Bruce Gerrie is the organizer of “Jewelry for Buildings: The Art of Antique Doorknobs,” an exhibit that examines doorknobs within an historical and technological context, addressing design, craftsmanship, function, and classification.
The exhibit of over 300 antique bronze, agate, and glass doorknobs also provides a way to tell a city’s history. At its recent opening at the St. Louis City Museum, the exhibit featured doorknobs from 1870 to the St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair to the early 1930s.
Gerrie and fellow members of the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America are considering offers to take the collection on the road. If you are interested in presenting the exhibit, please email Gerrie.
Q: How did you become interested in doorknobs?
Gerrie: Well, about fifteen years ago, the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America held their convention in St. Louis. I didn’t realize the convention was here, or even that the ADCA existed. A friend attended who knew that I had a cache of hardware at my place. He called me and said that he had two busloads of ADCA conventioneers who wanted to look around. I said, “Sure.” So they stopped by, and we started talking. I learned that they had some antique doorknobs on display at their convention, so I wound up going to their convention, and I was dumbfounded.
Q: By what?
Gerrie: By the scope of their doorknobs. I’d always been interested in doorknobs but I wasn’t aware of the variation of doorknob design that was out there. From my perspective, I’d always just looked at doorknobs in terms of art and their system.
Q: What do you mean by “their system”?
Gerrie: Basically, what makes the doorknob work: how the lock and strikeplate work together to allow the doorknob to function, and so forth. But the ADCA conventioneers’ interest in doorknobs changed that and made me aware of the scope of doorknob design. “Jewelry for Buildings” started there. The exhibit has been the dream of a lot of people for a few years now.
Q: This is the first major doorknob exhibition in the United States.
Gerrie: Right. So why’d you choose to write about doorknobs? Are you looking for something quirky?
Q: Yes, but I also like the idea of telling the history of a city through its doorknobs. And I like doorknobs. I had a standard, hexagonal glass doorknob in my bedroom in the first house I lived in. I liked that doorknob because its edges had been worn down from so many hands turning it.
Q: Plus, I like the worn-down feel of doorknobs because it feels as if — for lack of a definite word — some life has been worn off on them. It’s that life-worn-off sense that I like about old doorknobs, old houses, older objects. They feel like they’ve been lived in.
Gerrie: Well, my interest is more in tall buildings than residences.
Q:What’s more special about a doorknob from a tall building than a doorknob from a residence?
Gerrie: I’m a preservationist. I hate to see old buildings demolished. I hate to see tall buildings forgotten when they’re demolished. If they are demolished, I try to save the doorknobs of tall buildings as mementos, symbols of something that’s passed. It’s the provenance, knowing where the knob comes from, the story behind it. Also, we’re not talking about just any tall buildings. I mean the early skyscrapers, built during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when architects detailed every aspect of their buildings. They created knobs specifically for each building.
Q: So if you went into one tall building, you’d be reminded what building you were in by looking at a doorknob?
Gerrie: Sometimes. They were designed by the architect to enhance the building’s architectural style (Moorish, French, etc.), and they featured an image, such as a city’s seal, or a building’s initials. The emblematic doorknobs were often the owner’s signature. For instance, when the Missouri Pacific building was built in St. Louis, its doorknobs had MP molded into them. When the building was purchased by Gary Buder, he renamed the building the Buder Building, and installed doorknobs with BB on them.
Q: Can you give me a specific example of seeing a doorknob and being able to use it to tell the history of a house, or neighborhood, or the people who lived there?
Gerrie: Yes, one of my favorite knobs is from the St. Nicholas Hotel.
Q: What does the St. Nicholas Hotel knob look like?
Gerrie: The knob is round, and has an interlaced design in the background. In the foreground is an interlocked design of ‘S,’ ‘t,’ and ‘N,’ for St. Nicholas. The St. Nicholas Hotel was a significant Louis Sullivan building. [Louis Sullivan designed the Chicago Stock Exchange, the Wainwright building, and mentored Frank Lloyd Wright.] When it was built in the late 1800s, it was one of St. Louis’ more glamorous buildings. Statesmen stayed there, as did theater stars when their touring companies visited St. Louis, and major American architects conferred status to the building by holding a convention in the building’s lobby.
Q: So it’s no longer around?
Gerrie: Right. There was a fire in the top part of the building in 1905. Afterward, it was remodeled or, “remuddled,” by Ames & Young, another architectural firm, but the building never regained its glamour. The building was renamed the Victoria. During the renovation, all of the St. Nicholas’ emblematic doorknobs and other hardware were scrapped and used for whatever people use melted-down brass for.
Q: How did you get a set?
Gerrie: I was at the demolition of the Victoria in 1972 or ’73. We found five doors from the St. Nicholas era in the basement, knobs and all. So I saved them.
Q: Can you tell the history of residences, as well as tall buildings, through doorknobs?
Gerrie: In a way. Remember, doorknobs are one part of larger structures, but they do reflect styles of the time. Much of St. Louis was built by the French in Second Empire style during the Gilded Age, when the city’s economy was fed by Westward Expansion. The scope of these buildings was large, the houses were large. Years passed, then a tornado destroyed many houses in St. Louis neighborhoods. By the time those houses were rebuilt, styles had changed since their creation; there was more of a Classical revival with this second building spurt. So, yes, there is a way to interpret the city’s history with a historical perspective of its neighborhoods and doorknobs.
Q: Does a contemporary doorknob tell you anything about the building it’s in?
Gerrie: Oh, sure. But a larger context helps. I’d prefer to go into a building and look around, rather than examining just the doorknob. I prefer things that are in their original position, just like an archaeologist.
Q: But I assume that they don’t have the same feel — most contemporary doorknobs seem to be prefabricated.
Gerrie: That’s what you get when there’s no craftsman molding them.
Q: So has the doorknob been improved since the early 1900s?
Gerrie: I don’t think so. There was tremendous quality control back then. Craftsmen were interested in doing their best. They were more concerned with the quality than the cost. Along with technology and catalogs, quality is what got doorknobs into people’s houses.
Q: And then the doorknobs are what got the people into their houses?
Gerrie: Right. That’s terrible