Harris Armstrong is a beloved mid-century modern architect in St. Louis architectural history. He was once known outside the confines of the metro area having designed worldwide structures in places as far-flung as Iraq but is often overlooked in the greater history of worldwide mid-century architecture. During Harris’ heyday from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, he pointedly maintained only a small studio office and thus did not have the prolific nature of projects like many of his peers of the time. This did not make his work any less impressive. He was known for several firsts: first international-style commercial building in the mid-west, one of the earliest international-style homes, first A-frame church nationally and one of the first post-war high-rise commercial buildings.
Many wonderful examples of Armstrong architecture can still be found throughout the St. Louis area. Notable is the Magic Chef high-rise mentioned previously where Armstrong collaborated with Isamu Noguchi who designed a sculptural ceiling for the lobby of the innovative structure. Additionally, his design of the Ethical Society’s meeting house in the 1960’s is a nationally known specimen of his work.
In current times, it is somewhat unusual for an architect to specialize and have success in both the commercial and residential realms. Harris Armstrong, however, excelled in both arenas placing his modernist stamp not only on commercial buildings but also on houses and neighborhoods scattered throughout the St. Louis area. I have to admit that while I know of Harris Armstrong (it was rumored he lived for part of his childhood in the house where I grew up), I am by no means an aficionado and do not know about many of his residential projects. Imagine my delight when I booked an appointment with a highly recommended St. Louis Acupuncturist and ended up on the beautiful cul-de-sac of Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood, an inner St. Louis suburb.
Here time has stood still with ten mid-century houses lining the street, five on a side. This subdivision was designed in 1951 by Harris Armstrong together with developer Marshall Berry. Berry became a frequent partner of Armstrong, developing other subdivisions with Armstrong as well as collaborating on Berry’s own house in the suburb of Ladue. Each of the homes on Woodleaf Court is a variation on an earlier design by Armstrong contributed to a book on solar passivity (his chapter being the contribution for sites in Missouri). I have read that there are three models of homes on the cul-de-sac, but I count four, although each has its distinction in material or slight changes in form from one to the next. Unlike many suburbs of today, the houses do not match but instead work together in harmony to form a cohesive streetscape. All of the homes have low-slung roofs with exposed rafter tails, a mix of brick and vertical siding and are built into the rolling lawns allowing for generous two-car garages on a lower level than the main entry.
Houses one, four and five have large chimney structures parallel to the street. The front plane of the house is divided into three parts – floor to ceiling windows on the far left followed by a projection that includes the front entryway and finally the most frontward plane containing the bulk of the house and garage.
Houses two and three at first glance might look very similar to the first group. All five houses have a canted post marking the front entry. However, models two and three have only two planes on the front face of the house and are not as wide overall, particularly noticeable on the left side of the houses. The chimney on houses two and three is turned perpendicular to the street giving it much less prominence on the front façade.
Houses six, seven and ten also have the large chimney structure that is parallel to the street like houses one four and five, but in this instance, the chimney is pulled forward to the front face of the house. The window pattern is also distinct from the first two models with one larger window with two smaller adjacent windows over the garage entry.
Houses eight and nine appear to be the same model but could not look more different due to their exterior materials. House eight is predominantly vertical siding while house nine is all brick with some extra brickwork (recessed circular inset and raised porch rail). Both houses have a similar window pattern to houses six, seven and ten, but houses eight and nine do not have the large chimney and rather have the smaller chimney turned at a right angle to the street, similar to houses two and three.
Of all of the homes on the street, I have only been inside my acupuncturist’s home, and then only in his office. I’m sure there are other, internal variations to each home. The floor plans would assuredly be even more telling to prove or disprove my theory of four different models.
I’ve now caught the Harris Armstrong bug and am ready to get out-and-about to see what other lovely homes I can spot. When I do, I’ll make sure to update you on what I find. If you, too, have caught the bug and would like to know more about Harris Armstrong, please refer to the following experts who have much more to show and tell.
The blog architectural ruminations by Andrew Raimist
Essay on Harris Armstrong by Esley Hamilton
The Washington University Department of Special Collections has a collection of Harris Armstrong documents.