Exhibit Celebrates Pioneers of St. Louis Suburban Modernism
Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch towers over St. Louis, but the city’s suburban landscape is dotted with midcentury modern monuments of a more modest sort in the form of elegant, low-slung houses with high-vaulted ceilings and ample windows.
The husband-and-wife architectural team of Ralph and Mary Jane Fournier deserve much of the credit for the St. Louis area’s enduring reputation as a hothouse of midcentury modernism for the masses—but it has tended to elude them, affixing itself instead to the likes of William Bernoudy, Harris Armstrong, and a few others.
Now, however, a retrospective exhibit at Maryville University called "Suburban Modernism: The Architecture and Interior Design of Ralph and Mary Jane Fournier" seeks to put its subjects where they belong—squarely at the center of the movement that brought modern design to America’s suburbs in the boom years that followed World War II.
The exhibition’s curator, Jessica Senne, lives in a Fournier house—one of hundreds the couple designed in suburban St. Louis—with her husband and their toddler in the Sugar Creek Ranch subdivision in Kirkwood. "I fell in love with our house, and as we continued to do our own research, we discovered the sheer amount of stuff that the Fourniers produced," says Senne, an architect and an assistant professor of interior design at Maryville. "But when I Googled them, I found nothing. That’s when I decided to take on this exhibit as my own project."
A native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Ralph Fournier was fresh from service in France with the Army Air Forces when he entered the architectural engineering program at the University of Massachusetts’ extension campus at Fort Devens. He decided to study architecture instead and, in 1948, moved to St. Louis and enrolled at Washington University. It was there that he met Mary Jane Henske, a kindred spirit and a Washington University architecture graduate. They married and later founded a successful firm, Fournier Inc. Architects.
Ralph Fournier met a local developer, Burton Duenke, when he applied for a part-time drafting position in Duenke’s office. Duenke recognized the need for low-cost suburban housing and was an early adopter of the modern aesthetic. Duenke and the Fourniers’ first effort to design a large-scale neighborhood of affordable, modern houses resulted in the development of the Ridgewood subdivision in Crestwood, southwest of St. Louis. It was—and remains—populated with post-and-beam structures atop slab-on-grade foundations, their open floor plans enclosed within prefabricated wall panels manufactured by Modular Homes of Kirkwood. The houses were marketed to middle-class families; one could be had for $14,400 in 1953, or about $125,500 in today’s dollars.
The success of the Ridgewood subdivision led to others—Craig Woods and Sugar Creek Ranch in Kirkwood, and the somewhat more upscale Harwood Hills in Des Peres. The houses in these later developments were larger and outfitted with higher-caliber interior finishes. Duenke’s partnership with the Fourniers reached its apex when he commissioned them to design his own residence, a sprawling, modern manse set on a 6-acre site overlooking the Missouri River in Chesterfield.
While much of the Fourniers’ work endures—Senne says there is only one teardown in her 59-lot subdivision—several of the homes in the Harwood Hills neighborhood have been demolished in recent years and replaced with structures whose scale and style differ drastically from their neighbors. The preservationist group Modern STL, which organized a Harwood Hills house tour in May, called it "one of St. Louis County’s most endangered midcentury neighborhoods."
The "Suburban Modernism" exhibit aims to draw additional attention to the endangered nature of these neighborhoods. It is organized according to neighborhood and features plans, sketches, models, and promotional materials that Ralph Fournier furnished from his own archives. "These materials have been in storage for decades," Senne says, "so it was a process of him digging through his basement and his attic, and handing me stuff as he came across it."
The Fourniers divorced after a long marriage and Mary Jane Fournier died in 2008. Ralph Fournier, now 91, eagerly assisted Senne with her research and, she says, attended the opening reception on January 16, chatting amiably with those in attendance, some of whom live in one of the houses he designed more than a half-century ago.
The free exhibit runs through February 22 at the Morton J. May Foundation Gallery at the University Library on the Maryville University campus in Town and Country, Missouri. The Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, provided financial assistance, and the exhibit received additional support from from the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Maryville University and Modern STL.
Will Lamb is a writer and editor based in Jersey City, New Jersey. He served as a senior editor at Dwell from 2013 to 2015.