From the pages of the Southeast Missouri Post
“Who Was Wendell Gilbert?”
By Carlton Hurldon
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Briar Hills, Missouri, like any American city, has its share of dark history. The local police have entire boxes of unresolved cases dating back over a hundred years. But the most intriguing of all these is arguably the disappearance of Wendell Gilbert.
Gilbert was born March 11, 1865 in Chicago. The son of Ruben Gilbert, a tremendously successful investment broker, Wendell spent much of his youth traveling the world with his parents and, at an early age, became fascinated with world architecture. He had a gift for aesthetic design and quickly made a name for himself on the west coast with a number of ambitious projects, including the erection of the Grasby Center in San Diego, perhaps his most famous landmark.
In 1897, Gilbert traveled abroad and spent the next twelve years in Europe, working on increasingly elaborate structures like the Allwardt Building in Great Britain, the Holgado Tower in France and the Winderbaum Center in Germany, as well as other less notable projects in Spain, Sweden and Italy. Many of these projects he oversaw simultaneously, traveling frequently between building sites and leaving his foremen to oversee the daily work.
Upon returning to the states in 1909, Gilbert spent a few short years on the east coast before moving to the upper Midwest, then back to his birthplace of Chicago. A few years later, he moved again to St. Louis and finally found his way to Briar Hills, where he spent the final ten years of what is known of his life.
His most notable work in Briar Hills included the extensive renovations to the city’s police station and hospital, and he designed and built the new courthouse and public library. But although the quality of his work was indisputable, Gilbert was met with harsh criticism for his insistence on using cheap immigrant labor instead of the skilled local tradesmen.
Then, in early 1927, he was contracted by Briar Hills University to design and build a new and much needed men’s dormitory to handle its rapidly growing student body. Unfortunately, the project proved to be doomed from the start.
Gilbert made a number of changes to the project during the planning stage that directly contradicted the university’s requests, not the least of which was that Gilbert moved the structure more than a hundred yards from the university’s intended location. He also changed the building’s materials from brick to a much pricier stone and significantly redesigned the electric and plumbing layouts in such a way that they would have been almost ten times as expensive as in the original plans. The university protested these changes, but was met with resistance at every turn as Gilbert manipulated them through a veritable maze of legal and bureaucratic diversions, which kept them distracted and disassociated from his work for many months.
Eventually, the university’s lawyers stepped in to seize the reigns of the project, but by then it was too late. Gilbert was gone, as were all of his workers, apparently deported back to their own countries. The money was lost and all that was ever completed of the university’s new dormitory was an empty set of useless concrete walls.
It would be another two years before Briar Hills University finally opened the doors of its new men’s dormitory, now Daney Hall, located on Carey Street. Built mostly on funds donated by sympathetic parties and through vigorous fundraising, this new building was considerably smaller than the one Gilbert was contracted to build, but would prove to serve the institution’s needs for several years.
Meanwhile, the site of the original failed project remained untouched. In 1952, a large plot of neighboring farmland was purchased, providing cheaper and more convenient locations on which to build. As a result, the university has never bothered to tear down Gilbert’s useless concrete walls and today the location is little more than an overgrown eyesore, known by many of the locals as “Gilbert House.”
Wendell Gilbert, the famed architect, in spite of his accomplishments, was now considered a fraud and a thief. Local authorities assumed that he took the money and deposited it in an unknown offshore account. His strange behavior (the changes to the university’s plans and the bureaucratic runaround) was assumed to be a smokescreen to keep the university distracted while he committed his crime. And once the money was safe, he obviously left the country. But several details about his crime did not add up. The most glaring of these details was the amount of money Gilbert supposedly stole. It was significantly less than what he left unclaimed in his bank accounts after his disappearance.
What really became of Wendell Gilbert? No evidence has ever been uncovered to shed light on what was really going on. Some historians believe that the brilliant architect must have gone mad. Others insist that his odd behavior indicated that he might have been being blackmailed and was likely murdered by an unknown enemy. A few creative locals have even suggested that Gilbert was caught up in something supernatural. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that he left clues hidden throughout his life’s work around the world, clues that, if correctly deciphered from the many buildings he designed and renovated, would reveal the secret location of the stolen money or perhaps something even more valuable.
[Carlton Hurldon is a local historian and an enthusiastic collector of regional legends and mysteries. He has lived his entire life in the Briar Hills area and is the author of four books and numerous guest articles for the Southeast Missouri Post.]