Memorializing St. Louis Modernism: Isamu Noguchi’s American Stove Company Commission
Though many St. Louisans drive past the former Magic Chef building daily, it is virtually unrecognizable today as a result of the building’s dramatic transformation over the previous two decades. Now home to a U-Haul facility, the building has been modified inside and out to meet the needs of its current owner. Rumor has it that above a drop ceiling in the former lobby area, Noguchi’s original ceiling design still graces the U-Haul building. David Conradsen, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Saint Louis Art Museum recently explained that efforts have been made to recover the original work. He said, “We have explored the possibility of removing the actual ceiling but it was determined that the object would be destroyed in the process, so the maquette is a stand in, but it is at least a real thing, however disconnected from its original intent.” As the last remaining vestige of a commission that has all but disappeared, Noguchi’s ceiling maquette encourages viewers to unravel the fascinating history of the Magic Chef building and consider the tension that continues to place historic preservation and economic growth in opposition to one another in St. Louis.
Built in 1947 by notable St. Louis architect, Harris Armstrong (1899-1973), the Magic Chef building exemplified the architect’s early adherence to the principles of modernism. Armstrong is perhaps best known for his 1962 design of the Ethical Society on Clayton Road, a later commission that demonstrated a shift away from the pure, rectilinear design of his earlier works. The six-story Magic Chef building was the first in St. Louis to embody the tenets of the International Style, which began in Europe nearly two decades earlier. In addition to his embrace of geometric purity, Armstrong approached the building with the belief that form should always follow function. This can be seen in the construction of horizontal curtain wall windows along the north and south facades of the building, which admitted maximum light into the offices in order to enhance working conditions and reduce utility costs during the city’s post-war economic boom years. The Magic Chef building was quickly heralded a success, prompting a feature in the October 1948 issue of The Architectural Forum, among other national accolades.
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a fitting choice for this commission. Perhaps more than any other artist or designer of his time, his practice effortlessly bridged fine art and functional design. Throughout his career Noguchi refused to be pigeonholed and embraced both the nonconformist tendencies of his artistic contemporaries—the Surrealists and later the Abstract Expressionists—while producing saleable objects, such as the coffee table he designed for Herman Miller, which is also exhibited in the same gallery as his ceiling model.
Noguchi’s illuminated ceiling design belongs to a larger body of self-illuminated sculptures, which he called “lunars.” Noguchi’s background in landscape design is evident: the organic contours of the Magic Chef ceiling are at once rooted in the familiar rolling landscapes of the Midwest, while conjuring visions of the surface of the moon. In mixing the strange with the familiar, Noguchi played upon the emotional value of sculpture, asserting “sculpture should no longer be just something stuck on the architecture, but a development of the architecture itself—what you might call an emotionally functional as well as mechanically functional thing—to accent and punctuate, giving dimensions to space.” Noguchi completed similar illuminated wall designs for the Time-Life Building in New York and the S.S. Argentina ocean liner in the late 1940s; coincidentally, both were later destroyed.
In the decades following the construction of the Magic Chef building, the city of St. Louis faced economic hardship and a swift population decline, due in part to the rapid onset of suburbanization. In 1957 the American Stove Company—which had officially changed its name to Magic Chef as a result of the brand’s household recognition—merged with the Food Giant Markets of California, which was soon bought out by Maytag and later by Whirlpool. After Magic Chef vacated the building it was acquired by the Teamster’s Union and used as a health care facility before standing vacant for nearly ten years.
In 1977 U-Haul purchased the building with the intention of converting it into a storage facility, however, the company quickly came head-to-head with the city’s historic commission during its attempts to alter the building. In the early 1990s, U-Haul appealed an earlier ruling that prevented the company from installing metal siding on the building’s north and south facades. Since moving into the building in 1977, U-Haul struggled with the poor condition of the curtain windows, which both leaked water into the storage units and were a security threat as the contents of the units were visible from the street. Preservationists feared that the metal siding would detract from the architectural integrity of the building, which when affixed with the U-Haul signage, would transform the International Style exterior into a prominent billboard display. However, in 1993, the original judgment was reversed. The court document asserted, “Preservation of this structure in its present condition because of its architectural significance cannot be imposed on the owner at a cost so high as to make the property economically unusable…” U-Haul was permitted to install the metal siding, transforming the building into its current condition.
As the arrival and departure of new industries promises to continuously alter the St. Louis skyline, we are placed in a bind. How can we best negotiate the need to protect our city’s historic landmarks with the tough irony that only through such industries can our city continue to grow and prosper, creating new architecture of historical significance as it did during the mid-twentieth century? Rather than be paralyzed by nostalgia for the past, we can think proactively, as the Saint Louis Art Museum did in its attempts to recover the original Noguchi ceiling, and as architect and historian Andrew Raimist does when he breathes life into these buildings on his blog and during his frequent lectures and tours. Through such initiatives, public awareness can be raised, helping us better assess whether a company’s activities are well suited to the unique structure of each historic landmark in the first place.
Though the original Noguchi ceiling remains entombed in a drop ceiling at the Uhaul facility on Kingshighway, the maquette continues to spark dialogue, offering hope that one day this understated landmark may finally earn the monumental status that it deserves.
I have recently learned that U-Haul is going to be removing the drop ceiling that hides the original ceiling. Let’s hope it still looks good when done. 🙂