In St Louis, at the corner of Delmar and DeBaliviere, there is a three-story commercial building, with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. I happened on it many years ago while reviewing some old architecture magazines, circa 1928. I do that sort of thing. What struck me was the rich terra-cotta ornament covering nearly every surface, some of it highly glazed black, the remainder a Campbell’s tomato soup red with a matte finish. The architects were Bowling & Shank and partner Isadore Shank got credit as designer. I didn’t recognize the name, so some background research was in order.
You’d have stopped, too, whether paging through the mags or driving past the intersection, because Shank derived his ornament almost exclusively from the “textile block” patterns of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Los Angeles houses of the early ’20s:
See what I mean?
I’d filed this building away for future reference the next time I happened to be in St Louis. But that may not be for some years—and I don’t have all that many years remaining—so it may make a cameo appearance as the resurfacing for three 19th-century commercial fronts in Agincourt as they are unified to become DeBijenkorf’s Department Store. The 1920s are an unfamiliar decade for me to muck about, so what better opportunity than to explore one of my favorite architects [FLlW] and an episode in his career that has interested me for decades, those California “textile block” houses of the 1920s. If it’s good enough for Isadore Shank, it’s good enough for me.
Unlike Wright’s concept, however — the “textile” nature of which derives from the warp and weft of steel reinforcing rods woven between the edges of the blocks — Shank’s blocks seem to be simple molded terra-cotta units applied with mortar to a structural substrate. His blocks are merely ornamental. It remains to be seen whether my application of the “textile block” system should be structural or cosmetic.