For good or ill—and surely the equation leans toward the latter—St. Louis is a region with more than her share of abandoned spaces. These emptied locations have arrived (and overstayed their welcome) for reasons familiar to other midwestern cities.
Entire industries disappeared, moving overseas or to more tax-lenient states around the US, leaving behind factories, warehouses and rail yards. White flight caused a profound, mid-century suburban shift in housing patterns, the St. Louis urban core altered for decades to come. With all those folks on the move, linchpin neighborhood services and amenities often followed; left behind were empty schools and bars, repair shops and restaurants, confectionaries and churches.
In a city with a deep, Catholic tradition, multiple Catholic parishes have shuttered, whether the actual church, or support structures, such as their affiliated schools, convents and rectories. A smattering of Lutheran, Baptist and other Christian churches have also been left behind in St. Louis, some humble, others gaudy, all suggesting a different, departed civic landscape.
Individuals looking for a different way to experience the past have long explored these empty spaces. Recently, some friends and I visited a North City landmark, Bethlehem Lutheran Church. It once housed up to 1,400 congregants, in a building dating back to 1895. Designed by the architect Louis Wessbecher, the church had all the features typical of a grand building from that era, including beautiful, stained glass windows on nearly every side and a belltower visible for miles. Access was as simple as the step-through of a window, the church’s security long disregarded.
With the congregation shrinking, the building’s last church services were held a quarter-century back. The elements weren’t kind to Bethlehem Lutheran in the prevailing years, nor were all people. While weather caused the lion’s share of the damage, the ruination of the church was also accompanied by human touches, often in the form of spray paint. Present recently were huge pieces and quickie tags from members of various local graffiti crews (LD, OFB), along with independents. Some were subtle, like Moth’s “This is boring” phrase, jotted on the back of a weathered pew. Others were sizable, like the Ed Box tag dominating the mezzanine level’s front face. Bethlehem even featured the marks of local stencil artist Eye, who works in official, sanctioned roles around town; in this environment, a piano bore his unmistakable touch.
Michael R. Allen, the principal of Preservation Research Office, is a go-to source for St. Louisans looking for the background and context of the city’s rich architectural history. Traveling nationally for his work, he’s seen countless houses of worship in decay. Many bear the marks of graffiti writers, their messages ranging from the profound to the profane.
Asked about the role of graffiti in these settings, Allen penned back: “Graffiti has been part of architectural history since the days of the Roman catacombs and earlier. The presence of graffiti is not insidious in itself, but a reminder of the passage of uses of buildings and coherence of place-based communities. No church building still tied to a living need or use would attract graffiti.
“Graffiti disturbs us because it forces us to confront our own neglect of the beautiful spaces of our ancestors,” he added. “Somehow, maybe with good reason, we failed to safeguard their temples. Yet the graffiti strangely gives these spaces a contemporary cultural life beyond simple destruction.”