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At home

Original owner of Harris Armstrong home reflects on the architect

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The angular, wood-framed, mid-century modern home of Egon and Irene Schwarz stands out among the more traditional Tudors, colonials and Cape Cods of its Oakland neighborhood. But make no mistake — this home is historic. In fact, it has been designated a historic landmark, and efforts are under way to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was designed and built in 1961 specifically for Egon and his late wife, Dorothea, by Harris Armstrong.

Armstrong, who died in 1973, was considered the dean of St. Louis modernist architects, designing local residences as well as many landmark commercial spaces, including the former Magic Chef building on South Kingshighway (now a U-Haul storage facility) and the Ethical Society in Clayton. He was one of the finalists in the design competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the St. Louis riverfront.

An Austrian immigrant, Egon Schwarz was teaching at Harvard when he accepted a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis in 1961 and began planning a move. Dorothea had come across a book featuring 'solar homes," in which architects calculated the angle of the sunlight in their design, that highlighted one architect from each state, with Armstrong representing Missouri. Dorothea wrote to Armstrong, asking if he could build them a house for $18,000 within walking distance of the Washington U. campus. "He wrote back and told us that we were being unrealistic and that we should instead invest that money in a car," laughs Egon. "But he also told us to contact him as soon as we got to St. Louis."

As Egon recalls, the Gateway Arch was under construction when he and Dorothea arrived to find their new home. Though they enlisted a real estate agent and looked at many houses in University City, none met Dorothea's approval, for she was already smitten with Armstrong's work. They contacted the architect, who dispatched them to his office in Oakland. After some initial skepticism from both parties, Armstrong convinced the Schwarzes that if they purchased an irregularly shaped lot, they would save enough money to pay his architects fees.

Remembers Egon, "His assistant drove us to a lot he owned a couple miles away, which consisted of a large hill full of spring flowers and a number of giant oak trees. When we returned, Mr. Armstrong told us that if we bought that lot, he would build us a house on it. We bought the lot that very day for $6,000."

During construction, Armstrong and his wife became friendly with Egon and Dorothea, even providing financing until the Schwarzes could sell their home in Cambridge. The families remained close friends until Armstrong's death.

The two-story modern home has a lower-level entry with an open, winding wooden staircase leading up to the main living quarters. Vaulted wood beam ceilings and clerestory windows give the living/dining area an open and airy feel. Over the years, the Schwarzes added a master suite (by Armstrong) and an enclosed greenhouse — which even today is filled with plants that have origins to other Armstrong homes. Egon's son, also an architect, updated the kitchen a few years back and is currently working on a remodel of the greenhouse area.

Though the house has evolved a bit over the years to suit its owners' lives, its original bones remain, as does the spirit of Armstrong's friendship, vision and creativity.

Says Egon, "We have been living in this place for decades contrary to Mr. Armstrong's prediction. His house is partly to blame. The thought of its genesis and of the Armstrongs themselves helped me to reject many offers from other universities."

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