Tuesday, September 25, 2012

You win a few, you lose a few...

That's usually the best those of us concerned with preserving our urban architectural legacy can hope for these days. Here is a story in the blog Vanishing St. Louis that bemoans the removal of a structure that once supported the rooftop sign that graced the Fox Theater in the Midtown section of St. Louis.

The theater was one of several grand movie palaces built during the height of the "Roaring Twenties", the frenetic period just before the bottom fell out during the Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. The Fox Film Corporation (which merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation in 1935) built several of these theaters featuring their films as well as live stage performances throughout the United States during that brief period. Of these, the most notable were built in Brooklyn, San Francisco (both demolished), Atlanta, and the grandest of them all, the 5,000 plus seat Fox Theater in Detroit, whose interior was virtually replicated one year later in St. Louis. The history of the surviving theaters mirrors that of the Chicago Theater in this city's Loop, that is to say: phenomenal success, followed by a long period of decline, and most recently, revival as venues for live performances.

The St. Louis Fox Theater just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its reopening. It now hosts performances of touring Broadway shows and concerts, and its restoration seems to have proved to be an unqualified success.

One part of the building that did not survive was the enormous neon sign that was built at the same time as the theater. As you can see from the postcard reproduced here, the sign comprised a major portion of the building's front elevation. The individual letters were removed many years ago but the structure that held them up survived until this month, when it was removed for safety reasons as well as providing access to the roof for repairs.

I suspect that few folks cared or even noticed the removal of the structure which to some may have seemed unsightly. The official web site of the theater mentions its removal matter of factly.

But Paul Hohmann, the author of the Vanishing St. Louis blog questions the structure's removal saying:
Just because a building element is not made of brick or terra cotta, does that mean it is not worthy of significance?
I have to agree. Although the sign may have been gone for a long time, its supporting structure even without the distinctive finials at the tips of its posts, beautifully reflected the building's eccentric shape. Like rooftop water tanks and other pieces of urban infrastructure that once peppered skylines all across this country, these structures spoke of a bygone era of the American city and provided a fertile subject for artists and urban archeologists. Also like the water tanks that once defined the urban American landscape, these rooftop signs and their hardware are rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

Preservation efforts should focus on more than just the facades of significant buildings. Signs like this one, while garish to some, announced a building's presence to the world and once formed an important part of a city's skyline. This particular sign was part of the original design of the building and however unlikely, its restoration would have completed the return of the Fox Theater of St. Louis to its former glory. Unfortunately with the structure's removal, that restoration is now all but hopeless.

For all the reasonable, practical grounds to remove the structure, I too am sorry it's gone.

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