A Chimney Topper's Tale

9, November 2017

On February 16, 1959, the first buildings started to fall in St. Louis’s historic Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. Their demolition had been years in the making: In 1954, Mayor Raymond Tucker proposed a plan to raze the more than 400 square acres of city that stood between Saint Louis University and Union Station as part of St. Louis’s post–World War II revitalization.

Black-and-white photo of Mayor Tucker and Sidney Maestre overlooking area of Mill Creek Valley slated for clearanceMayor Raymond Tucker and civic leader Sidney Maestre on a rooftop overlooking an area of Mill Creek Valley slated for clearance, 1956. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A $10 million bond measure to fund the demolition was put to a vote in 1955. In the buildup to the election, city leaders promised voters that the federal government would foot most of the bill through reimbursements (which it did) and that new businesses and property developers would leap at the chance to turn an area many considered blighted into a glittering, modern neighborhood (which they did not). Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond measure even though Mill Creek Valley was home to more than 20,000 people—most of whom were African American.

The demolition of Mill Creek Valley happened quickly. By the early 1960s, only a handful of select buildings still stood, including the old Vashon High School, which is now part of the Harris-Stowe State University campus. Everything else was destroyed with bulldozers and wrecking balls. The land remained vacant for years afterward and acquired a nickname that alluded to the sheer destruction the neighborhood had experienced: Hiroshima Flats.

Black-and-white photo showing demolition of one of the largest buildings of reinforced concrete at Leffingwell and ChestnutDemolition of one of the largest buildings of reinforced concrete at Leffingwell and Chestnut in Mill Creek Valley, 1960. Photo by Irv Schankman. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Mill Creek Valley’s near-total demolition makes it difficult to track down artifacts from there, as our team discovered when planning the Panoramas of the City exhibit. We knew we wanted to include a panoramic photograph from 1930 that was taken in the heart of Mill Creek Valley, right near the intersection of Market and Beaumont Streets. Today, that intersection sits on the Wells Fargo campus, but as you can see in the photo, it was once home to hotels, meeting halls, and apartment buildings—it was a neighborhood.

Color photo of chimney topper from Mill Creek ValleyChimney topper from Mill Creek Valley, ca. 1960, on loan from the National Building Arts Center. Photo by Adam Kloppe.

To better illustrate the photo’s story, and that of Mill Creek Valley, we wanted to show something of the buildings that once stood there. Aside from a few bricks, we couldn’t find much. That is, until we reached out to Larry Giles, president of the National Building Arts Center headquartered in Sauget, Illinois. Within Giles’s warehouse of architectural treasures were chimney toppers that had once capped buildings located in Mill Creek Valley. They were saved by a local collector who knew some members of the demolition crews and convinced them to save him a few. Although we don’t know exactly which buildings they came from, we do know that that collector’s interest is the only reason any of the toppers were saved.

The chimney topper that you see in the Panoramas exhibit (open now through August 12, 2018) is one Giles and his team were kind enough to lend us. We feel extraordinarily lucky to have it—after all, it’s a physical reminder of a space people destroyed in the name of progress.

—Adam Kloppe, Public Historian

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