American City: St. Louis Architecture!

Although American City St. Louis Architecture: Three Centuries of Classic Design was published in 2010 I haven’t had a copy of my own to peruse at my leisure until last week when my husband gave it to me for my birthday. (Thank you, Tom!) And if you think that the last thing someone who shows the majority of the places depicted in this marvelous book on a regular basis would want or need would be pictorial compilation of them you would be mistaken. For this is a honey of a book to hold and to savor.

Having flipped through its pages occasionally at the AIA Bookstore (911 Washington Avenue) in between downtown tours I have longed for my own copy since it was hot off the press and for the same reasons that anyone, who is interested in or loves St. Louis and does not yet possess a copy, would.

American City St. Louis Architecture: Three Centuries of Classic Design is a handsome, 11.3″ square, pictorial celebration of St. Louis architecture and culture with insightful, erudite commentary by Robert Sharoff (architecture contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine) and stunning photography by award-winning architectural photographer, William Zbaren ( that frames and zooms in on some of the oft-unrecognized architectural wonders that make St. Louis one of the most beautiful cities in America.

Over the summer of 2007 Sharoff and Zbaren lived and worked in Post Office Square having for their first sight each morning Alfred B. Mullet’s fantastical U.S. Custom House and Post Office, one of three downtown landmarks that resonate the French origin of this city’s founder; all three of which (including City Hall pictured above and the head house of Union Station) feature prominently in the coffee table book they would produce.

Here in American City St. Louis  we see such architectural jewels as James Eads’ Bridge, Isaac Taylor’s Municipal Courts Building, Harvey Ellis’ Compton Heights Water Tower and Henry Ives Cobb’s Chemical Building through the lens of a master photographer with an eye for architectural detail that is breathtaking. Case in point: pages 44 – 47 which virtually recreate Cobb’s boldly sinuous, undulating lines.

In the early 2000s Sharoff and Zbaren conceived a splendid idea: to explore and capture architectural treasures in American cities far less celebrated than New York and Los Angeles, about which much has already been published. Considering themselves preservationists, Robert Sharoff and William Zbaren have also been described as urban archaeologists for their intent is to get to the roots, the origins of a city’s culture and focus a spotlight on the muscle and bones of that metropolis. The first city they published was Detroit, Michigan in 2005.

As it happens both Detroit and St. Louis (their second city) were founded by Frenchmen (Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac and Pierre Laclede Liguest respectively) with military backgrounds who were been born in or at the foot of the Pyrenees. Weaving just enough history and little-known facts into Zbaren’s pictorial pageantry, Sharoff informs the reader and piques our interest. However well you know St. Louis buildings and history you will find surprises in Robert Sharoff’s text.

The landmarks Sharoff and Zbaren chose, which they narrowed down from one hundred to fifty, and which to the disappointment of some include none of the area’s splendid churches are sometimes surprising (outside of mainstays included by earlier authors and photographers). Their perspectives are not only fresh but riveting as with the dynamic thrust of James Eads’ vision (page 11), Louis Sullivan’s lyricism (pages 34 and 35) and Gyo Obata’s versatility (pages 104-105, 116-117 and 124-125) to name but three.

Perhaps the most surprising image of all is the cover photo (repeated on pages 72 and 73) of not the Gateway Arch or Union Station which have been so identified with this city but Guy Study’s quintessentially St. Louis, Intake Tower #2. Robert Sharoff explains, “Intake Tower #2, which was built for the St. Louis water department and includes living quarters, embodies St. Louis architecture: a miniature Classical palace in the river.”*

Here in the mid-Mississippi River Valley French culture took root within a tiny international port that by the turn of the 20th century had grown into the fourth city in the nation – nourished, fed by the greatest river in North America. Anyone who has visited the site where this picturesque landmark overlooks the natural Chain of Rocks around which the Mississippi curls its watery fingers has been fascinated by Intake Tower #2. I’m so glad that Sharoff and Zbaren made their way this far north!

Robert Sharoff told me this morning that American City St. Louis Architecture: Three Centuries of Classic Design is now in its second printing. This is wonderful news for St. Louis, great publicity! And for Robert Sharoff and William Zbaren at whose website ( you may view  splendid photographs of St. Louis and glimpse their other publications highlighting Detroit, Chicago and Savannah.

Time will tell but I believe that their dramatic, photographic indexing of great American architecture and celebration of the cities in which it stands is a winning concept. I cannot wait to get my hands on the entire series!

*American City St. Louis Architecture: Three Centuries of Classic Design – text by Robert Sharoff, photographs by William Zbaren, the Image Publishing Group Pty Ltd, Victoria, Australia, 2010.

Photo & Illustration Credits: Cover Photo of American City St. Louis Architecture: Three Centuries of Classic Design, Intake Tower # 2 – William Zbaren, used with the kind permission of Robert Sharoff; Map of New France – Vincenzo Coronelli, 1688, in the public domain at; David Stott Sits Among Detroit Towers – Mike Russell, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 30 Unported License Attribution: I, Mikerussell – at All other photos by Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.

About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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3 Responses to American City: St. Louis Architecture!

  1. Susie Hahn says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post……so many interesting facts.
    St. Louis is indeed a lovely place.
    The books sounds grand……the perfect gift for someone special !

  2. As usual, Maureen, reading your thoughts and discoveries is a pure delight! In an age of box stores and so much merely utilitarian building, to explore the beauties of the architectural accomplishments which are still here for us to see and enjoy is so refreshing and reassuring! Saint Louis is a darling of a city as it provides so much to please both the eyes and imaginations of both adults and children (our future architects and culture-contributors). Glad Tom gave you your birthday wish (also that the AIA bookstore has such treasures, your DVD included!) and that you were inspired to share with the rest of us!! Hopefully these lovely books will challenge the imaginations of those with the means and talents to provide new wonders of beauty and excellence for future generations also! Thank you, Maureen!!

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