Driving to the Grove, a mere five minutes from the well-manicured lawns and BMW’s populating the suburbs, the scene quickly changes. Several small boutiques, shops, art galleries, and restaurants line the streets, brick buildings emerge ahead, the sidewalks embrace an increasing stream of foot traffic, and a 1,400-pound neon sign hangs above the street, spelling out “The Grove” in large, fluorescent block letters. The Grove is a distinctly different pocket from the rest of St. Louis, unchained by delineations in social, racial, and economic class, which is one of its most appealing parts. “It happens to be a little melting pot for St. Louis,” says Tom Niemeier, owner of Space Architecture. It’s hard to believe the attractive brick building that now houses one of St. Louis’ premiere architecture firms was formerly “the eyesore of the whole strip.” Well-dressed in a crisp grey suit and tie, he tells us his elegant attire is atypical. “Normally I wear jeans, but I dressed up for you guys!” he jokes.
Settled into chairs, lights clamped and covered with wax paper, microphones hooked onto lapels, and questions hastily scribbled onto a pad of paper, the scene is set.
“Can we have you say the alphabet?”
Momentarily amused, Niemeier obliges, seated on a tall barstool-style chair as natural light pours in from several windows looking out onto the street. It spills onto a few chairs scattered around the front walkway, all hand-made in the Space fabrication shop. They are beautiful, but much heavier than they look, as I discover when I try to pick one up and drag it over.
“Let’s get another tall one,” Niemeier suggests. He summons a colleague to bring over another tall chair, so both of us sit at an equal height.
“So, you’ve been doing this for quite awhile, I understand.”
“The fabrication end of it?”
“No, I mean architecture and design. For over twenty years, right?”
“Yep, I’m old,” he says, laughing. “It’s all I’ve ever done, and it’s what I love to do.”
But if things had gone differently, one of St. Louis’ premiere architects could have been…a baseball player? “If you go way back, like when I was in high school, I hadn’t thought about a career in anything besides baseball.” However, an injury to his arm left him out of commission for his entire senior year. “It changed my life in that I didn’t have any colleges looking at me.” To an eighteen-year old that must have been a crushing blow, but there’s no resentment in his voice. “You start to come to reality a little bit. It’s really hard to make it into the pros and make money, especially because I had that injury early on.” Niemeier enrolled in engineering classes at St. Louis Community College in pursuit of more pragmatic, rational work, but knew right away it wasn’t his calling. “I was astute enough to know that if I’m going to do something for the rest of my life I better enjoy it, and better not be hating it already in my first year of college.”
On a whim, he took some drafting classes. “[My mother] kept telling me, ‘It would be just the perfect career for you, if you think about it. When you were a kid you played with your Erector set, you played with building blocks, you built forts in the back yard. You were always building something.’ It was really as simple as that.” Niemeier later transferred to a rigorous architecture program at Kansas State University, which proved to have its own challenges. “Most of the kids in that program had known they were going to be an architect since grade school. They’d taken every art class, every drafting class that they could to position themselves to be going to college for architecture, and I didn’t have any of that. I’d taken art classes, but I had a lot of catching up to do.”
As he plowed through undergraduate architecture coursework and continued to design, Niemeier began to fully understand the effects of a well-crafted space. “I started to realize what a difference good architecture can make for a space, and how people can subliminally enjoy a space more if it’s lit properly, if it’s detailed properly.” I ask how he translates a mood into an environment and Niemeier brings up a conversation he had with Adam Tilford, owner of Milagro Mexican Grill, a swanky eatery in Webster Groves. “One of the first things [Adam] said was, ‘I want it to be fun and festive. When people come in, I want it to feel energetic.’ We took those words of emotion and translated them into an architecture that would reflect that. And how we got there was really through a series of conversations; we didn’t do a ton of drawings with Milagro.” Niemeier seems relatively unmoved by the task of translating sensory perception into a spatial experience, which sounds like a vast challenge. “It was such a cool project in that we could meet those requirements by mostly cosmetic means: by adding things, adding finishes, adding texture, reducing the heights of some walls to open up the space a bit more. All cosmetic, relatively inexpensive changes, but if you were to look at the space before and after, it feels completely different. Almost like Extreme Makeover.”
As he retells the progression of successful projects like Milagro, his willingness to share about the trial-and-error process diverges from traditional stereotypes of successful people. You’d think professionals in his position would keep vulnerable, developmental moments under lock and key, but Niemeier does nothing of the sort. Chipper and good-humored, he acknowledges and firmly rejects those stereotypes with a unique willingness to share his experiences.
Midway through the interview, the mailman walks in. “Harold, you’re messing up the video!” Niemeier jokes and lets out another laugh, the kind of unrestrained, authentic laugh you’d be more likely to find on a playground than in an office building. “He’s a wonderful mailman.” Moments like these demonstrate Niemeier’s profound understanding of truthful moments, and their ability to build subsequent relationships. It’s almost disarming how much he clearly honors that fleeting, daily interaction with the mailman, handling it as though it were a rare gem. What others might brush off as trivial, he attends to with an ardent sense of urgency, not unlike how he handles a conceptual sketch for a building or three-dimensional model for a client.
Space’s body of work, a meticulous array of projects that range from small, personalized spaces to 60,000 square foot additions, are a result of that emphasis on effective relationships. Additionally, that sacred trust between architect and client has an exciting upside: “because of the trust we establish, it makes them feel comfortable enough to go a little edgier.” While St. Louis has abundant historical beauty, our architecture has yet to make some much-needed, progressive changes. “For example, most of the housing you see here is very cookie-cutter, colonial, traditional, not very interesting. I’d like to see St. Louis catch up. I think it’s in us.” That kind of trust is vital to combat conservatism that feeds the perception of St. Louis as outdated. “St. Louis has this inferiority complex, right? A lot of St. Louisans are like, ‘St. Louis isn’t so great.’ It is pretty great, and it could be greater. I think we do it by showing that uniqueness compared with what other cities are doing.”
To Niemeier, those progressive changes are key to cobbling together a new identity for St. Louis in order to reverse the disparity of socioeconomic territories that has become our reality. The literal lines dividing wealth from poverty, such as Delmar Boulevard, reflect regional disparities that have led to a complex, baffling ethos. “As long as I’ve been alive there’s been north/south. And there’s been this hatred and fear that really holds the town down. We’re all fighting with each other. Why do we do that? Why don’t we figure out a way to come together and represent ourselves as one region that puts a unified front out there, and doesn’t have all the negative press? That reinforces the inferiority complex we have.” He questions these norms without fearful reserve or defensive justifications, but with probing curiosity, as segregation in St. Louis has remained consistently ubiquitous, yet largely unacknowledged. While there is enormous potential to move forward, there’s also enormous work to be done. “That’s what holds this town down a lot. There’s a fear by people of other people that are different. That goes both ways.”
Rather than staying wedged in the routine of day-to-day suburban life or trapped by fear in segregated pockets of the city, tackling this identity change needs to happen “a step at a time. Grandiose plans usually don’t work or are never realized. I think everything good has to come a step at a time. It’s a growing awareness of what our capabilities are, it’s being willing to do hard work to get to someplace meaningful, as opposed to trying to do it in one big leap. We have a wealth of amazing buildings that have history, and they don’t build them like that anymore. They’re shells waiting to come alive with new life and new use.” The architectural skyline, the Arch, and older buildings are full of rich history waiting to be imbued with fresh, new ideas, and have a hand in what could inspire a new identity.
The trend has already started with a wave of new life opening up on Washington Avenue, the Delmar Loop, Soulard, pockets of South City, The Grove, of course, and more. Those areas that embody the inimitable, St. Louis character are where change happens. “When people come to St. Louis and they’re not going to Chili’s or Applebees, they’re going to places that are unique to St. Louis and represent St. Louis, they represent a flavor, a style—that’s our chance. When those people go back and they’re talking about what a unique experience they had in St. Louis, how they went to this restaurant or that sporting event and this art opening, they’re talking about a progressive town.”
As a step forward, Space plans to renovate two buildings in the Penrose and O’Fallon neighborhoods of North St. Louis that will serve as youth outreach facilities, a collaborative project with Alderman Antonio French. These will hopefully be the first steps in defining a new identity for those neighborhoods, rebranding them as areas of refuge rather than crime-afflicted. “We’re going to be dealing with neighborhoods that are in real trouble with young people who have no hope, and we’re taking our first step into a project that maybe, just maybe, can bring some hope. How can you do that through architecture? I don’t know. We’re going to try and find out.”
The structures will seek to go beyond aesthetics and inspire just that: the kind of hope that can reverse cycles of oppression and provide citizens with tools to re-envision their neighborhoods. While there is risk involved, Niemeier’s approach is similar to how he tackled his undergraduate architecture degree, how he’s worked with clients to move them towards more progressive solutions, and how he kept Space alive during the recession. “I try not to let obstacles get in my way, and I’m a risk taker. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. If you can avoid seeing the obstacles, look at the end goal and the obstacles tend to take care of themselves.”
Niemeier’s genuine belief in urban design would feel like well-intentioned, yet misplaced optimism if it weren’t for his undeniable wealth of knowledge and experience. He’s a native who knows how deep the stereotypes run, how hard the prejudices are to fight, and how challenging rebuilding projects are in general. But he also believes we can change it. “We’ve been given an opportunity to try and make a difference, and to me that’s more powerful than anything. It’s always going to start with small steps. It’s not some superhero coming in and saving the town. But if you give people hope that this trend is reversing, they can see a way out. Most of the time, it’s a lack of hope that makes people give up.” To Niemeier, that intent, even in its most unrealized form, is enough. “Sometimes people don’t need a lot to have a glimmer of hope. If they see intent, if they see people try to help, sometimes that can be the glimmer of hope they need that might just turn their minds around.”
At night when the sun sets and night falls across the city, I return to the Grove and watch it transform into a burgeoning epicenter of lively energy. Novak’s, the Atomic Cowboy, HandleBar, and the Gramophone come alive. People are crowded around the lit-up venues, talking and laughing, buying drinks and smoking cigarettes. Young people, old people, gay people, straight people, black people, white people…all kinds of people gather without defensiveness. This must be what Niemeier means when he says, “We like the diversity that’s here, and it’s a very progressive part of St. Louis where people mix.”
A group of twentysomethings outside Novak’s are ablaze with laughter. There are girls, some in Converse sneakers with metal bracelets, some outlined by belted jeans and fitted tops, and there are boys, with tailored khakis and shaggy hair. They are completely unable to restrain themselves, sputtering with amusement at something one of them has said. A woman with salt-and-pepper hair walks by and glances over at them, stopping to brush a bit of dirt that has accumulated on top of her brown leather shoes. A young man in his thirties, elegantly dressed in a crisp blazer, ushers a well-groomed brunette into Sanctuaria for tapas. She is beautiful, with long glossy hair draped around her shoulders, her body outlined in a sleek black long sleeve dress. They’ll sip signature cocktails while sampling Monterey Jack and Guava Empanadas, watching people pace back and forth along the street, and passing the neon Grove sign that burns brightly against the night sky. The hope Niemeier so fervently seeks to protect is alive here. You can’t walk by without being acknowledged, without people asking questions, talking about new restaurants and boutiques opening up, or exchanging stories about Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. And you absolutely cannot miss that huge sign, as it lights up the whole St. Louis sky.