The Forgotten Architect of South City

the tale of Ernst Janssen and his odd connection to Dumpster Archeology

Ernst Jannsen

One photograph of a man in a boat. Could be any old man, at any point in history. He smiles with a sense of happiness that is lost in history. His name is Ernst Jannsen and he is the Forgotten Architect. At this point in time, this is the only known photograph of the man. A man whose legacy is literally built across the St Louis Landscape. Only a handful of people know his name or where his houses are, and often proudly maintain one of his masterpieces. Ernst is a part of our St Louis pride, of our civic lifestyle and our maintaining of personal historical awareness.

When one falls in love with a city, it is often hard to describe. What is it about the streets, buildings and history that compels such devotion? I fell in love with South St Louis fairly quickly, based on experiences and feelings that are dense and layered. Spending a decade in the area, after transplanting from New Mexico, my St Louis Pride was adopted. I often ride my bike to dumpster dive it’s alleyways, and wander it’s neighborhoods, spending a lot of time on South Grand and heading to the Farmers Market in the center of this strange neighborhood. The center metaphorically in South City is that glorious park called Tower Grove and round-about circle of beauty in the middle. With the duck pond, Shakespeare’s statue and the Pool Pavilion, who couldn’t fall in love with this jewel of an area?

Pool Pavilion at Tower Grove

This is where our hero Ernst Jannsen built the Pool Pavilion that stands today, next to the playgrounds and tennis courts. In the 1920’s he was a famous architect, creating mansions for the newly rich Beer and Food Barons of Compton Heights. His Grand entrance to the streets of Longfellow and Hawthorne was much celebrated for it’s classic style. Ernst trained at one of the best schools of architecture in the world, the Polytechnische Schule in Karlsruhe and studied the building techniques of the masters of Europe. They said he could build anything, and he did. Romanesque, Italianesque, Chateauesque, English Tudor, and other contemporary styles that were desired by the wealthy elite, trying upstaging one another in our small industrial city. He was like an architect version of a “mob doctor”, getting the job done and doing it for a certain club of aristocrats.

(side note…in Mexico he apparently built some adobe buildings for fun and might have been the draftsman for the Laumeier house.)

The Pool Pavilion was built, for a small fee, (paid for by the Parks Department) in 1914 after Ernst Janssen made a name for himself with the Magic Chef Mansion. Many of the Pavilions and decorations at Tower Grove Park were built by famous St Louis Artists, but somehow Ernst got the centerpiece.

The Farmers Market that meets in the Modern Age at the pavillion is a wonderful affair with organic farmers, local craftspeople, food vendors and music provided by the local public radio station. I would eat fresh fruit while watching my son splash happily in the Fountain Pool designed by Ernst and sometimes have to hurry my son from time to time to pee quickly in the 100 year old bathrooms. The outdated fixtures and aging green windows were maintained by a Parks Department that loved it’s buildings and pathways with intense passion. Times however were changing and the people had flooded back to a park that was once crime filled and before that, a forgotten wonderland of the ancient residents of our city…. it was time to update.

I found those green windows in an industrial dumpster one cold November day, as me and my son played soccer in the nearly empty playground in front of the pavilion. There were many windows, but I took 7 interesting ones, to perhaps turn into art of some sort. I have used windows in my Dumpster Archeology exhibit displays for quite some time and the historic nature of these ones called to my sensibilities, but what came next was a huge surprise.

Some of the windows discovered

It was curiosity that drove me to the History Annex that day as I went looking for answers to the mystery of the windows. The story of Ernst so far has had a personal slant, but it didn’t connect the larger mythology of Dumpster Archeology. After I discovered through a search that Enrst had built the Magic Chef Mansion and entered the website maintained by the owners, I found his biography and a highlights of his history. Ernst Janssen was their hero and they proudly spoke of his legacy as did a small circle of homeowners in the Compton Heights area. One could say, that only a handful of the people who happen to own a Jannsen House still carried the torch of their favorite architect. His Bio is fascinating and I have only found one photo of the man, gifted to me by a proud house owner. He is a happy man, still working at age 70 and fishing in his spare time. It is said the medal he received from the Duke of Baden for most outstanding Architectural thesis was kept in his fishing lure box.

At the Annex, I pulled down dusty records about the building of the Pavillion, containing its cost and the back channels of effort. I found the housing records, the location of his tiny little apartment and records of his Architectural Firm that stayed busy but small. Here was a simple man, with incredible talent and one incredible coincidence. When Ernst Jannsen first got his license to practise in the state of Missouri, he did so in the partnership of a local young man named Otto Wilhelmi, a well connected German Lutheran Architect who went to school with Ernst. They began by building breweries, German Social Clubs and German Houses. When Otto moved on to Crematoriums and Mansions, Ernst followed suit and eventually went into a solo career.

1st Crematorium west of the Mississippi River. built by Otto Wilhelim

This is our small world moment. One of the most powerful German Lutheran families in the area was that of Captain Conrad Fink. Fink was a banker, wholesale grocer and former Civil War Steam Boat Captain. His large house in Lafayette Square was the center of a lot of St Louis historical activity and when it was destroyed by the Cyclone of 1896, a year after his death, his son in law and current Wholesale Grocer empire partner wanted to rebuild 2323 Lafayette Ave. August Nasse (son in law) choose the most famous firm in the German Lutheran Community. The firm of Wilhelmi and Janssen, who rebuilt the house in 1901.

August Nasse is a central figure in the early days of the Dumpster Archeology project. After his tragic death in 1920, outliving all his family, even his children, the house at 2323 Lafayette ave became a ghost house, a haunted mansion with one crazy old man having let it fall into disrepair. It’s 8000 square feet, 3 story uniqueness was the pride of Lafayette Square with it’s over-sized garden and prominent location. August Nasse still had his initials on the door when it was sold in 1922 to a family that made a small fortune in the Bakery business. When the Seib Family bought it, it’s reputation was massive and the lingering energy was too much for the average resident. However, the Seib family was not worried as the matriarch was a psychic. The family collectively brought the house to life again, in many odd ways, and kept much of the old furniture, art, and christmas decorations from the Nasse family. That “N” still sits in the front door window. 2323 Lafayette ave in the heart of Lafayette Square was connected to the Forgotten Architect.

Hawthorne and Longfellow

To recap… Ernst Janseen was likely involved in the drafting of the house that spawned the entire project, he quit the firm shortly after, to create his own. My little windows contained the essence of an architect deeply connected with the famous psychic house of Dumpster Archeology. 

Was it random that I discovered those windows?

Magic Chef Mansion

One can do a Saturday tour at the Magic House and follow around the very people who bought the dilapidated Mansion and see the careful efforts made to recreate the beauty of Ernst’s artistic work. One can drive around South City, entering from Grand avenue onto Longfellow and count the dozens or so houses he built after passing his ornate street entrance. Other Architects would follow his suit and build unique creations to match the glory of his old world styles within the area. You can shop at the Farmers Market and pee in the space he created. No tour would be complete without passing the old Union Club where Conrad Fink built an empire, past the German Social Hall now owned by Scientologists and park in front of 2323 Lafayette ave and wonder where Ernst added his little unique touches of European class.

Ernst Janseen is a Forgotten piece of South City history. A man with no children, except for the houses he left. A man with only one photograph, smiling in anonymous glory at the legacy he left. Perhaps one day they will do an exhibit of his work and collectively discover that one person’s imprint on a city, can transcend time, space and even fame, to become canon on the face of our civic landscape.