The DeVille Motor Hotel was conceived of and constructed during a time of major transition for Saint Louis. The city itself had witnessed only modest growth after World War II while its suburbs were growing exponentially. Though residential construction in the city’s southwest region continued into the 1950s, large-scale projects were a rarity. Moreover, by 1960 Saint Louis’ population had fallen by 100,000 from its 1950 peak of nearly 900,000 as its residents migrated outward from the city limits. From urban renewal projects which entailed the demolition of whole neighborhoods to the construction of interstate highways, city fathers and developers sought to find ways to modernize Saint Louis in an attempt to address this new and unsettling trend. The proliferation of the automobile amongst common households was a major factor in this dilemma, and the construction of motor hotels within the city limits was one tactic employed to attract travelers and pleasure-seekers back into the urban core.
Motor hotels were seen as the more sophisticated cousins of the plainer motels which were proliferating across the nation during the 1950s. Typically constructed in suburban or rural areas along major arteries, the motel’s building type tended towards the low-rise with sprawling footprints since land in these areas was generally ample. Low-rise motor hotels with surface parking, like the Ho-Tai Motor Hotel on Natural Bridge Road, were already sprouting up throughout Saint Louis County by the time the first was constructed in the city. Standing two stories tall at 4630 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End neighborhood, the Bel Air was completed in 1958 and was the first hotel constructed in St. Louis since the Chase Hotel around the corner at Kingshighway and Maryland Avenue in 1929. Lindell Boulevard, stretching through the city’s central corridor from downtown through Midtown and the Central West End before dead-ending at the western city limits, was seen as ideally suited for travelers’ lodgings. The new motor hotel was so successful that its owners added a third story in 1959. Construction began on the three-story Diplomat Hotel at Kingshighway and Waterman Avenue in 1959 as well.
At this same time plans were announced for a third motor hotel just one block east of the Bel Air on the northeast corner of Lindell Boulevard and Taylor Avenue. Under the direction of developer Norman Probstein, the “ultra-modern,” split-level Motel DeVille would have 96 rooms with accommodations comparable to the Bel Air. William Bond, Jr. of Memphis was named as the architect of the $1 million project. New Orleans developer Paul Kapelow had pioneered the small DeVille chain, commissioning the first in New Orleans in 1953, followed by ones in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1955 and Denver in 1959. Presumably it was he who jettisoned Probstein, Bond, and Bond’s design soon thereafter in favor of partnership with Saint Louis real estate magnates Melvin and Paul Dubinsky and the designer of the first three DeVilles, Charles R. Colbert.
Plans for Colbert’s new, far more ambitious DeVille were announced in September 1961. The E-shaped building would feature three rising concrete-and-quartz aggregate towers over 180 built-in parking spaces. The motor hotel would have 226 guest rooms, ranging from singles to suites, a swimming pool, three-season ice skating rink, conference rooms, event space, and upper-class restaurants and lounges. The unusual high-rise design was enabled by a newly revised city building code which permitted the use of steel and pre-cast concrete panels. The new DeVille fully embraced the possibilities of these modern materials to create a distinctive shape unlike any other in St. Louis.
Opened in July 1963, the DeVille was part of a small wave of upper-scale motor hotels being built throughout the metropolitan area. This was a new breed of buildings, described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as “too sumptuous to be classified as motels, [combining] the features of a major downtown hotel complex with the conveniences of a highway motel … [with] lavish extra touches designed to attract a free-spending clientele.” The DeVille boasted the Café DeVille, a restaurant and cocktail lounge with “music, dancing and entertainment,” the informal breakfast to late-night dining Riviera Coffee House, the Promenade cocktail lounge which overlooked the swimming pool and ice-skating rink, and the upper-class dining of the “glittering French Room.” Completed at a cost of $5,000,000, it was considered one of the largest and most impressive modern construction projects citywide and enhanced to the overall prestige of the Central West End.
Though it shared attributes with other motor hotels built at the time, the DeVille was wholly unique in its design. It was the only high-rise motor hotel built outside of downtown within the city limits of St. Louis, and of all the motor hotels, boasted a design which addressed its older surroundings in a careful manner atypical of many mid-century modern designs. In Idea: The Shaping Force, Colbert describes how he designed the Saint Louis DeVille to compliment the row of early 20th century apartment towers which define the stretch of Lindell Boulevard between Kingshighway and Taylor. In replacing three homes, the DeVille extended this high-rise streetscape east of Taylor. The building’s emphasis on verticality and the height of its central wing allowed the building to blend in seamlessly without breaking the flow of this famous vista; unlike the other two motor hotels in the Central West End, its parking was completely incorporated into its design rather than relegated to surface lots. In total, the DeVille addressed its somewhat contradictory position as an urban hotel meant to accommodate the automobile by largely concealing its parking to enhance, rather than reject, the existing built environment. The design’s unabashed modernity was meant to herald in a new age of prosperity for the city, and present an ideal solution to the conflict between urban density and driving culture. Its soaring towers lend it an almost Googie-like appearance, and in comparison to comparable buildings of any sort being constructed at the time (Mansion House Apartments, Saint Louis University’s Marchetti Towers, etc), the DeVille’s flamboyant design is the most visually distinctive.
The Holiday Inn hotel chain purchased the DeVille Motor Hotel in 1966. The Archdiocese of St. Louis purchased it in the 1970s, renaming the building the San Luis and converting it into apartments for senior citizens while using the various multi-purpose facilities for community events. The Archdiocese closed the San Luis Apartments in 2007 and relocated its residents throughout the metropolitan area with the intent of razing the building for a large surface parking lot; its ultimate fate remains to be seen.
Born in Dow, Oklahoma in 1921, Charles R. Colbert grew up outside of Houston and received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Texas, Austin in 1943. He served in the United States Navy until 1946 and studied naval architecture at the University of Michigan. He received his masters in architecture from Columbia University in New York in 1947 and accepted an assistant professorship at Tulane’s School of Architecture in New Orleans. Colbert served at the Supervising Architect and Director of the Orleans Parish School Board from 1949 to 1952, during which time he revolutionized the school system’s aging building stock, producing modern, award-winning designs for schools which garnered national praise.
Colbert’s practiced flourished, and by the time construction began on the St. Louis DeVille he was serving at the Dean of Columbia’s School of Architecture and had been elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Over the next thirty years Colbert taught at Rice University, Louisiana State University, and again at Tulane. He produced award-winning designs nationwide and was widely published; his book Idea: The Shaping Force is dedicated to elaborating on his distinct theories about creating works based on the architect’s individual value system to create new forms with each building. Heightened appreciation of mid-century architecture has led to a re-evaluation of Colbert’s work in recent years. His designs were featured prominently in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s exhibit Regional Modernism, curated by New Orleans AIA Executive Director Melissa Urcan, and in 2007 AIA Louisiana awarded him its highest award, the Medal of Honor, for his life’s work.
Thanks to Tracy Lea of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple Architects in New Orleans for providing much of the information concerning Charles Colbert.
Lindsey Derrington, Landmarks Association of St. Louis