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Small city of Oakland looms large in design gems

Small city of Oakland looms large in design gems

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OAKLAND • This town is easy to miss — tucked into little more than one-half square mile among Webster Groves, Kirkwood, Glendale and Crestwood.

But despite its size, it looms large in innovative home design.

While traditional colonial and Victorian two-stories, neat bungalows and tight cottages dominate the housing stock of southwestern St. Louis County, tiny Oakland offers a healthy dollop of unique architecture.

Oakland pioneer spurs trend of peculiar architecture

This home at 145 S. Sappington Road, photographed on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, is one of the odd home designs that can be found in the small community of Oakland in St. Louis County. Photo by Christian Gooden,

One of the best-known examples of Oakland’s standout style is a white art deco brick home at 145 South Sappington Road, with an oddly tilted side room that has been slowing traffic since it was added to the home in the early 2000s.

Most of the town’s design legacy can be credited to Harris Armstrong, an architect who lived in Oakland for about 35 years until he died in 1973.

But before Armstrong’s drafting table shaped the city, Howard E. Nichols’ sales pitch created it in 1920.

Longtime resident Suzanne Stewart Bolten, who wrote “Oakland: A History of the People & Their Homes,” said Kirkwood and Webster Groves both coveted the unincorporated land nestled between them.

So in 1916, to stave off Kirkwood’s annexation plan, Glendale incorporated. But residents on the south end of town quickly bristled over laws enacted by the new government, and they voted in 1920 to break off and to become Oakland.

“There was a libertarian bent to this area, a lot of people out here who didn’t like politicians telling them what to do,” Bolten said.

And the man out in front was Nichols.

Howard E. Nichols, E.G. Lewis

Howard E. Nichols (left) and E.G. Lewis in their offices in downtown St. Louis in 1901. Nichols, who was instrumental in founding both Glendale and Oakland, was in the magazine publishing business with Lewis, the founder and first mayor of University City. Photo courtesy of University City Public Library

Nichols was an entrepreneur who at one time was in business with E.G. Lewis, founder and first mayor of University City. Around 1902, he bought a house on East Monroe Avenue, when Oakland still was unincorporated.

Nichols quickly became connected with the local business leaders through his continued buying of real estate in the area and running a mail-order cosmetics business from his home. No fan of big government personally, Nichols had taken out ads and spoke at rallies during the Glendale incorporation effort, and then did similar work to incorporate Oakland, Bolten said.

“Howard Nichols was quite an operator … apparently a real charming man who could sell anything,” Bolten said.

“So both in Glendale and Oakland, the rich businessmen enlisted him as the front man” for their less-government incorporation efforts, she said.

Bolten said the city’s reticence toward government still exists, but not one based along party lines. She noted that the city still didn’t have building and inspection codes when she moved there in the 1980s.

Although some such ordinances have been adopted since, Bolten said, “I think there’s a general indifference to government here. People seem to prefer a conscientious, but not overbearing, government.

“We still don’t have an actual city hall,” she said.

No restrictions

The hands-off government that sparked the city’s founding was a bonus for Armstrong, the architect born in 1899 in Edwardsville.

Architect Harris Armstrong

Harris Armstrong

Armstrong was drawn by the city’s lack of planning and zoning laws, inspection codes and architectural review boards — a blank design canvas of sorts, Bolten said.

That artistic freedom drew Armstrong, along with other architects who took advantage of looser laws to take chances with home design.

In an essay for, former St. Louis County historian Esley Hamilton outlined Armstrong:

Armstrong began studying architecture in 1923, in night classes at Washington University. A year later, he headed off to Ohio State and then to New York.

In 1930, he came back to St. Louis and opened his own practice. He struggled until 1934, when he was hired to design the Shanley Building, 7800 Maryland Avenue in Clayton.

The Shanley is generally recognized as the first International Style building in the Midwest. When it was completed in 1936, it was highlighted in both Architectural Record and Architectural Review and won a silver medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1937.

After that, Armstrong was in high demand and eventually designed more than 100 structures in the area before he died in 1973.

Before retiring in 1969, Armstrong designed nine buildings in Oakland. He lived in two of them and used a third for an office.

Four of his homes sit on Sappington Spur, south of the old Westwood (now Westborough) Country Club.

The Sappington Spur homes are on land that was part of a large estate developed in the late 1800s. The land contained four structures, but only the stables could be saved when Armstrong began building there in the late 1930s. The other homes on the street, including Armstrong’s first Oakland residence, used as much original material as could be saved.

Oakland pioneer spurs trend of peculiar architecture

Homes located at 912 Singlepath Lane (right), and 200 South Sappington Road, are photographed on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in the small community of Oakland in St. Louis County. Photo by Christian Gooden,

In 1947, Armstrong built an office on Singlepath Lane, a small road next to the golf course and in walking distance of his house.

A trip down either narrow street feels like a photo shoot from a modern homes magazine, an architect’s playground peppered with sleek angles, glassy views and natural materials.

Armstrong designed his second residence in Oakland in 1952 on South Sappington Road, on land squeezed between Singlepath and Sappington Spur.

Architectural stewards

Ted Wight, a real estate agent who has sold two Armstrong houses, said he enjoys the homes in Oakland.

“It’s just this wonderful enclave of interesting homes, a little bohemian in nature,” Wight said. “So much of St. Louis (housing) is colonial or traditional, so these unique styles really jump out at you.”

No need to tell that to Kylie Roth, who has lived in Armstrong’s second home for four years with her husband, Jason Koebel, and now their infant son, Oslo.

Oakland pioneer spurs trend of peculiar architecture

Kylie Roth poses with her 9-week-old son, Oslo, in her Harris Armstrong home in the small community of Oakland on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Photo by Christian Gooden,

“We love midcentury modern architecture, especially the way light is brought into the home and ties the inside in with the outdoors,” Roth said.

Roth said the floor-to-ceiling windows flood the rooms with light. “I’ve never been much of a winter person, but the sun coming into the main room always makes me feel better,” she said.

There have been some challenges, because they take seriously their role as “stewards for the property. We’re proud to live here.”

They have had to shell out significant cash to get cork closet doors made for a hallway to match originals that still hang in the master bedroom; remove, sand and shellac numerous pieces of wood to restore them to original appearance; and pull up carpeting, only to reveal original floors that need work.

As to ever moving out, Roth said they have not ruled out the possibility.

“But it would have to be something really special.”

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