I.E. Millstone’s Leap of Faith

I.E. Millstone (photo by Herb Weitman, Washington University in St. Louis)



It was May 16—had there been enough sun to warm the water? Someone saw the old man climb onto the old Daniel Boone Bridge railing—however did he manage it?—and leap into the Missouri River. As his body shot deeper, the chill and darkness would have enclosed him. Was he still conscious? Still glad of his decision? I have thought about this suicide on and off since it happened, fourteen years ago. Why, I am not sure. People said he had wanted to control his own destiny. I would deplore a younger man’s hubris if he cited the same reason. But maybe the arc of Millstone’s life was complete (though who can ever be sure?).

All I know is that suicide at the age of 102, after a life as full as I.E. Millstone’s, feels more like courage than relinquishment. And that is hard to write. I have known five people who were in enough pain to kill themselves. They tore their bodies away from life, and the memory’s edge is still jagged, sharp enough to cut anyone who comes close. There was no fold line, no place where their story was meant to be cut off.

For Millstone, an engineer of buildings, highways, intelligent communities, and equitable social policy, 102 did seem a reasonable cutoff. Those he loved were already gone: his daughter, who died in her mid-forties; his son, who died of cancer at sixty-eight; his wife of sixty-seven years; the second wife he married at ninety-one; nearly all his friends. Did he ever think, as he absorbed each unwanted loss, that he would someday choose death?

His heart hurt—friends sensed his sadness, heard it in his voice—and now his body hurt, too. A fall had injured his shoulder, the pain stole his sleep, and the meds left him anxious. He had never needed medication. Eleven years earlier, asked his greatest treasure, he said his health. After a lifetime of vigor, he was appalled to be so suddenly miserable.

And so he took his caregiver’s car, left it at the side of the road, and walked out to the middle of the bridge. He would end in water—not the clear aqua of the pools where he competed at college swim meets, but the murk of the Missouri River. His body would not be found until early the next month, when a dredging crew discovered it tangled in debris. What they brought to the surface was no longer I.E. Millstone. He can be found in Israeli homes, in Jewish community centers, university courses (and swim meets), movements for racial justice, and in the memories locked inside 801 South Skinker.

A fine new book, Windows on the Park: I. E. Millstone and His Dream, talks about that highrise, built in the International Style in 1962. Millstone’s first wife, Goldie Millstone, was sick of the suburbs and yearned to live in the city again. On a trip to Chicago, they went to a cocktail party at 320 West Oakdale, a Modern amazement that author Carol Shepley compares to a rocket ship propelled by rings of force.

The building I.E. built for Goldie in St. Louis would be softer, more restrained. Its elegant lines would also echo the Mies van der Rohe building around the corner from 320 West Oakdale. But while Mies van der Rohe was famous for forbidding curtains and window-sill knickknacks, I.E. would give the first residents—who were mainly the Millstones’ invited friends—far more leeway. They could draw their own blueprints, moving kitchens and loos anywhere they liked, and so what if the pipes had to bend as they zagged between the floors?

He also took care of all the building maintenance over the years, so as not to upset anxious widows with extra costs and bother. “He didn’t look at The 801 as a financial investment,” resident and co-author Alan Hamilton points out, “but as his home.” Each floor decorated its own hallway, and when Hamilton pointed out that theirs was a bit drab, I.E. dug three or four Impressionist paintings out of a closet.

The condo owners were a roster of St. Louis’s most respected art collectors, philanthropists, lawyers, doctors. On the fifteenth of the eighteen floors lived I.E. and Goldie, with separate apartments for their mothers and, toward the end, Goldie’s round-the-clock nurses. Sociable and lively for decades, she was ill and frail for her last years, but she never lost her cherished view of Forest Park. After seeing West Oakdale’s views of Lake Michigan destroyed by new construction, I.E. had bought the building and lot next door to make sure no future highrise could crowd 801 S. Skinker.

A storied building, it is a place where interesting lives unfolded, a repository of secrets and triumphs. For his hundredth birthday, Millstone stood for forty minutes, regaling people with warm, precise memories of everyone who had lived there. He had moved out right after Goldie died—the place was for her. A few months later, well past his ninetieth birthday, he remarried. (“You know, at my age, you don’t want a long courtship,” he told Hamilton dryly.) At his new wife’s home in Ladue, he immediately started designing an extension.

Eleven years later, he was alone again. Two weeks before he walked onto the bridge, he made a speech at the Jewish Community Center he had made possible, buying and donating 120 acres for its campus. He emphasized how grateful he was for his life and all it had contained.

Born in 1907, he started work at age ten, ushering at The Muny. In the middle of the Great Depression, he and Goldie started Millstone Construction. His specialty was reinforced concrete, a new technology whose use he perfected soon after graduating from Washington University’s engineering school. He used it on runways at Lambert International Airport, on the double-decker U.S. Interstate 40, on the nation’s first public housing project (in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1936); on Busch Stadium, Mercantile Tower, Laclede Town.

He was easygoing. “The only time I saw him get really angry,” said his rabbi, Howard Kaplansky, “was when people with wealth wouldn’t use it to help others.” Millstone refused to sign contracts unless unions admitted Blacks. He started vocational schools to teach Black men to lay bricks and weld. He proposed federal legislation that would require corporations to give 5 percent of their profits to worthwhile causes.

In 1949, he gathered a group of U.S. experts, among them the legendary architect Louis Kahn, and flew to the new state of Israel. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion had asked for his help in creating housing programs. The group landed in Tel Aviv in a blackout, which Millstone found “eerie,” as the first Israeli-Arab war ended. They set to work.

“Our greatest concern,” he later told a reporter, “was keeping it from looking like a refugee camp of temporary buildings. There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary building.” The country was virtually empty, just desert and scattered villages. But with sand and limestone, they could make concrete. The refugees would have solid, enduring homes that felt private and safe.

Half a century later, on the day of I.E. Millstone’s memorial service, demonstrators held up viciously anti-Semitic signs near the temple, angry at Jews and opposed to the existence of Israel. No one at the service even bothered to mention their presence. Millstone was used to fighting—in his low-key, kindly way—for what he believed in. And for what he thought life ought to be.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.