempt to put too many lines into this metal framework. Just enough that a viewer would get the idea of what we were trying to suggest. I have called this an architectural sculpture park albeit a very narrow one. Some neon would be good. Perhaps a big copy of a vintage neon sign or two would be nice.
Why am I putting this idea out now? The odds of something like this getting built are slim to none. The odds of it turning out to be a showstopper are even greater. (See my first sentence).
I’m putting it out because I’ve been sitting on it for 20 years or so. I think the idea has merit. Even if we don’t do it, someone might become inspired and do something interesting somewhere. I’d be very happy that they liked this idea. Larry liked it.
Doug Houser December 17, 2023