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Del Taco building in 1969

The former Del Taco building on March 7, 1969, shortly after it opened as a gas station. Photo by Floyd Bowser of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis officials are searching for a few mid-century modern gems ripe for historic preservation.

A survey, made possible by a $24,600 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, will examine offices, institutions and churches built between the late 1940s and the mid 1970s. Noted for their sometimes playful designs, mid-century modern architecture took hold after World War II. Motels, roadside diners and auto showrooms provide many examples.

City officials estimate the survey will turn up 1,800 mid-century modern examples in the city.

Betsy Bradley, the city’s cultural resources officer, said officials hope the project will identify about 200 buildings they believe may qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. The designation would help the buildings qualify for historic preservation tax credits, making them more attractive for redevelopment.

“It makes sense to know what we have in the post-war building era,” she said.

The city’s prominent examples of mid-century modern are well known. They include the Plaza Square apartments downtown, the Council Plaza buildings in midtown, the former gas station “flying saucer” — also in midtown — the former Bel Air motel in the Central West End and Forest Park’s McDonnell Planetarium, now part of the St. Louis Science Center.

Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, said that while the city has little mid-century modern on a “grand scale,” it has the era’s “greatest undertaking” — Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch.

Most examples of mid-century modern are small or masked behind renovations. Those are the buildings the survey will attempt to uncover.

Weil said demolition of one of those lesser-known buildings, the San Luis apartments, raised awareness of mid-century architecture and might eventually prove to be a turning point toward greater protection of the style in the city.

The San Luis, opened in 1963 as the Hotel DeVille, was considered by many preservationists to be a prime example of mid-century modern. But the 11-story building at 4483 Lindell Boulevard was never nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Despite protests, its owner — the Archdiocese of St. Louis — demolished the San Luis in 2009 for a parking lot.

Last summer, preservationists rallied again, and won, when developer Rick Yackey dropped his plan to replace midtown’s former Del Taco “flying saucer” with a conventional commercial structure. Yackey decided to preserve the saucer’s circular concrete roof, the key feature of a late-1960s gas station. His plan is to refurbish the building, perhaps for a coffee shop and small restaurant.

Weil said mid-century modern resulted, in part, from disdain of earlier architectural styles. He added that just as many people now cherish the heavily ornamented buildings favored by late 19th-century Victorians, mid-century style might become just as revered in the future.

While helping “provide a road map” for developers who want to preserve or renovate such buildings, the survey could also remove ambiguity over a structure’s architectural significance, said Michael Allen, head of Preservation Research Office, a consulting firm. He said he hopes to win the consultant’s job the state grant will finance.

Bradley said she plans to seek consultants’ applications this spring. The survey should begin this year and be presented to the public in 2013. The result could help determine which mid-century buildings survive.

“It’s easy to see the ones that really stand out but we want to understand the whole body of work,” she said.

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