Photo by Diane Cox
The unusual architecture of East Alton’s Citizens Building has been drawing the eye of residents and visitors for the last 52 years. The building is scheduled to be torn down by late spring after being vacant for nearly a decade.
Don Mitchell of Wood River contributed this column to AdVantage News.
The year 1964 was particularly memorable for St. Louisans, and likewise for those of us residing on the Metro East side of the Mississippi River.
As the St. Louis Cardinals pushed toward a World Series championship, a number of iconic landmarks were under construction, including Busch Memorial Stadium, the Gateway Arch, and a futuristic geodesic dome in neighboring Wood River. Amid this swirling mass of creativity, a comparatively small, albeit spectacularly bold building was being erected. A structure so ultra-modern, so far-reaching in scope that it practically defied description by the awe-stricken locals who simply dubbed it the Round Building. I am referring to none other than East Alton’s very own Citizens Savings & Loan Building.
Whatever one chooses to call this captivating structure, it is, without question, one of the most unique and significant surviving examples of mid-century modern architecture at its finest in the country. In the face of ever-changing fads and styles, for more than half a century, this building has stood proudly, some might even say defiantly, at the corner of Berkshire and Wood River Avenue.
At one time this grand and iconic landmark epitomized civic pride and optimism for the future, but is now slated for demolition by the village of East Alton, its present owner. If they proceed as planned, it will sadden many in the community and beyond, just as New Yorkers were disheartened by the loss of their beloved Pennsylvania Station (the destruction of which outraged the nation, gave rise to the Preservationist Movement and forever tainted the legacy of city officials). It is commendable that Mayor Silkwood plans to spruce up the Wilshire shopping center, though a bit ironic with the Citizens Bank Building standing alone in the shadow of a wrecking ball. Any genuine effort put forth in earnest to revitalize Berkshire Avenue should include preserving this historic landmark, and restoring it to some semblance of its former grandeur. It is sad to think that this magnificent work of art may no longer serve as a backdrop for the annual soap box derby, or be gazed upon in wonder by children. I feared that the announcement of its impending destruction would be met with ambivalence, even apathy by the locals, but the overwhelming majority I have spoken with express love and admiration for this building and then go on to share their stories. Ladies tend to speak fondly of walking across its drawbridge, over spewing fountains and shimmering water illuminated by multi-colored lights. One proudly proclaimed that her father worked to fit pipe during its construction, and a gentleman told me that when he entered the bank as a boy, he felt as if he were boarding a spaceship. Rather like a grand and mighty nautical vessel, I have always thought of this building as a lady, for anything this majestic and beautiful could hardly be anything else. I have a reverence for history and antiques; still, I realize that we the living are never really the sole owners of fine, historical items of antiquity; rather, we are merely temporary caretakers, and as such are entrusted, by whatever forces are at work in the universe, with the responsibility of preserving and protecting such precious items for future generations.
It is not uncommon for history buffs and scholars alike to visit sites upon which notable structures once stood, and I can easily imagine, in say the year 2085, a young student of architecture, with an affinity for mid 20th-century modernism, staring at some mundane edifice at 700 Berkshire Blvd, and trying to picture in its place the magnificent building that we so easily discarded. If this beautiful building is preserved for future generations to enjoy, the gratitude of art lovers yet unborn might represent the only reward bestowed upon those who fought to save her, but such accolades are eternal. Therefore, I respectfully suggest to the reputable, civic-minded officials of East Alton, the building’s present caretakers, that they reconsider their decision to demolish, and explore any and all other options in an effort to preserve and protect this architecturally significant and irreplaceable work of art. Likewise, I encourage all enterprising investors and developers in our area and beyond to take a look at this most unique building, and further remind them that since passing the 50-year mark, it now meets the criteria to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places list. This will allow funds to be allocated, thus making renovation and upgrades much more cost-effective.
Last and especially to the good citizens of East Alton, within whose hands the fate of this structure genuinely rests, I say: “This magnificent building belongs to you the people; it can and should be saved.” The present-day generation is beginning to embrace this distinctive style of architecture, as the recent major exhibit of mid-century modernism held at the St. Louis Art Museum bears witness. Now is not the time to give up on this historic building. This superlative structure, this vibrant, mid- 20th century time capsule should be allowed to stand for another 50-plus years, if for no reason other than to serve as a reminder to all who admire her that there once was a time, not so very long ago, when we as Americans gazed optimistically toward the future with courage, unified resolve and vision, instead of fear, discord and short-sightedness. Unquestionably the Citizens Savings & Loan Building is worthy of our support. The only real question is whether or not we deserve to have her standing in our midst by being up to the task at hand. I, for one, believe that we are.