Architects get famous for designing buildings. Larry Giles has made a name for himself by deconstructing them.
The St. Louis native has spent a good portion of the last four decades painstakingly stripping, salvaging, and saving the architectural history of his Midwestern hometown. From classic brickwork to the terra cotta friezes that used to adorn turn-of-the-century skyscrapers, Giles has had a hand in removing these priceless artifacts and preserving them for future generations. He’s spent hours hoisted from the roofs of soon-to-be-demolished buildings, pneumatic hammer in hand, slowly unwrapping layer after layer of history.
And now, most everything is in boxes. But the 68-year-old Giles is no typical packrat. His collection now encompasses more than 300,000 items in 1,600 wooden crates (each roughly 30 cubic feet), all neatly stacked inside the steel-framed buildings of the Sterling Steel Casting Company, a 15-acre site located in nearby Sauget, Illinois. It’s been compared, many, many times, to the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Giles has a collection of architectural artifacts like the Library of Congress has stacks of books: glass, stonework, ornamental cast iron, old hardware, bronze sculptures, altars from St. Louis churches, 2,000 doorknobs, even a full facade from Gaslight Square, a faux Victorian entertainment district built in the ‘50s. After purchasing the site, he spent a year moving 650 semi trailer loads worth of artifacts, all brought from his previous storage spots (which included an abandoned carriage house).
“I just love old buildings,” Giles said. “It’s a big collection, without a doubt, the largest that I’m aware of, and the idea was to develop it as a comprehensive study collection. The idea has grown into a collection of pieces from all over the country. The history here is a national history.”
Giles wants to turn his decades-plus haul into a museum and research facility, the National Building Arts Center, which would become an unparalleled institution for researching American buildings and architecture, and the history of the built environment. But fundraising hasn’t been his forte, and after spending roughly a million to outfit the space, he’s still trying to find supporters to raise the additional money needed, even selling duplicates and doubles in the collection to keep the center afloat.
“I started out with this dream, and now I’m just trying to persevere,” he says. “I enjoy the work, but I’m not a hustler. I have trouble getting the money.”
Giles became entranced with buildings and the history of St. Louis during his childhood in the city’s Central West End neighborhood, when he’s listen to his grandfather tell him stories during trips around town. A history buff always ready with a story, he knew the name of every building, and pointed out the beauty of the city’s classic architecture.
St. Louis, as Giles would come to appreciate, was a traditional hub of craftwork and manufacturing, especially for terra cotta and brick. Companies such as the Hydraulic Press Brick Company and Winkle Terra Cotta Company created the raw materials that grace historic buildings across the country.
“The masonry tradition here in St Louis is incredible, and the brick work is particularly amazing, unrivaled anywhere else in the United States,” he says.
Giles started his salvage operation in the ’70s after returning from Vietnam (his Marine unit fought in the Battle of Hue, and was one of the inspirations for the story dramatized in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket). After his tour overseas, he returned to find much of the history he had grown up on was beginning to disappear, with hundreds of buildings a year disappearing due to demolition and redevelopment.
At first, he ran Soulard Resources to help others rehab old buildings. Then, in a rescued old carriage factory he used as his repository, he started St. Louis Architectural Art Co., a salvaging company that would become his life’s work.
Giles managed that company for decades, working as many of the city’s treasures were taken down. He became adept at recovering artifacts from larger buildings in the central business district, especially after the Gateway Mall project resulted in the demolition of some classic structures in the early ‘80s, including the Title Guarantee and Buder buildings.
He stripped an 8-foot-tall terra cotta frieze off the 18-story Ambassador Theater Building, and has a number of large wooden sculptures from old churches. At one point, he used an old Kroger’s store to warehouse his collection, placing the overflow in a fenced off parking lot. During the time his salvaging company was running he would help make ends meet by selling old house parts to newly arriving urban pioneers looking to restore and rebuild old buildings.
“All the material has great stories,” he says. “It’s just a big, vast, untold story.”
After closing his salvage business about 15 years ago, he needed something to do with his collection. It was then that a friend suggested he check out an abandoned steel foundry.
The factory proved a perfect home for Giles’ collection. Constructed of sturdy structural steel, the building offers plenty of room for storage, and hopefully, future displays and research facilities. The largest, at 45,000-square-feet, has “exceptional potential.”
Giles’ collection has grown since he made the move to Sterling Steel. He’s acquired a cache of artifacts from New York via a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum, and has acquired pieces from across the country, including Chicago and Philadelphia. A team of workers spent more than a year cutting steel to open up the interiors for future displays.
Right now, the facility is run by a skeleton crew of volunteers. They’re slowly renovating the buildings, occasionally giving tours, and helping writers and scholars utilize the collection for research. Giles believes the NBAC could be a hub for scholarship and a resource for architectural students. In addition to all the artifacts, he has trailers filled with old books, and wants to digitize his collection of more than 25,000 out-of-print volumes for greater access.
But he just needs the funds, and someone to see the stories buried in the warren of wooden crates.
“People with money don’t have the vision,” he says. “Millennials tend to love it, but there’s an older generation of modernists who don’t get it.”