Bringing the Roof Down

When the Arena is imploded later this month, a valuable example of a locally based but nationally renowned architect's work will be lost

On a hill overlooking the Missouri River in Chesterfield, the shadows of winter settle on an old barn, where swallows have abandoned their nests in the darkening recesses for warmer climes. Lacking rafters, the migratory birds have established a niche for their broods in the upper reaches of the wooden latticework, a reticulating, diamond-shaped pattern that vaults 36 feet from the base of the structure to its apex. In effect, the walls and the roof of the barn are one and the same.

The late Gustel R. Kiewitt, a German immigrant, designed this innovative outbuilding in 1925. In recognition of its architectural and historic significance, St. Louis County will soon restore the barn, which is located on a recently annexed portion of Faust Park.

This modest suburban preservation effort smacks of bittersweet irony, however, because it comes at the same time that the city of St. Louis is advancing its plan to destroy another of Kiewitt's architectural accomplishments -- the St. Louis Arena.

Having already shunned Bob Cassilly's offer to save the edifice ("What About Bob's Plan?" RFT, Jan. 20), Mayor Clarence Harmon hedged last week, vowing to postpone razing the landmark until the city has a signed agreement with the developer, Balke Properties. A spokesman for the mayor said on Monday that the deal would likely be sealed by the end of this week. Meanwhile, Spirtas Wrecking Co. is continuing to prepare the building for implosion, with the big bang tentatively scheduled for the last weekend of this month.

If carried out, the $694,000 demolition job will fell a veritable forest of Douglas fir from the Arena's roof. The value of the lumber alone is currently estimated at $2.4 million, according to Cassilly, who deplores the imminent squandering of natural resources. "Nobody (else) in the world would be so wasteful," he says.

Eric Spirtas, president of Spirtas Wrecking Co., disagrees, however. He says that he's contacted four wood merchants from across the country. "None of them are interested," says Spirtas. "It's (Douglas) fir and there's absolutely no value."

Despite the debate over the price of the wood, one thing is certain: Bringing down the storied stadium will deprive the city of a preeminent example of its architectural heritage -- the lamella roof -- an engineering technique that Kiewitt helped introduce to the Midwest.

Whereas the barn at Faust Park is a mere 50 by 100 feet, the Arena, its scion, measures 276 by 476 feet. The German-patented lamella design takes its name from the Latin word denoting "a platelike part or structure." A German housing official in Dessau, Germany, developed the idea in 1908. Its strength lies in the interlocking ribs, the miter joints, which are fastened together in a diagonal fashion to create a self-supporting, fishnetlike grid. The fusion of these elements eliminates the need for interior columns or beams. Kiewitt later designed the Houston Astrodome using the same principle. The concept predates by decades the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller's futuristic invention.

Edward Faust, son-in-law of St. Louis beer baron Adolphus Busch, financed the construction of the barn at Swastika Farm, his son Leicester's estate on Olive Street Road. The younger Faust astutely changed the name of the place before the outbreak of World War II. He later willed his land to St. Louis County. The final parcel, including the barn, became part of Faust Park after the death of his widow in 1996.

The elder Faust, an unabashed capitalist, may well have pooh-poohed such philanthropy. He had commissioned the barn raising not out of altruism but because of his stake in a subsidiary of the Lamella Roof Syndicate of New York. Three years later, in 1928, Kiewitt was ensnared in another of Faust's speculative ventures, the National Exhibition Co., the brainchild of "Colonel" Ben G. Brinkman, a Miami promoter and owner of the Forest Park Highlands. Brinkman convinced Faust and other wealthy St. Louis industrialists to bankroll the building of the Arena on Oakland Avenue next to his amusement park, with the intention of luring the National Dairy Show. The developers hired Kiewitt as the chief architectural engineer for the project.

A month after the Arena opened, the stock market crashed and the National Exhibition Co. subsequently went bankrupt. The Great Depression had cast its pall. Kiewitt, who was 26 years old when he embarked on the Arena project, never received compensation for any of his work. "He was a young architect who devoted a year-and-a-half to this thing, and he came out (with) zero," says Clay Mollman, Kiewitt's son-in-law.

Despite the economic collapse, Kiewitt learned from his experience, and he persevered as an architect in St. Louis for more than 30 years, working out of his office in Webster Groves. His small company continued to design lamella buildings. The structures proliferated in the Midwest, where they were used as automobile dealerships, bowling alleys and gymnasiums, such as the one at St. Elizabeth's Academy in South St. Louis.

"You can stand on the corner of Kirkwood and Manchester and see four of them," says Mollman. The lamella buildings near that intersection are now occupied by Kirkwood Mitsubishi, Lou Fusz Dodge, VIP Distributing and Phillips Furniture Co.

Kiewitt died in 1964, before the dedication of his crowning achievement, the Astrodome. Mollman, his brother-in-law, attended the opening game in April 1965 along with President Lyndon Johnson and a host of other dignitaries. New Orleans later expanded on the same plans to build the Superdome. "I believe it's 40 feet greater in diameter. It's just a copy of the Astrodome," says Mollman. "There was a computer program written that did all the geometry calculations, and they just ran it through the new variable and worked it out from there."

Eventually Kiewitt recouped some of the earnings he lost in the Arena project, after a tornado hit the building on the night of Feb. 10, 1959. Call it a twister of fate: The storm "passed over the Arena, and the internal pressure relieved itself by blowing a hole out of the north end," says Mollman. "Of course, my father-in-law was the only one who knew how to fix it."

It took more than a year to build the Arena, and 45 days to construct its roof, but it will require only moments for roughly 500 pounds of dynamite to destroy it. Kiewitt's design will be lost forever, reduced to rubble. No act of God will undo that damage. Cassilly considers Harmon's unyielding position a sign of pathological behavior. Mollman, too, laments the imbroglio that is leading to the ultimate demise of his father-in-law's legacy. "It's pathetic," he says. "It's a sign of the lack of imagination on the part of the civic leaders involved. They have to realize that the purpose of the city is not just to contain office parks but to have some ceremonial functions that somehow bring people together."

No one, however, seems to be coming together over this issue. And far from the human fray, the swallows will return in spring to roost in an old barn in Chesterfield.

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