Posted on March 14th, 2013 10 comments
Glasgow Village is a perfect example of an inner ring suburb that sprung up along the City of St. Louis border in the early 1950s. On this map, you’ll see that the last thread of the City boundary (Ward 2) hugs Riverview Drive. When they began developing this land along the Mississippi River bluffs, St. Louis City fire and police personnel were eager to have the homes being built within city boundaries to meet residency requirements. Stories are that they would offer more than the asking price just to have them.
Concurrently, the adjacent County land that is Glasgow Village (early history here) was also being developed. St. Louis County directories show only 3 streets in existence in Glasgow Village in 1951. By 1955, it was complete and filled with homes much like this.
Adhering to the “village” in its name, the new community needed a central commerce gathering place, and construction of Glasgow Village Shopping Center (shown in the map above) began in 1957. There were spots for 15 businesses, including the backside of the building which was accessed on foot.
The 1959 County directory (above) lists the original tenants. Many of these shops regularly contributed to the various Glasgow Village newsletters released by the trustees and the local schools.
Shops like Connie’s Village Dance Studio (which became Marion’s Village Dancing School by 1963) contributed to the close-knit village atmosphere that still prevails in the hearts of GV ex-pats, who regularly converse and contribute at Glasgow Village Friends.
The towering, angular sign at the corner of the shopping center long served as the striking symbol of the village.
And it still stood tall and proud in 2003 when I took the photo above. By then, the majority of the center was vacant, with the liquor store at 104 Glashop Lane (isn’t that a great street name?) pulling in a brisk business. But even in its reduced state, it was easy to understand how vital this place once was to the town.
By its siting, GV is rather remote, which was a great selling point during the suburban migration of the early 1950s. The shopping center became an instant “downtown,” taking care of just about all of the residents’ needs, and all within walking distance.
104 started off as Zimmerman’s Glasgow Pharmacy, part of the Rexall dynasty. And the dry cleaner’s shown above made the news in 1968 when it caught fire.
And just like any small town, the people who once lived there can pinpoint when it happened based on their personal memories.
The Italian American Delicatessen at 108 (above) morphed into Cusumano’s Village Inn by 1974.
And that storied pizza place lives on in O’Fallon, MO. Exactly when they left the shopping center is best left to the memories of the GV Friends, and hopefully they will chime in with comments here. Just as they recently shared information that some of the Cusumano family showed up to watch the demolition of the center. Which is a testament to how much this place meant to everyone who lived there.
The retail side of Glasgow Village was in drowning mode by 2003. By 2011, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was detailing the foreclosure woes of the town. They accompanied it with an editorial piece that tries to pinpoint why inner ring suburbs are having a tough time and (with quotes from yours truly on) how to solve it.
The St. Louis racial divide as it pertains to real estate has been deeply documented, with Mapping Decline being the most exhaustive resource for information on the whys and hows of White Flight and Redlining. Even though the federal government stepped in to ban the practice, the mentality still seems ingrained, transferring from North St. Louis City to North County, and requiring more recent intervention.
But there is never just one reason for decline, so lets look beyond St. Louis’ racial tensions. Along with rapidly advancing conspicuous consumption from the 1980s to mid-2000s that led to ever-bigger homes in far-flung locales, I think there’s topography at play in North St. Louis County.
Starting with the first settlers in 1764, St. Louis development always favored the southern half before the northern half for one very logical reason: the north is very hilly because the ancient confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers created mountainous mass. When it came to build and all you had were shovels and cattle-driven plows to move earth, you’d naturally choose the flattest terrains first.
This hilly topography later limited placement of interstates during the 1950s – 60s, and the rivers are a definitive end to the area. All of these factors combine to give far North St. Louis County a remoteness that does not exist in West and South County, where they can – and do – keep expanding. Look to the fate of Jamestown Mall to understand why through traffic is crucial for retail. It’s also crucial for keeping neighborhoods lively. The more pocketed communities tend to stagnate, and Glasgow Village is, sadly, a perfect example of this.
The iconic sign was a poignant focal point on February 25, 2013 when St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley held a press conference in front of the cranes in front of Glasgow Village Shopping Center. He announced an increased budget to demolish an initial 41 buildings in North County, mostly fire-damaged and vacant homes that had become nuisance properties. GV residents verified that the shopping center had become an insurmountable problem for their community. And so they demolished Glasgow Village Shopping Center.
The County plans to take down more than 100 buildings this year. Glasgow Village Shopping Center was the perfect way to make a dramatic media splash about the “aggressive program.” I have yet to see posted a list of all the properties due for demolition. Even though Doolie stated that “we recognize that we cannot demolish our way to neighborhood stabilization,” a lack of information on what buildings are coming down is troubling. Parts of the City of St. Louis have yet to recover from aggressive demolition during the mid-century Urban Renewal. I hope that the County does not repeat these errors with a misguided Suburban Renewal program.
There was interest in saving the Glasgow Village Shopping Center sign because it is such a powerful symbol of the community. But the demolition company did not have the budget to take it down in a manner that preserves it. Reports came in that once it hit the ground, it was dragged for a bit which damaged the porcelain face of the signs.
The Glasgow Village trustees did cart off one side of the sign that was relatively unscathed. I love the sentimentality that compelled them to save a last remnant, and am keen to know what they plan to do with sign.
There was nothing but torn concrete and straw by the time the photo above was taken on March 9, 2013. Too long a physical reminder of better days, the shopping center is now officially a memory.
Does anyone know of any solid plans for redeveloping this site?
Creating something new and vital here should be as important of a priority as erasing the problems. I understand why demolishing buildings gets media attention, but I hope Doolie and his team will continue to engage in public dialogue about their plans and progress. North County deserves a fighting chance for renaissance.
Posted on November 25th, 2012 No comments
The Lewis & Clark Tower was supposed to be Towers, and it was supposed to look like this. Gorgeous, right? Even looks a bit like a mid-century U.S. Embassy.
This drawing comes courtesy of John Lumea, who ran across an advertisement for it in a 1964 issue of Architectural Record. He was gracious enough to send it along, and point out that the ad does confirm who the architect is – George J. Gaza & Associates. We now even know who built it: United States Construction Co.
John, major thank you for sending the ad! Click to see it larger so you can take in all the words about “Missouri’s first cylindrical apartment.”
For all the backstory on Top of the Towers and Rizzo’s restaurant that sat at the very top, you can read this BELT entry.
The comments section is where the real action is, as we hear from the grandson of the developers of the complex, the granddaughters of both the developer and architect, plus fabulous memories of people who ate and worked there. Readers even share the exact spinning salad recipe, or Bruce Kunz shares a replica that seems so much simpler:
For those of you wanting to experience the Spinning Salad, I’ve come close to replicating it. Start with shredded lettuce, add a sprinkle of shreded carrots. Stir in your choice of a good blue cheese dressing and a bit of ranch to go with it. Top with chopped hard boiled eggs, ‘cracked’ (not coarse ground) pepper. Easier, just as flavorful and more consistent in texture.
And last but not least, sprinkle liberally with real bacon bits or pieces.
Thank you to everyone who has been contributing to the memories of Top of the Towers since October 2007. Every comment verifies just how important this place is in the history of North St. Louis County.
In response to the BELT entry sharing rare interior photos of the vacant restaurant courtesy of Michael Collins, a few readers sent me links to the postcard images above. It’s both intriguing and sad to see what was cross-referenced with what remains behind.
It’s also cool to see the back of the postcard, with the line drawing of the complex. Big hugs to everyone who sent links to these postcards; it’s thrilling to know your curiosity sent you Googling, and then you took the time to share.
Posted on August 19th, 2012 8 comments
This sign became…
…this sign. And that fact was consigned to the memory of a select few until it was brought to light by Dean Wieneke. Read his story here.
The beauty of the world wide web is that anyone can find anything, and the family of the men who were Dickerson Motors found the story of Dean finding their family’s sign. They got in touch with me both in comments on the blog entry and personal emails. Which lead to them graciously scanning old photos, which are shared with you now.
Julie Dickerson Chung and Carolyn Dickerson Zerman are the daughters of William E. Dickerson, who started Dickerson Motors, Inc. in 1951 with his brother Thomas E. Dickerson (whose son Don Dickerson provided some of these photos). It was a Lincoln Mercury dealership located at 6116 Natural Bridge Avenue. It was in the shadow of the only remaining gasometer in St. Louis.
Here is that spot today. Note that the building appears to have been sitting on the dividing line between St. Louis City and County.
Dickerson by day…
…and by night. These photos were taken shortly after the dealership opened.
A big day for Dickerson Motors was when actress and icon Debbie Reynolds stopped by the dealership in 1955 to buy a car. She was on her way back to California to marry singer and actor Eddie Fisher.
Above, Bill Dickerson hands Debbie Reynolds the keys to the car she chose. To put it in historical context, Miss Reynolds had just completed filming of the movie The Tender Trap, with Frank Sinatra. It would release in November of 1955.
And Debbie gets inside her new ride to zoom off and marry Eddie Fisher. The marriage would produce actress/author Carrie Fisher, and end tragically when Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. This is just how her history played out and in no way infers her car from Dickerson Motors played any part in future marital dramas.
Don Dickerson (son of co-owner Tom Dickerson) shared the photo above, depicting the “Hot Rod Lincoln” that was part of the dealership’s racing team. In conjunction with the racing team, Don recalls:
”Before a race, my Dad was out zooming around Missouri to see what the Lincoln could do. He came over a hill at a very high speed and found that at the bottom of the hill was a buckboard with two horses pulling it. He slammed on the brakes but was going too fast to stop, killing two horses and totaling the car.”
To the best of Carolyn Dickerson Zerman’s memory, the car dealership closed around 1957-58. “I know my sister Julie was born around that time and was a “saving grace” to my Dad (above left), who hated to see the dealership close.”
The family does not know what became of the sign after Dickerson closed. In this entry about Ackerman Buick, former employee Tim Von Cloedt said Jerry Ackerman bought out Kuhs Buick on North Grand Avenue and moved the whole shebang out to Dellwood in the early 1960s. The first building on the lot went up in 1964 – so did the sign, now recycled as Ackerman Buick.
Where was the sign from 1958 to 1964? Considering how much information we’ve received so far, there just may be someone out there who knows the answer.
And this whole saga came to light when Dean and his family bought and dismantled the sign (above) to put it in storage at his father’s farm. As of this writing, Dean sold the sign to Fast Lane Classic Cars in St. Charles, MO, who plan to hang it on the side of one of their buildings.
So St. Charles is the newest chapter for one of the busiest, most recycled signs in St. Louis history. And thank you to all of the Dickerson family for being so generous with their photos and information.
Posted on August 5th, 2012 2 comments
Kappel Drive at West Florissant
On the west side of West Florissant is a short stretch of Kappel Drive, more like a termination of the road from the east side of West Florissant than a full block. All of the other homes in this immediate area are slight variations on the middle-of-the-road brick ranch built in the first half of the 1950s. But this little tiny block went more atomic.
A front wall of windows and a carport differentiate these from the rest of the homes. Seemingly tiny differences, but it catches the eye if you glance up the street from West Florissant.
A check of St. Louis County records shows all of these more atomic homes in Westwood Acres were built between 1956 & 1957, 1064 square feet of 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, and a full basement.
The dividing line between Dellwood and Ferguson may run through the backyard of these homes on the south side of Kappel. The rest of this neighborhood to the south is called Northland Hills, with homes starting at 1012 s.f. and having an attached garage. Records show the entire area was built up between 1955 – 1957.
Be it Dellwood or Ferguson, all of these subdivisions along West Florissant, north of Ferguson Avenue, were built in response to the construction of Northland Shopping Center, and the promise it fulfilled of turning farmland into modern neighborhoods.
When my father, Richard, came home from the Korean War in 1954, his father, Arthur, drove him up West Florissant to Chambers Road. At that time, only a few small, new businesses were popping up south of Chambers. This intersection was still widely known as the crossroads where farmers brought their produce to sell, and where you could buy horse and livestock equipment.
Standing at the intersection, Arthur points to the horse field at the northeast corner of Chambers and West Florissant and tells his son, “If you’re smart, you’d buy up property over there.”
Richard looks at his father as if he were insane.
Arthur points back toward Northland under construction, and all the land around it being plotted for housing and says, “We’re all moving north at a rapid clip. This field’s days are numbered. You might as well make some money from it.”
Of course Richard did not buy any of that land. And of course it was completely built up by 1957, and development spread further north every month.
During those boom years, it looks as if one contractor was responsible for most of the ranch homes around the Dellwood/Ferguson dividing line. But somehow, these airy little numbers snuck into a short stretch of Kappel Drive. Everyone of them is still well under $100,000, in good condition and relatively remuddle-free.
Posted on November 6th, 2011 13 comments
509 Teston Drive
The first house that my mother and father bought after I was born was the one above, at 509 Teston Drive in Ferguson MO. It was built in 1953 as part of the Ferguson Park subdivision, and was (and remains) 864 s.f., with a full basement. Part of that basement was finished, because my father did it in a hurry to host the annual family Christmas party, and there just wasn’t enough room to cram them all in upstairs.
The house is now vacant and in the hands of HUD out of Kansas City, Kansas. Meaning, it was foreclosed. The last buyer paid $72,000 for it. It is available now, per this Zillow page.
The vinyl siding is an update, which happened sometime in the 1990s. From the photo above of my half sisters on Easter 1967, you can see it was originally clad in asbestos shingles. The kind that left a chalky film on your finger when you rubbed it. And we didn’t have a hand rail. City Halls weren’t as concerned with our safety back then; personal responsibility was the standard operating mode.
And note that it’s still the same picture window in both photos, as well as the wood front door!
Here’s the backyard in 2011. The hill doesn’t seem as steep as it did back in the day. My being older is part of it, I’m sure, along with natural settling and erosion. Note the cinder block wall to the right of the sad, faded little utility shed.
It used to be the wall of our carport, which was also my dad’s hangout. The place where I’d sneak sips of his ever-present frosty cold Busch while he mowed what seemed like a massive hill.
This is a shot my mom took from the top of the backyard hill in 1967. The metal awnings are long gone – hope they recycled them!
Since the place is currently vacant, I could peer in the windows and see the inside for the first time in 40 years, and I was struck by how much it was still the same, and how much I remembered even though I was under 5 years old during the 3 years we lived there.
That’s the same wood floor; we had bright orange red carpeting on the floor save for the bedrooms, and I clearly remember the size and color of the floorboards (seeing as how I spent most of my time down there).
This photo of my mother, father and I shows the closet door and handle is the same, though it – and all the woodwork – received a darker coat of stain over the years.
Whomever is working on the house is tearing down the wall between the living room and one of the 3 bedrooms. Also note the kitchen.
The wall coming down was once the classic, ubiquitous wood paneling. (Side note: I kept that green chair until it literally deteriorated in the mid-90s.)
The kitchen was patterned asbestos floor tile and metal cabinets. When they bought the place, the cabinets were olive green that they had spray painted white. I noticed that the kitchen retains the same white tile backsplashes with black trim, but everything else was obliterated. Shame, ‘cos those cabinets are sweet.
Anyone who knows their metal cabinets, can you decipher what that label to the right of my head says? I can’t get the picture any larger to figure it out, so could use your expertise. Oh, and I still have the GE handmixer you can see hanging on the wall. Still works perfectly!
I didn’t get to see the bathroom as it is today, which originally had light salmon pink wall tiles. I can’t share any photos from back in the day because all of them feature me in the tub or potty training, so you understand not sharing, right?
The thing that struck me most was seeing the original metal frame windows and sill in the living room. Because it sat low to the floor, I spent a lot of time peering out these windows, keeping an eye out for my pal Julie Schemmer across the street so I could go out and play, or fiddling with the cranks and levers till I was told to stop or I’d break them. That was obviously an over-exaggeration, ‘cos here they are over 40 years later, ma!
I’m amazed the house has gone through so many updates and changes, yet these windows remain. Seeing a replacement window propped up against the wall makes me wonder if they plan to replace the picture window, too. That would be a shame if they did, because the original windows just need to be sealed properly rather than replaced with something that will most likely look wrong.
Look out the window and you can see we had snow for Christmas of 1969. The drapes with the holiday cards pinned to them is the same window I peered through for the shot above this one. Under that window is a Zenith stereo with those kick ass Circle of Sound speakers. On the floor below it is the doll house I wrote about here. And I suppose it’s appropriate to say that it was while living here that my mother found Northland Day Nursery School as she was cutting through the back way from this house to West Florissant.
It was a genuinely moving thrill to be able to spend a little time with this house once again. Here’s hoping it finds a good new family – and that they leave that picture window as is!
Posted on September 7th, 2011 15 comments
Last time I visited at the end of August, the Ackerman Buick site was about 55% percent demolished. Here’s the Ackerman Buick back-story.
At this time, the neon sign (above) was the only thing standing that was still relatively intact, and I worried for it. Then the other day I got an email with this photo attached:
After closing my gaping jaw, I read the e-mail from Dean Wieneke, who wrote:
“Saw your article about the Ackerman dealership neon sign after I bought it from the wrecking company Spirtas. We started on it Friday, and just removed the neon and the bulbs and the cover up or add-on of “Ackerman Buick Inc” portion. Now it looks TOTALLY different, for the better I may add. It now says “Dickerson Motors Inc. Used Car Dept.” We’ll be finishing the removal sometime this weekend.”
I immediately replied to my new hero for more details, which he supplied, in spades:
“I’ve always been a big fan of this sign, being an old sign junkie. It has everything: it’s porcelain, it’s old, it’s large, it has a great font, it’s die cut across the top, it’s NEON, and it even has chaser lights at the bottom. Lets face it, this is a classic, one-of-a-kind, Americana old school sign from when thought was actually put in to signage, and not just something that corporate pumped out, like today’s boring dealership signs. I couldn’t let this have the same fate as the buildings did.
“I contacted Spirtas (who were/are great to work with) and within a day or so was told I could purchase it. So last Friday my brother, Joe, and my father, Jim, and I started in on this on one of the hottest days of the year and got it to the point you see now. We shall return this weekend with more wasp spray!
“The sign is 50 feet long and the sign portion is 8 foot high, had probably a hundred feet of neon on it and 144 lights across the bottom.
“What am I going to do with it…? Good Question! My beautiful and patient wife is wondering the same thing and is about ready to choke me over the whole ordeal. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m going to do with it really, but I just could NOT let it be destroyed by the wrecking claw! More than likely I’ll trailer it up and haul it to my house and store it until I can find a suitable place for it. It may end up on display in my Dads pole barn, but that seems to be a waste of a “local land mark,” so if someone has a better idea let me (and my wife, ha!) know.”
Since Dean has done such a great public service in the name of recent past preservation (and shared these 2 photos), let’s help him out if we can. There’s 2 things he wants to know:
• Does anyone have any knowledge about Dickerson Motors, Inc. ?
• Any do-able ideas for what to do with the sign so that the public can keep gazing upon it?
My first thought for the second question is the Antique Warehouse. Here’s some of the other neon signs they have safely stored away. But I know you all have way more brilliant ideas (and astounding recall of St. Louis history), so help a hero out, will ya?
Posted on August 28th, 2011 5 comments
Hudson Road & College Drive
Yesterday while driving from Alton, IL back to South St. Louis, I made a quick detour to check on the state of a beloved, vacant building. The scene above is what I found:
a blank spot.
Here’s what used to be there. From the 1950s to 1985 it was the Northland Day Nursery School, owned and operated by Ruth Meyer, who lived in the house next door. The first part of the building went up in 1940 and was added onto several times over the years, including an in-ground swimming pool added in 1961.
I attended this nursery school off and on from 1969 to 1974. I went here in lieu of kindergarten, and even in the first few years of grade school, they’d let my mother drop me off for a couple weeks during summer vacation. This wasn’t all that odd, as several of the kids I grew up with here also did the same. If they liked you (i.e., you didn’t cause too much trouble) you were always welcome to come back when a babysitter wasn’t available.
It sat on 1.63 acres of land, and was a complete wonderland of exploration, inside and out. Take a look at the map above and see how large the yard was for us to run around in. It was like a little village, with a rabbit hutch, 2 playhouses, a sandbox, a jungle gym and that glorious pool during the summer. There was plenty of pavement for riding tricycles, trees for climbing and hiding behind.
Our parents would drop us off at this gate, and for the rest of the day we belonged to Miss Ruth (who had one finger permanently stained from applying Mercurochrome to scrapes and cuts), Miss Audrey, Miss Dorothy and Miss Joanne. That’s what we were taught to call them, and I’ve retained that habit of referring to ladies of all ages in a position of authority by adding Miss to their first name, regardless of their marital status. It’s an old southern trait that still serves well in the modern age.
Inside, the building was a a rambling labyrinth, constantly changing floor levels and ceiling heights. Some rooms were lined with shelves of toys, where Weebles wobbled but never fell down, or set up with a kid-sized metal kitchen with an old rotary phone where we called David Cassidy to sing “I Think I Love You” to him.
Down a set of steep stairs that we could only peer down, Miss Dorothy worked in a small kitchen making buckets of Kraft macaroni and cheese and pulling handfuls of potato chips from a giant metal tub. We got a mid-morning snack and a big lunch. Then it was nap time, with folding army cots lined up in several different rooms throughout, even in the far back room that was supposedly haunted.
That’s me on the far right, top row (note that the girl next to me has on a Mrs. Beasley costume). My best friend, Cathy Meeker, is the bride all the way to the left in the top row. We knew every nuance of all the Partridge Family and Sonny & Cher songs, and sang them loud and often until we were told to pipe down. This Halloween was the first time I ever saw a vampire movie, a Christopher Lee film shown on the afternoon program Dialing for Dollars. Cathy and I decided fangs were ultra cool, and that’s what I wanted my costume to be, but had to be a fairy instead. The wand helped soothe any disappointment.
And Santa came every Christmas, with presents galore. This year I got a knock-off Barbie doll which I then traded for a Liddle Kiddle locket. This was also the same room where we watched the 1969 moon landing, were scared to death of accidental blindness when learning about solar eclipses, and I got in trouble for heckling Alfie about one of the lamest Show ‘n Tell tricks ever performed.
Speaking of Alfie…
In 1993, some friends came over to my apartment, and one of them brought her boyfriend, Al. During the course of partying, Al said a few things that blipped my radar, and I got this vision of a tiny boy with a large head with Tweety Bird eyes and I asked him: “Does anyone ever call you Alfie?”
“Umm…yeah, my folks do.”
“Did you go to Northland Day Nursery School?”
“Hey Alfie, it’s me Toby!”
His eyes returned to Tweety Bird proportions, his jaw dropped and he turned beet red. Turns out he clearly remembered me and Cathy Meeker. Or to be more accurate, he remembered how we tortured him ceaselessly. He recounted a long list of wrongs I’d completely forgotten about. We were little shits, I guess, but he and I made amends during our impromptu Nursery School Reunion. Later I learned that his girlfriend got jealous of this occurrence and they never came around again, and I never got a chance to tell her, “Are you kidding? I’m still not into Alfie – he ate boogers!”
From this December 2006 photo, the bones of one of the playhouses remains. Inside this structure, we tarted ourselves up with kiddy make-up and perfume, or had round-robin choruses of Melanie’s “Brand New Key.” From here you could see the rabbit hutch under that closest tree, the ground under them covered in pellets that looked like chocolate chips, and caterpillars crawling up the trunk that looked like mustard when they were smashed by the boys.
To the very right in this photo is the remains of the other playhouse which was next to the pool, the remains of which are outlined by the red fence posts. In the adjacent basement, we had little changing stations with our names written in marker, where we kept our towel, swimsuit and swimming caps. Even as I stood in the cold on this day, I could hear us singing Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” underwater in that pool.
And that very gate, that very same fence is where I used to stand and peer out longingly at the cars passing by on College Drive, which was – and is – the back way into Florissant Valley Community College. From early on, I always wanted to be anyplace else but where I was, and those kids driving by to college equaled freedom in my mind. It’s poignant to think back to feeling I was missing out on something better during what were the easiest and merriest days of my childhood. By the time I came back here in 2006, I had been working hard on learning to be here – now, to stay present. It was a meaningful full circle moment to be back there, on the other side of the fence looking in, fully in the present and the past. Time stood still, and it was peaceful.
By 1986, the nursery school had closed. Miss Ruth’s daughter, Ruth Ann, took over her house, and the school sat vacant ever since. My memory is cloudy about it, but somewhere in 2009 I learned the property was for sale, and I continued to come visit.
There are several places from my past that I visit when needing to chill out and gain a healthier perspective. Being in the tangible presence of safe and happy places lets me see the timeline of life, and re-connect to the purer parts of the soul. It’s another form of why people keep mementos – a physical piece of the past that conjures memories and emotions. Buildings are an important part of this historical perspective of the lives we live, proof that we did and do exist, that we grow and change while staying connected to the root of our hearts and souls.
And now a physical piece of childhood is gone forever, my first deeply personal architecture to be demolished. Now I understand the stunned silence of our parents and grandparents when they return to see their childhood architecture gone. It’s an uncomfortable milestone of aging, and the ghost images those now-empty spaces conjure make you feel momentarily older than you actually are.
When standing, these buildings dutifully house our memories so we can cruise by from time to time to rummage through the toy box of time. When they’re gone, those memories become toys in the attic of already crowded minds. And now “I’m never going back to my old school.”
Posted on March 28th, 2011 7 comments
St. Louis, Missouri is a river city that’s spent hundreds of years trying to ignore its genesis by blotting out the unignorable. But there’s a remote section of North St. Louis County that has to end because the river says so. And in that wilderness are a few folks who don’t pay extra for a bluff-side river view because it’s part of their backyard.
Head out New Halls Ferry Road in deep Florissant and you’ll come to Shackelford Road. While at that stop, look across the intersection to the left and see the last remains of the once-grand entrance to the Desloge Mansion, now a weedy, gravel road blocked off with a utilitarian metal gate. Then continue up New Halls Ferry, where you will come to an undeniable line of demarcation between mannered society and where the river reigns. The house above, ancient but occupied, is the welcome mat to a stretch of road engulfed by trees, and where most everyone has made the wise decision to live on the hilly side because to live on the other side is to be a part of the river more times than a body can be comfortable with.
But there are 4 remaining homesteaders who did build on the other side of the road, smack against the thin lip between blacktop and river. For about 8 months out of the year they are hiding behind water-logged forestry, shadowy even on the brightest day. There is no sidewalk, so you can’t casually stroll by and observe these stubborn souls living where no one else has the guts to. And it’s no exaggeration to say that if you did make the choice to traipse through the mossy mud on their side of the road, a shotgun blast warning could be a standard feature.
New Halls Ferry Road ends at the straight where the Missouri River seems to be logically heading toward a union with the Mississippi River in what would become Elsah, Illinois, but a radical change of mind caused it to high tail it out of there. But the Mississippi – a river that was having second thoughts about committing to a southerly direction – took chase after the Missouri, cornering it about 13 miles to South East. A Confluence was born, and then the Mississippi River runs down stream to New Orleans.
Look at this map and see that New Halls Ferry was making a crazy beeline into the river before it thought better of such a foolish notion.
Right at this point is the easiest and quickest public access into the churning brown waters of the Missouri. A casual stroll can turn into a suck down into the undertow. For a short spell we lived less than a half mile from this point, up Douglas Road.
I was waiting to start 1st grade, so to a young girl coming from the dense, inner ring suburbs of Jennings and Ferguson, this was a wonderland of endless forests, swarms of lightning bugs brighter than the dusk-to-dawn lamp post in the front yard, a loping Trouble puppy and my first Sugar pony trotting alongside a red gelding named Rusty in the back yard horse paddock.
But during our two years, there was a late summer locust invasion that thoroughly freaked out my thoroughly Soulard urban mother, livestock along this stretch of river road were poisoned to death in a personal vendetta, and dead bodies were dumped onto that last sliver of land between the road and the river.
North Countians over a certain age still recall the 1971 murder of two Radio Shack employees abducted after they closed up shop. I remember watching my folks bid goodnight to guests as the Channel 4 evening news followed the nightly “It’s 10 o’clock – do you know here your children are?” with the report that their bodies had just been found in the woods between New Halls Ferry and the Missouri River. That’s right down the street! We all shivered at the thought of the closeness of depraved souls wading into places we knew you should never go, rolling bodies into the deep, damp unknown.
I lingered on the thought of detectives gingerly stepping through rotted trees and underbrush in the ominous cold indigo with nothing but flashlights, looking for something grisly, second-guessing their line of employment. I couldn’t fall asleep that night, and for every night after that, as another murder was reported, I was sure their body was laying 2,500 yards from our house.
A North County rite of passage is the legend of the Bubble Heads, who seem to exist in all those pockets where land gives way to river, as if the unrelenting humidity swells the heads of the unhinged. They claim that Bubble Heads were along this stretch of New Halls Ferry. I’d rather run into one of those mythical creatures than the real world facts of murdered bodies – known and unknown, human and bovine – that have littered the area. They claim the ghosts of young boys who drowned in the long- abandoned quarry (right before you get to the still-operating quarry) can be heard as the sun sets. All of it adds up to a low hum of ominous that affects even those who know nothing of the area until they stumble upon it during a Sunday drive.
Passersby who notice these abodes tucked behind the trees in front of the river comment on their rumpled state. But as with any riverside community, there is an acceptable level of decay, because you can’t stop Ole Man River from peeling your new paint job and curling your wood siding. For these 4 homesteads along New Halls Ferry, they probably have to sweep river water out the basement after just 2 days of steady rain, so what’s the point of being overly manicured when the river will always chew your nails to the quick?
For the 1910 home above, if someone has a good throwing arm, they could lob a baseball into the Missouri from the back porch. They’re sited so close to the road because they had no other option. But year after year, the option to not live there doesn’t seem to cross their mind, except when the river and old age has eroded a home into the ground.
During the last 40 years along this short stretch of road hugging the river, once occupied land has reverted to vacant swamp, but the family still holds the property rights. Unlike the flood-prone portions of, say, Chesterfield Valley, developers aren’t clamoring to build new upon the unbuildable. When the sound of the river can sometimes drown out the TV with the windows open, logic prevails in the hearts of those not cut out to live on the river.
Posted on March 7th, 2011 15 comments
near the intersection of New Halls Ferry & Dunn Road
I previously covered Ackerman Buick, and the short post brought on some great comments, including:
It’s kinda depressing now, but I can remember when that was the most energetic, happening intersection in North County. Maybe, someday, it will come back…I hope so…
The above photo was taken the day after Thanksgiving 2009. I made the trek back out because after having been dark for a spell, the lights were back on with cars for sale in the lot, and and an Ackerman sign was back up when it had been gone for several years.
And across the window they declared in huge, bright letters: Here 50 Years! Now, these weren’t 50 continuous years; owner Jerry Ackerman sold the franchise to Behlman in 2006, and in 2007 it became a Hyundai franchise, which is when they took down the gigantic lighted letters that spelled “Buick.” That right there was the end of an era, but at least the complex was still open. Then it went dark and empty.
So seeing the lights back on and a temporary Ackerman sign going up on the building was a thrill. The original owners were returning, and crowing about it: Here 50 Years! That kind of pride of place is rare in the retail world.
And suddenly, the old neon sign (above) was relevant once again! They still had the same phone number, they had used cars, everything was returning to the way it had once been. How does something like this happen in today’s world? I was not ashamed to have tears of happiness in my eyes as I stared up at the flickering neon roaring through the glass tubes once again.
Jerry Ackerman bought out Kuhs Buick, which was on North Grand, and in the early 1960s he uprooted that neon sign and brought it out to burgeoning North County. The little building above was the first new structure to go up on the property in 1964. The winged, main building went up in 1965.
They eventually had over 9 acres, sloping up toward West Florissant, along the Hwy 270 service road. As you can see from the aerial map above, it was not only an auto complex, but an entire village! I never bought a car from there, never even stepped on the lot until 2003 to take photos, but this town within a town aspect always fascinated me. You could watch the complex unfold as you tooled down the highway; the sign next to the round building at the top of the hill was always flashing come-ons; it was a spiritual epicenter for a happening part of a Baby Boom suburban town, straddling the lines between Dellwood, Ferguson and Florissant.
This ad from a 1969 issue of Look magazine was passed to me by a 25-year Ackerman Buick employee, Tim Von Cloedt. I made his cyber acquaintance when he commented on the May 2009 B.E.L.T. post about the place. He grew up in the neighborhood directly behind the complex, riding his bike through the lot as a boy, and eventually coming to work there. He has supplied much of the historical information herein, and major thanks to him for helping to create this mini-memorial.
While talking about the sad, run-down state of the now-vacant Ackerman at a family dinner, my cousin Kathy revealed that she had almost been arrested on her high school graduation night in 1973 for drunkenly trying to climb the elephant on their lot. Ackerman bought the fake elephant – bolted to a small trailer so it could be tooled around the lot – when Buick was selling Opels, and it was huge and iconic in the area. My cousin only made it halfway up when a cop put a stop to it. That elephant now resides at a golf range owned by a former used car salesman at 370 and Missouri Bottoms.
The round showcase building at the top of the hill housed many different Ackerman-owned business over the years, including GMC motor homes, Chris-Craft boats, Mitsubishi and Hyundai.
Curving off the round building is this folded, metal promenade that led to the parts department. This is a two-story structure tucked into the hill, and is the eastern boundary of the property, serving as a fortress wall. I used to wonder how many times a day employees had to make the trek from up here down to the main building and how many calories did that burn?
Jerry Ackerman gave it another try at this location, which was when the lights came back on, and the Here 50 Years! declaration was made. But a deal went bad and it went dark again. Come Labor Day 2010 (above) weeds were growing up through the once-immaculate blacktop, fascia was falling off the water-logged building, and vandals had been riding roughshod. It was just sad to pass by a place that was once so vibrant with activity now so still and forlorn. And what do you do with such a huge swath of property that was always devoted to motor vehicles?
On February 26, 2011 they held a public auction for the contents of the buildings. It was a bitterly cold, damp and grey day, but it was nice to see vehicles all over the lot one last time, and tons of people (mostly men) milling about the place, buying up a wide array of items.
After all these years, I finally made it inside the winged building! But the water damage was so bad that it was hard to breathe from all the mold, so even though it was warmer in there than outside, I had to vacate.
Most of the auction lots were inside the former service department. Lots of auto repair equipment, to be sure, but also decades worth of furniture and…
…the lighted Buick letters! These sold for $300, and this is why you should never throw anything away. I do hope someone bought the original Ackerman neon sign. And there was one item for sale that nearly broke my heart:
This large painting is signed “Charles Morgenhaler, 1949,” and shows the Kuhs Auto building on North Grand, the dealership Jerry Ackerman bought out. At the bottom middle, in white paint is “1.30.64.” It looks as if this is when the painting was altered to Ackerman Buick on the building’s neon marquee and windows. Meaning, Ackerman inherited the painting and altered it, then took it with him out to North County. And after all of these generations of history unfolding, it now hung in the last stall of the service bay, soaking up the damp, waiting for its next home.
I hope someone bought it. Or that Jerry or his son took it home as a keepsake.
The main building is scheduled to come down any day now, with the rest of the buildings right behind it. By the end of March 2011, it will be vacant land, which is for sale. Maybe it’s better to have the vacant land than to have the once mighty Ackerman Buick sit there decaying, reminding everyone of glory days that passed by in 50 years, then gone.
Larry also shared this photo of his mother Beverly Giles (passenger side) inside the Kuhs showroom, where she was the office manager in the late 1950s.
I’ve also been told that the mayor of Ferguson had yet to receive a demolition permit for the Ackerman site, so maybe those buildings aren’t coming down so quickly? Let’s cross our fingers and hope it’s true!
The building was taken down in one day on August 15, 2011. Video footage here.
Posted on December 27th, 2010 8 comments
West Florissant & Hwy 270
North St. Louis County, MO
St. Louis hasn’t seen the likes of a Venture sign since 1998. But for the holiday shopping season, much like Gypsy Rose Lee peeling and dropping a glove, Venture teases us with a blast from the past.
One question though: after 12 years, Kmart still won’t spring for real signage? Nice job, class all the way.