Mid-Century St. Louis Through the Lens of the Mac Mizuki Photography Studio Collection

17, December 2014
four nuns dissecting a small animal at a school in 1958Four nuns dissect a small animal at a school run by the Sisters of Mercy. Photograph taken by Mac Mizuki on July 2, 1958. Missouri History Museum.

For the past year, I have had the great pleasure of processing the Mac Mizuki Photography Studio collection at the Museum. This collection contains negatives and other material created by Henry T. “Mac” Mizuki in the course of operating his independent photography studio. My job has been to rehouse and catalog the 1,590 separate job assignments included in the collection. Mizuki opened his studio around 1953 and remained in business until his retirement in 1985 or 1986. He specialized in architectural photography, often working with local architects, builders, and engineers to document both the construction and the completion of their buildings. However, Mizuki frequently worked outside of his specialty, and the collection also includes photographs of industrial facilities and workers, product shots and posed scenes taken for advertisements, and portraits of individuals and groups.

sef-portrait photograph by Mac Mizuki in 1969Self-portrait taken by Mac Mizuki on November 11, 1969. Missouri History Museum.

Mizuki was working during a time of great change for St. Louis, and much of his work captures the boom of the postwar suburbs. He extensively documented the new houses, churches, schools, libraries, offices, and malls that were springing up throughout St. Louis County. These images provide us a glimpse into the everyday lives of midcentury St. Louisans, showing us where they lived, worked, learned, and shopped. Some of you will recognize these structures and institutions from the past, while other buildings are still familiar to us today. However, even familiar people and places in this collection offer some surprises, whether a Mediterranean bazaar held at a Stix, Baer & Fuller department store; a group of nuns in the middle of a dissection at a Sisters of Mercy school; the St. Louis Cardinals football team recording songs for the St. Louis Christmas Carols Association; or Jack Buck and several baseball Cardinals signing autographs from behind bank teller windows.

Broadcaster Jack Buck and Cardinals players signing autographs at a bank opening in 1973.Broadcaster Jack Buck and Cardinals players signing autographs at an open house held by the Lafayette Federal Savings and Loan Association of Greater St. Louis in August 1973. Missouri History Museum.

One of my favorite parts of processing this collection was watching the construction progress of several buildings designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) and their predecessor firm, Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber. HOK is now a global company with projects and offices worldwide, but their earliest work was done in St. Louis. The terminal building at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport and the St. Louis Priory Church are two excellent examples. To give some context, the terminal building at Lambert was designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who was also responsible for the design of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and the World Trade Center in New York City. The St. Louis Priory Church was designed by architect Gyo Obata, who also designed the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center. Both architects pioneered award-winning concrete designs, and these two projects both feature innovative, thin-shelled concrete arches. Mizuki’s photographs showcase workers in action, pouring concrete and using a crane to remove the wooden supports from beneath the completed arches. Almost as fascinating as watching this work being done is seeing how much progress had been made between Mizuki’s visits. Each visit shows a completely new phase of construction, as new supports, walls, and windows materialize. 

photos of construction of St. Louis Priory Church and Lambert AirportMizuki documented construction progress at St. Louis Priory Church (left) and Lambert Airport, taken April 15, 1961, and July 15, 1954, respectively. Missouri History Museum.

With so much material, these examples barely scratch the surface of all the hidden gems in this collection. If you’re interested in seeing more of Mizuki’s work, all catalog records and select digitized images can be browsed through the Missouri History Museum’s cross-collections search. We’re regularly scanning new images, so be sure to check back often!

—Lauren Pey, Elkington Architectural Photo Processing Archivist