Behind the Building: Frederick Dunn, The Gentleman Architect
A daughter’s memories on growing up with her architect father.
Frederick and Tizrah Dunn
Beautiful—an artist lives and dies by the word. It’s definition changes between person, generation, or culture, yet it’s easily recognizable, and for one St. Louis architect, the word “beautiful” seems fitting.
Frederick Dunn is a name that is not familiar with St. Louis architecture—Harris Armstrong and Charles Eames still own that distinction. But Dunn’s upscale, Deco homes and mid-century buildings have local architecture-enthusiasts thinking only one thing: beautiful.
Although a prominent architect in St. Louis between 1936 until 1963, little is known about Dunn. His pre-war homes were considered deceptively modern, hiding modern accents among their Deco exteriors. His partner, Charles Nagel, stated that Dunn preferred his post-war modernist work to his previous Deco work. Although architecture was Dunn’s job, it wasn’t his only passion. Dunn was a designer, illustrator, and later in life, a sculptor, and painter. He not only designed houses but also furniture, wallpaper, and decorative plates.
After a 27-year career in St. Louis, he left for New York, leaving behind more than 30 different homes, buildings, and churches—all a testament to his passion for creating.
Coming to St. Louis
Quinta Scott remembers growing up on 4462 Maryland in St. Louis. Of course, back then she was Tizrah Quinta Dunn, daughter of Frederick and Tizrah Dunn. But before Dunn called St. Louis home, there were a few pit stops along the way.
Dunn was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1905. Dunn’s father was a chemical engineer whose work later relocated his family to Montana. While studying, Dunn traveled to France and Italy on fellowship from 1930-31. Two years later, Dunn received his masters in architecture at Yale University in 1933, and married Scott’s mother, Tizrah May Perfect.
During the early 30s, the Dunns started a wallpaper business, and sold their designs throughout New England. “My father’s wallpapers are very formal, and my mother’s are much less formal and probably a little more sellable.” Scott says. Tizrah went on to sell wallpaper for years. Her designs became featured in several magazines and eventually acquired national distribution.
It was during this time that Dunn met Charles Nagel. The two soon formed a partnership, and decided to set up shop in Nagel’s hometown, St. Louis.
The Gentleman Architect
Nagel & Dunn operated for seven years until 1943 when Dunn left to go serve in the navy. Years later Nagel would relate his frustration to Scott saying, “The first time I set up an architectural firm a depression came. The second time I set up an architectural firm a war came.”
Dunn helped design the interiors of submarines at naval bases in Philadelphia and Houston. In 1945, Dunn returned to St. Louis. Scott was only four years old. “My father’s tastes were severe,” Scott says. “It colored everything in the house, right down to the kitchen.” Much like Dunn’s wallpaper designs, the house was very formal. Scott’s mother designed wallpaper in the dining room, sometimes borrowing Dunn’s draftsmen.
The house on Maryland was always changing. Whether a testing ground for ideas, or just Dunn’s inventive spirit, it’s hard to say. “He was always, always, always, working on the house,” Scott says. “I spent most of my childhood picking up plaster.”
But despite Dunn’s severe tastes and formal living, Scott remembers her childhood being unrestrictive. The Dunns lived next door to George Hellmuth, another prominent St. Louis architect and co-founder of Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK).
“The children of two architects living next door to each other.” Scott says. “It was a lot of freedom to explore. The Hellmuth children and I built a three-story tree house between two trees in the backyard. Our architect fathers decided that maybe it would be a good idea to go out and inspect this thing…but we did a good job.”
During his time in St. Louis, Dunn worked on residential, commercial, and religious architecture. “[Dunn] called residential architecture ‘underpaid psychiatry,’” Scott says. “When you do a house it’s a tremendous amount of consultation with the client because they have to sort out how they’re going to live, and then you have to design it.” Despite his distaste for residential work, Dunn worked on churches throughout St. Louis, his most noted being St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. He also helped remodel Christ Church Cathedral, and often referred to church architecture as “chiseling for Jesus.”
Although the Dunns were a family of illustrators, Scott discovered a love for photography an early age, taking pictures around Maryland Avenue and getting them developed at a corner drug store. With her father’s support and her mother’s example, Scott would go on to create four books featuring her photography.
With the house constantly in flux and other marital pressures mounting, Frederick and Tizrah separated in 1962, and the following year Dunn moved to New York. For a few years, business had been slowing down steadily for Dunn in St. Louis. “He saw himself as the gentleman architect who thought business came from reputation, not solicitation,” Scott says. “If he was willing to market himself he would have stayed, but he wasn’t willing to do that.”
Return to the Big Apple
Dunn lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Madison and 63rd. For a few months, he became director of design for Charles Luckman Inc., and then worked on public buildings for Rogers, Butler, & Burgun. “He would probably call St. Louis home, but he loved living in New York,” Scott says. After working in New York for ten years, Dunn retired.
In 1978, Dunn suffered a stroke, rendering his predominant right hand useless. Dunn continued to create even after his stroke and took on new hobbies like painting and sculpture. Dunn would work on the roof of his Madison apartment in the hot summer months, but retreat indoors during the winter.
“Even after he had the stroke, he never stopped making things, creating things,” Scott says. “He may have lost language, and lost the use of his right hand but he was making sculpture with his left hand, he was painting with his left hand, he was drawing with his left hand.”
In 1984, six years after his stroke, Dunn died in New York. Dunn built more than 40 buildings throughout 8 different states, and many consider Dunn before his time. “In school they were teaching formal style…he became modern in the details.” Scott says. “He would roll over in his grave if we called him a deco architect. Underneath it all was modernism.”
Scott remembers one moment, soon after her father’s stroke. They were looking through her first published book for the first time. Scott carefully flipped through the book as her father’s eyes scanned the pages. Her father couldn’t say many words, the stroke had taken away his language, but there was one word he repeated as he looked at his daughter’s work: beautiful.