By Diana Aitchison
Photograph by Whitney Curtis
In the 1950s America was cocky, optimistic, hip and swinging. With the victorious end of WWII, many forward-thinking Americans wanted new home designs. From this vitality sprang an American architectural movement of homes that were sleek and modern, which reflected our carefree attitudes. The result was a space-age take on the simple ranch house.
Midwestern architectural visionaries like William Bernoudy, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, built one-level residential structures with low-angled roofs and large windows that gazed on expansive landscapes. Other influential St. Louis architects added their own individual touches with two-way fireplaces, sunken bathtubs, unique light fixtures and high pitched ceilings. These architects introduced us to the notion that public rooms could meander into each other, unobstructed by doors and walls, with bedrooms that were utilitarian and small, used just for sleeping. And that outdoor space was as important as indoor space.
Historians refer to these houses as mid–20th-century contemporary homes, American-style. For a time, St. Louis was the epicenter of American-style contemporary and Modernist homes. The who’s who of these architects, like Isadore Shank and Charles Nagel, left their mark all over St. Louis.
Most of them didn’t live long enough to see the demise of their modern ranch designs. Sadly, Ralph A. Fournier just might. Fournier, 85 and now living in Brentwood, is a contemporary architect who came out of the School of Architecture at Washington University during the golden age of St. Louis Modernism. Born in Holyoke, Mass., he graduated in 1952 from Wash. U., where he studied under legends Eugene Mackey and Edouard Mutrux, a partner of Bernoudy. As a young architect, Fournier was “a purist,” he says, and designed contemporary homes from St. Louis to Atlanta to Indianapolis.
For a time in the 1960s, low-slung, modern dwellings like his were the height of fashion. Fournier and Bernoudy homes can still be found today in Ladue and Creve Coeur—but some may be endangered. Many modern ranch-style homes are being demolished to make way for larger, more dominant structures.
In a rare interview, Fournier discusses his long career, considers neighborhoods he designed that remain intact—including Sunswept Drive in Creve Coeur—and comments on how much square footage he thinks we all really need.
We hear about contemporary architects like William Bernoudy, Isadore Shank and others in St. Louis. Why aren’t you better known? I’m not dead yet. I’m 10 years younger than those gentlemen. They were my teachers. Lots of contemporary architects my age are already gone.
Who were your influences? I was influenced in school in the contemporary style from my teachers like Bob Fischer, Wilber Campbell, Edouard Mutrux and Eugene Mackey; most of my teachers were still practicing in the field. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright was a big inspiration. And I liked the California style—still do.
When you designed a home, what did you set out to do? I started from the site, from what you could see outside—trees, expanses. I would lay out a plan that had a view from every window. I put the bedrooms on the quiet side. I tried to design like an artist, contemporary and modern but with my own touches of ornamentation.
What details do you like about your homes? There was one detail Frank Lloyd Wright used that I incorporated into my work: windows that come together at a house’s corner. I visited some people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who lived in a Wright home and had windows like these—but big. Every time the wind blew, the windows would bow out. I used the detail, but the ones I designed for Sunswept Drive were never over 16 inches, so they never bowed.
What kinds of homes did you design? When I first came out of school, I did what I wanted, which was contemporary. Eventually, my family grew larger, and I had to pay the bills. I designed for the times and did all kinds of homes. In the beginning, there was great need for architects to design for people with a minimum amount of money. In some homes I only designed the front of the house. In Indiana, I did a lot of houses that way. We did whole subdivisions in prefabs in Indianapolis and Atlanta, all smaller houses.
In 1951 I designed 250 houses in Ridgewood—what is now Crestwood—all slabs, low-pitched roofs, contemporary modular homes that were 1,164 square feet. I remember that exactly. The builder built the framework in a shop and set them up in a day. I did a lot of higher-end modern homes too, like those on Sunswept Drive and Sunswept West out by Conway Road by St. Luke’s. And I designed homes for the Claymont subdivision out west, and others that sell for several million, like at Arrowhead, west of Faust Park. I also had to do my share of the traditional homes, like Salem Estates, at the southeast corner of Ladue and Lindbergh.
Contemporary homes were popular after World War II, but did everyone like them? No. I had a friend, who graduated with me, who wanted to build a modern home in Ladue. He had problems with the planning board. It takes some sophistication to appreciate contemporary modern design. It’s like a work of art. Some people want to buy masterpieces, and others are happy to get a print from Wal-Mart. We designed for people who had taste and appreciated elements of design. Not like these big homes today where they throw brick and stone and turrets and anything they can at it.
How did you build Sunswept Drive? At Sunswept Drive I designed each home, everything from the inside out, including the light fixtures. I used a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright and California influences like overhangs, low-angled rooflines and sunken bathtubs with windows that pointed out at angles. Each room flowed into the next and into the outdoors. Bedrooms had ample closets and usually a good-sized window; most of the time the houses had good cross-ventilation, which was important in the ’50s, since central air conditioning had not been developed.
What’s your most memorable project? In the late 1950s I designed a home for Better Homes and Gardens that was built in 195 cities. It was called “The Idea House.” They commissioned me to build the first one in University City. Then the editors from different departments decorated each room that they had particular knowledge about—the basement, playroom, darkroom and so on. At the time, manufacturers were starting to produce prefab metal fireplaces, and we incorporated those into the homes. It was fun. Another favorite project was designing some of the early residential units—and later, the estate units—for Tan-Tar-A in the Ozarks.
What do you think about the size and style of newer homes today? When I started designing houses, they were 950 square feet. The biggest was 10,000. After I retired in 1989, one house in Ladue, which my office did, was 30,000 square feet. That’s like a Schnucks! People can’t live in all those rooms. I remember a house on the north side of Chicago, it was during the Depression, and these people had plenty of money. They had this large house but only lived on the second floor near their bedroom. They hardly went into the rest of the house. How many rooms can you use?
Did you ever think that Fournier, Shank and Bernoudy homes would be threatened with demolition to make way for larger houses? No, I never did. Bernoudy was always a great artist and architect. St. Louis saw many great contemporary and modern architects. The person who’s tearing these down doesn’t appreciate them. They just put as much square footage in a box that they can, using whatever tricks they can use. They’re like stage settings. No consideration for design. No respect for the lots. They’re doing the site from the outside in, rather than the inside out. That goes against everything we learned. If you had a pleasant little house with everything planned from the inside out—space for bedrooms and ample utility rooms, large common areas and nice views—what more do you need? You don’t need 30-foot-long bedrooms with 30-foot-long bathrooms. Those big houses should be put on 10 acres rather than half-acre lots. It’s quantity over quality. And taste.
What was the best part of your career? Designing contemporary homes with some ornamentation. Others from my class went on to design high schools or industrial parks or hospitals. They were happy, got titles like VP, and retired. Just a few of us were doing residential work. For me, driving around and looking at my homes satisfies me. I like to know people still appreciate them.