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21 years ago: The Parkmoor became a no-more.

21 years ago: The Parkmoor became a no-more.

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In metro area, televised vote gets divided attention

The Parkmoor in 1998. Photo by Larry Williams of the Post-Dispatch

On Oct. 31, 1999, the Parkmoor restaurant closed its doors. Art critic Jeff Daniel reflected on what made it so special.

The Parkmoor becomes a no-more today, and quite a few groups are bound to be upset. The Sunday churchgoers. The hangover crowd. The cardiologists who turn bacon and egg arteries into their own personal meal ticket.

And as the final eulogies are wiped away with a paper napkin, talk will turn to the building that houses so many memories, the building that defies aesthetic logic. An odd mix of roadside rustic and atomic-age angularity, the Parkmoor succeeded despite its quirky pedigree. Add to this the fact that the current restaurant now at the intersection of Big Bend Boulevard and Clayton Road dates from a fairly recent 1969. In other words, it's a retro replacement -- of a California diner, no less -- already moldy with nostalgia when it was unveiled. The site has been constant for more than 70 years, but not the building.

Yet the public doesn't seem to care. The building is a landmark to many, if only for the idiosyncratic appeal it offers to the eye. It is uniquely bizarro (well, aside from that California precursor). It is a bit goofy. It is a head turner, though not in your typical Wainwright Building kind of way.

Think of the attraction in these terms: When you are people watching, you want to see the freaks and the geeks -- not just the studs and babes with the nice obliques. Such diversity makes life a bit more interesting.

The Parkmoor

The Parkmoor restaurant, shortly before closing in 1999

And so it goes in the world of buildings, an environment in which the so-called tenets of architectural integrity and aesthetic principle sometimes show huge cracks in their foundations. What will succeed or fail in the public eye often proves unpredictable -- and that's something we should celebrate.

A prime example of this phenomenon rises up from the corner of Market and Tucker streets in the form of the downtown Civil Courts Building. A postmodern building some four decades ahead of the curve, the 1930 structure mixes and matches a modernist solidity with neo-classical columns and adds ancient Egyptian pyramid topping.

With griffin-like creatures perched high on its edges, the Civil Courts could have served as a blueprint for disaster.

Instead, most of us regard the Civil Courts Building as a treasure -- and rightly so. By the 1950s, the Landmarks Association of St. Louis cited the odd gem as one of the city's greatest architectural entities. Current Washington University architecture dean Cynthia Weese once told a Post-Dispatch reporter that the Civil Courts is "a jewel of a building" with an "interesting composite of architectural elements."

Which raises the question: What separates an "interesting composite" from a "jumbled mess"? And if the Civil Courts Building were proposed today, would it have a chance in an atmosphere of increased rules and regulations, of planning commissions and architectural boards with ever more power?

As for the first question, critical assessments are always a judgment call. Sometimes a turn to the standards and rules of architecture don't offer us much in the way of guidance: Gut instinct might just be the way to go.

As for the gut of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright, it must have been a bit sour upon a glimpse of the Civil Courts Building, of which he was said to have proclaimed in 1939: "I neither like it or dislike it. I deplore it." So much for a consensus vote on the "jewel of a building" opinion.

But Wright himself would later design this century's greatest example of a confounding building that somehow clicks on all cylinders: the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Contextually? A bull in a china shop, its round white facade clashing with the vertical Upper Manhattan skyline. A giant washtub, some passers-by called it. A travesty, said many architectural critics, a thought that was echoed by some prominent artists.

Yet the Guggenheim is now sacred ground in the Big Apple, Wright's creation sometimes cited as the grandest piece of art in the museum collection. And Frank Gehry's recent design for the new Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, continues the tradition. Gehry flouted convention with a reptilian, slithering mass of curved titanium steel. Quirky? Yes. Genius? Conventional wisdom seems to point in that direction.

The amazing thing about the praise for the Bilbao Guggenheim is that it has come immediately -- no history and shared memories necessary for the reputation. Maybe times are changing.

But some nagging questions do linger: Where exactly does the line get drawn between clever daring and "what in the hell were they thinking"? Between excellence and excessive? Between incomparable and incompetence? Sometimes that line blurs, sometimes it shifts over time. Remember, revisionism is the last refuge of every critical scoundrel.

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The above questions recently ran through my mind after I bumped into a fellow critic. He wanted to know when I was going to write about the Fountain Place building that is set to rise over Clayton's skyline. To him, the 30-story condominium high-rise is an abomination, its mix of styles and materials a mishmash of bad decisions.

I didn't know what to say then -- and frankly, I still don't. One could argue that the building can't quite decide if it wants to be modern or retro, sleek or ornamental, that its corner turrets give the facade the look of a NASA space shuttle set for liftoff, that the top of the building appears to be a resting ground for a displaced Ladue manse.

One could argue all of those things, and he or she might be correct. But one could make similar disclaimers concerning the Parkmoor or the Civil Courts Building. At what point do a grab bag of influences and odd decisions become, to use Cynthia Weese's phrase: "an interesting composite of architectural elements?"

Perhaps over time. Perhaps never. If anything, Fountain Place will provide good fodder for debate. As for the Parkmoor, the jury will soon retire for an eternal recess.

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