An Accidental Encounter with Harvey Ellis
Last Saturday I made a road trip!
I hooked up with my friend Carl, and we drove to St. Joseph, MO, to visit my friend Blair, and tour the city.
St. Joseph has long intrigued me, mostly due to the comments on Old House Dreams when a house from the city is posted. It seems that a lot of people love the city due to its wealth of high-quality incredible old houses. And it seems that a lot of people are angry about how hostile the city is to the cause of preservation. I know several homeowners who gave up on the city and moved elsewhere.
Surely though, such comments are exaggerations?
Upon arriving, priority #1 was lunch! So, Blair drove us downtown and turned left to a fantastic work of architecture looming high above us. I gasped.
“This is where we’re having lunch?”
Blair smiled. “Yep.”
I got out of the car and stood awestruck in front of the building (906 Sylvanie Street).
I had assumed that the structure had been a library or something but it was a home created for Josiah Moss, who, it was said, requested that the architect “incorporate specific elements he had seen while on vacation in Europe, specifically a roof garden like one he had seen in a house overlooking the Bay of Naples, a brick pattern recalling the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and a doorway penetrating the foundation in the manner of a country house he had seen in England.”
Blair said the Moss House had been a Shriners Lodge for many many decades. Since the mid-1970s the house has been Barbosa’s Restaurant.
Blair, Carl, and I walked to the rear entrance under the half dome and I assumed the interior would be a horror with dropped acoustical ceilings and 4×8 paneling covering the walls with the occasional original mantel extant.
Upon entrance, I was surprised. Pleasantly so.
The Moss House was both exhilarating…and depressing.
The house is not falling apart and it is clear that the long-term owners have done what has been required to keep the house in good order, like replacing the slate roof at great expense.
The house though is not, well, gleaming and perfect. Important features like the conservatory have been largely destroyed while other vital features like the second-floor terrace have been compromised. Several original windows have been awkwardly replaced. None of the windows have been restored. The staircase is missing bits and spindles. The parlor mantel is long gone.
All old house after a century suffer from the ravages of time and I had a desperate ache to wrap up the Moss House in my arms and polish it to its original luster.
And not for the first time I thought: Why aren’t I rich?
With my heart all an-ache, we departed.
Carl had previously been to St. Joseph and he described a house he had seen to Blair. Blair knew just the house and we were soon standing before a structure which blew my mind.
It was only the next day that I discovered a common theme to the Moss, McAlister, McNeeley, and Nave houses: All were designed by Harvey Ellis.
And suddenly everything made sense. Of course these structures which were so inventive were created the same person, and of course Ellis was that person.
Ellis was never a huge name. Although well-known among the architectural community in his day, he was never famous. He died young at 52-years old. He worked for numerous established architects and his work is normally attributed to their names rather than his. Ellis was also a brilliant architectural draftsman, and a sought-after employee. The three originals renderings shown above are by Ellis.
Very little is known about Ellis yet his work, more than a century later, still surprises and delights.
The McNeeley House seems in a desperate condition even with its new roof. The interior images (taken from Old House Dreams) show a highly damaged interior. Much of the exterior stone needs replacing STAT. And, worst of all, is the immediate neighborhood which is grim.
After our whirlwind tour, the comments about the city which I read for years on Old House Dreams made sense. I do not recall visiting a city with such a wealth of stunning and remarkable architecture, extraordinary architecture, yet which nonetheless offered an overall impression of…dereliction. I did not see a single street lined with restored houses. Rather, there would be a burnished knock-out and then, across the street, a boarded-up house or a burned-out house or a shabby slum-like house.
I told Blair that I felt like I had traveled to 1975, an age when cities had zero preservation consciousness.
In Newport, Rhode Island, where I used to live, the Point Section in the 1970s was considered a slum by the city which intended to raze it to the ground. A small group of citizens fought back and today the Point is one of the most desirable places to live in the city, filled with magnificently restored houses as far as the eye can see.
Even Detroit, the poster child for urban decay, has intact and luscious neighborhoods.
Countless neighborhoods in America have been brought back from ruination since the 1970s. But the leaders of St. Joseph seem trapped in a 1970s anti-preservation mindset.
I had assumed that the city had suffered a catastrophic population decline, as this often creates the depressing conditions seen in St. Joseph but a quick internet search revealed, to my utter astonishment, that the population of the city has been stable since 1910 at about 77,000. So, why so many empty lots, burned-out buildings, and general dereliction?
In Kansas, hundreds of historic buildings have been restored through its innovative Heritage Trust Grant program, started in the early 1990s. My own Cross House has receive two substantial grants, which have and will largely restore the exterior to pristine condition.
But magnificent building like the Moss House which, if they were located just a bit to the west could benefit from the Heritage Trust, are left to languish.
St. Joseph has such a wealth of glorious architecture that the city could become a magnet for tourists and people seeking fabulous old affordable houses. If I were running the city, I would create a fund to gloriously restore the Moss House. Then I would create housing on the empty lots across the street. I would gloriously restore the McNeeley House. Then I would purchase the derelict but not unattractive historic housing across the street and restore them, too. As well as with some neighboring houses.
Investing in a city like this has proven time after time to be a wise investment. And I have no doubt that the brave preservationists of St. Joseph have been using the same argument for decades…only to fall upon deaf ears.
An entire city…as a tragedy.
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