Harris Armstrong- architect, Mid-century St. Louis, Midcentury Modern, Stylish Kirkwood Homes

Transformation Tuesday: Harris Armstrong’s Architectural Office | 934 Singlepath Lane

The small office is reached by crossing a narrow wooden bridge across a man-made pond that Armstrong stocked with exotic fish and tropical plants. The office has a distinctly Japanese presence as it is raised up off the ground on wooden posts. The columnar structure employs tree trunks (stripped of their bark and branches) resting on stones at ground level. The columns are arranged in a nine-square grid and are detailed so as to be visible from the interior as well as the exterior.

In certain respects, the simple, functional design of the office, a square with a single-pitched roof, follows many of the principals of European architectural modernism, in particular Mies Van der Rohe’s ideas regarding the physical and visual separation of structure from enclosure, the formal significance of the structure as of greater hierarchical importance, and the use of light-weight infill screen walls. The exterior walls consist of redwood sheathing and large areas of glazing where required. In particular, the architectural studio has very large north-facing glazing and a high ceiling admitting as much indirect natural light as possible.

Any decorative characteristics of the structure are largely derived from the nature of the materials used. Tongue-and-groove wood sheathing on the exterior is kept vertically oriented, except toward corners where it is oriented at a 45 degree diagonal. Armstrong believed this difference was justified by the expressive capacity of the diagonals to suggest their structural function as diagonal bracing, keeping the cubic wood cellular structure from racking.

The area where Armstrong decided to construct his office was essentially a swampy drainage area running along the base of the hill of the Sappington Spur subdivision developed by the Armstrong’s in the 1930. Armstrong seems to have been considering the idea of the office for some time during the course of the 1940s. Having his architectural office attached to their home at #3 Sappington Spur worked well during the late 1930s and early 1940s (essentially during the late Depression and War years) when there was a marked decline in the volume of construction and availability of materials.

With the project of the Magic Chef Building in 1946-47, Armstrong was challenged by the larger scale of the project from his small attached studio on Sappington Spur. The project provided him the opportunity and means to expand his office permanently into a free-standing structure independent of their home.

Armstrong credits the idea for raising the office “up on stilts” to his friend Charles Eames who had practiced as an architect in Saint Louis during the 1920s and ‘20s. Visiting the Eames’ in Los Angeles during the War years. Armstrong explained his dilemma regarding building his new office in a flood plain. Charles immediately suggested lifting the office up off the ground on stilts like a Japanese pavilion.

Of course, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen has designed the Eames’ home (below) in 1945 using what they called the “Bridge Solution,” incorporating off-the-shelf, stock steel parts to erect a rectangular volume extending out from their sloped property in Pacific Palisades and floating over the landscape. When the materials ultimately arrived at the site in 1948 (due to War shortage delays.) Charles and Ray Eames decided to reorient the house so it would remain on grade rather than extending out into space on exposed columns.

Armstrong perused the idea of building his office lifted up above the high water level. He channeled and dammed the water to flow directly beneath the structure. Armstrong took the opportunity presented by this conflation of space, site, and differing elections to create a ‘T’-shaped bridge oriented north-south. To the south, the bridge aligned with a path extending up the hill to their Sappington Spur residence. To the north, the bridge provided access for anyone visiting the office: clients, employees, sales representatives and others.

The address was originally 180 South Sappington Road, when it functioned as Armstrong’s office. Access to the office was essentially via an extension of the driveway from the Armstrong Residence III at 200 South Sappington. The office was sold by Armstrong when he retired from practice in 1969. It was subsequently modified to function as a residence with three additions added by the current owners.

Text copyright Andrew Raimist 2010. Photos courtesy of the Harris Armstrong Archives, Special Collections, Washington University in Saint Louis, TripleRPhotography, and Metrospect Media.