Minneapolis-based Opus refines the multifamily-housing development with an elegant boutique apartment building near St. Louis

By Joel Hoekstra

In 2010, the city of Clayton, Missouri, a small St. Louis suburb popular with young professionals, hired the Boston-based firm Sasaki to create a master plan that would revitalize its downtown. The Sasaki designers recommended a host of changes, including narrowing many streets from four lanes to two and widening sidewalks to promote pedestrian traffic. With the implementation of the plan, an array of new businesses—from galleries and boutiques to fine-dining restaurants and cafes—sprang up.

The activity attracted the attention of Opus Development Company, which saw an opportunity to add some residential real estate to the mix. When a three-quarter-acre parcel on North Central Avenue—a well-traveled thoroughfare—became available, Opus snapped it up. But there were strings attached: The seller, a firm whose headquarters stood next door, mandated that no future development could obscure its view of the St. Louis Arch, which limited the height of any new construction to roughly 60 feet. What’s more, Clayton residents were adamant that the look of the building mesh with the neighborhood’s palette of materials and colors. Any proposal from Opus was sure to be thoroughly vetted.

“The project had to be human-scaled and reflect the elegance of the neighborhood,” says Opus vice president Joe Downs, who served as the client on the project while other Opus branches carried out design and construction. Requirements from the city focused on the mix of uses, pedestrian friendliness, and materials. “Mostly, we’re a brick town,” says Steve Lichtenfeld, a retired architect who serves on Clayton’s Plan Commission and Architectural Review Board. “In terms of design, we wanted something that looked different but still fit the design context of the neighborhood.”

Opus responded with Ceylon, a six-story boutique apartment building with 120 units ranging in size from studio to two bedrooms. Each well-appointed apartment features a recessed, cantilevered, or Juliet balcony that overlooks the street or an inner courtyard.

Today’s renters have come to expect top-shelf amenities with their lease agreements, and Ceylon offers a host of them: a game lounge, fitness center, electric-vehicle charging station, 24-hour package lockers, and high-speed, fiber-optic Internet. It even has a guest suite for nightly rental. The social spaces, including the courtyard and a street-side terrace, are trimmed out with modern furniture.

But it’s the exterior that has Claytonites buzzing. Opus delivered a contemporary design that brings glass, brick, steel, and fiber cement together in an elegantly understated way, while “cuts” in the building’s traditional box form give it a “very strong solid-to-void ratio,” says Lichtenfeld. “It’s not a flat structure.”
“Area residents wanted it to be timeless, not trendy,” says Opus vice president Ernesto Ruiz-Garcia, AIA, who oversaw the design. “That’s something we like to do as well, so that was a good match.”

The architects took great care with every exterior detail. Unsightly mechanical vents were kept out of view, reducing clutter. Street-facing balconies were integrated into the facade rather than simply hung on a flat front. Color was also important: The Endicott brick used on the first floor is a shade darker than the brick on the upper floors, while bright-blue fiber-cement panels give the crisp exterior patterning its lively contrast. Even the rowlock courses in the brick were carefully planned to line up with window edges, adding to the sense of visual harmony.

Not all developers sweat such details, but Opus knew that it would have to answer to the community, says Ruiz-Garcia. “There had been a lot of other projects proposed for the site that met resistance,” he notes. “When we presented to the neighborhood groups, we actually got applause.”

Lichtenfeld credits Opus with preparing properly. “They did their homework and knew what the regulations were. They also knew what our expectations were,” he says. “Their initial proposal was quite close to the final project, and people have reacted positively to it. In some ways, this building has become a catalyst for how we’re developing other areas of Clayton’s downtown.”

The design has also shown Opus the rewards of stretching a little outside of its comfort zone. “For us, it’s a new bar for a [wood-framed] housing project,” says Ruiz-Garcia. “I feel like we achieved something here. Ceylon is more thoughtfully assembled. Its beauty is more than skin deep.”

Location: Clayton, Missouri
Client: Opus Development Company, LLC
Architect: Opus AE Group, LLC
Principal-in-charge: Dean Newins, AIA
Design principal: Ernesto Ruiz-Garcia, AIA
Landscape architect: Cole
Design builder: Opus Design Build, LLC
Size: 200,652 gross square feet
Cost: $33 million
Completion: November 2017
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA