The Ethical Society of St. Louis' Incredible Building Inspires Awe

click to enlarge Architect Harris Armstrong, the Ladue landmark is easily recognized from the street. - Nyara Williams
Nyara Williams
Architect Harris Armstrong, the Ladue landmark is easily recognized from the street.

One of the coolest underappreciated buildings in town is the headquarters of the Ethical Society of St. Louis (9001 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314-991-0955), a group that brings St. Louisans together to work for positive social change.

When it comes to architecture and progressive ideas, this community has always had great taste. From 1912 to 1964, the congregation's meeting house was the Sheldon Memorial in Grand Center, which is now the Sheldon Concert Hall. The current meeting house on Clayton Road opened in 1964.

Designed by famed modernist architect Harris Armstrong, the statement-making building boasts clean lines combined with Japanese-inspired design elements. With its sharp, copper-covered spire, the Ladue landmark is easily recognized from the street, but it's the inside of the building that will take your breath away.

click to enlarge The foyer delivers unexpected joy. - Nyara Williams
Nyara Williams
The foyer delivers unexpected joy.

Guests are greeted by candy-colored stained glass windows lining the large foyer that illuminate the room with a colorful spray of rainbow sunbeams. In addition to delivering unexpected joy, the design of the space feels imbued with a deeper meaning.

"For me, the foyer with all these pieces of different-colored glass sending their light through kind of reminds me that the community is diverse and that the human community is made up of all sorts of different people. And they're all beautiful in their own way," says James Croft, the Ethical Society's leader.

Its auditorium, under that distinctive spire, also inspires awe.

click to enlarge The room is a popular spot for weddings and ceremonies. - Nyara Williams
Nyara Williams
The room is a popular spot for weddings and ceremonies.

"When you enter our auditorium, it draws your eyes upwards," Croft says. "And that's exactly why it's designed that way. The whole building is designed to reflect our aspiration that the community will come together to lift up the highest aspects of humanity. And so that part of the building is a perfect reflection of that."

The auditorium hosts the humanist congregation each week, but the gorgeous site also serves as an in-demand event center. The beautiful wood-paneled room has great acoustics and is the location of the first baroque tracker organ built in the St. Louis area.

The room is a popular spot for weddings and ceremonies not just because it's gorgeous, but also because the Ethical Society performs all types of marriage ceremonies in the space — including same-sex ceremonies. Queer couples are often turned away by churches, but here they can still have a beautiful ceremony with all the grandeur of a church service.

The public events held in the space represent the values of the society, and include presentations from people Croft says "either explore the human condition in rich and wonderful ways, or people who are engaged in political or cultural criticism from a broadly progressive position." Recently, for example, the society co-sponsored a Left Bank Books event in which author Sarah Kendzior discussed the (quite timely) topic of the rise of global authoritarianism.

The building also houses meeting rooms, office space, a play-based nursery school and an art display that features a different local artist each month.

If you'd like to witness this stunning piece of architecture, the best time to see it is Sunday morning, when all of the facility is lit up and ready to dazzle guests. Sunday is also when the congregation gathers for "Platform" (their version of mass) at 10 a.m., and Croft says that visitors who don't know much about the Ethical Society of St. Louis are welcome to check out the space after they observe the service.

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About The Author

Jaime Lees

Jaime Lees is the digital content editor for the Riverfront Times.
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