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  • Rolling Along the River in NoCo

    Posted on March 28th, 2011 Toby Weiss 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.

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  • Ackerman Buick: 50 Years and Gone

    Posted on March 7th, 2011 Toby Weiss 16 comments

    Ackerman Buick
    near the intersection of New Halls Ferry & Dunn Road
    Dellwood, MO

    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.

    UPDATE
    Readers have asked exactly where the original Kuhs Buick was on North Grand. Thank you Larry Giles for filling us in. Click this link to see it on Google maps.

    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!

    DEMOLITION UPDATE
    The building was taken down in one day on August 15, 2011. Video footage here.

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  • Retro Retail Holiday

    Posted on December 27th, 2010 Toby Weiss 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.

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  • MCM Library: The Lewis & Clark Branch

    Posted on October 10th, 2010 Toby Weiss 4 comments

    9909 Lewis-Clark Blvd (aka Hwy 367)
    Moline Acres, MO

    Having recently visited 2 different libraries within 30 minutes in South St. Louis City, I got to reminiscing about the importance of libraries to our communities and to my personal history.  Which reminded me that the St. Louis County Public Library system has a written plan to eventually demolish the Lewis & Clark Branch in North County.  NOCO did a brilliant job of reporting this last year.

    I am all for modernizing libraries to serve a new century; in St. Louis City, they have spent (and continue to spend) millions refurbishing existing libraries, and have done a brilliant job helping historic buildings remain vital and indispensable. St. Louis County is now in the middle of appraising their stock, and it’s troubling that their first thoughts are to demolish rather than refurbish.

    Especially when they have a branch like Lewis & Clark, designed by renowned architect Frederick Dunn.  His works are so important that Esley Hamilton will be speaking about it on October 17, 2010 as part of the Landmarks lecture series. And his groundbreaking church in St. Louis Hills was covered here this past summer. So, from the perspective of historic preservation, the Lewis & Clark Branch is clearly a contender on the name of Dunn, alone. Enlarge the aperture to include the context of its place in a developing North County of the 1950s-60s, this library gains even more reasons to be celebrated and elevated with a sympathetic update and remodel.

    After WW2, North St. Louisans drove out Broadway to the Halls Ferry Circle into North County, which found Hwy 367 building up rapidly with businesses and homes.  In the tiny inner-ring suburb of Moline Acres, they built this library in 1963, and right next door in 1964 they built Top of the Towers, which became the hub of everything that was cool, sophisticated and modern. Read more about Top of the Towers here.

    This nucleus of activity allowed ranch home subdivisions and churches to spring up around them, and an exploding population contributed to the spread and dominance of far North St. Louis County. These are important chapters in the evolution of Metro St. Louis, especially because high design and skilled craftsmanship were still a standard part of our progress.

    On a personal level, this building means a lot to me. By the mid-1970s, my divorced mother and I were living in nearby Black Jack, and money was tight, leaving no babysitter budget. My mother came up with the brilliant idea of using this library as a free babysitter for her grade school child. At least once a week, she dropped me off at the front door and let me know “you have only one hour to pick out books for the week.”  This turned out to be an hour of productive freedom for both of us.

    An hour never seemed like enough time, so I had to stay focused on researching and procuring before time was up, constantly looking over my shoulder at the clocks on the wall to make sure I got to the check-out counter before my mom arrived. This kept me well-behaved and quiet while stockpiling books and records that fueled curiosity and expanded knowledge. It also bolstered my sense of responsibility, independence and love for a building that felt like my personal playground.

    The historical importance of a building comes from its design and its contributions to the community it served. All of the National Register buildings in Metro St. Louis made it onto the list because of these factors, and all of them required additional updates and remodeling to keep them viable for the present and the future. The Lewis & Clark Library falls into this category, and as we wade into the historical importance of mid-century architecture, it deserves much deeper thought than the wasteful decision to demolish.

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  • Remembering Shopping Plazas in Florissant

    Posted on February 18th, 2010 Toby Weiss 5 comments

    01-cross-keys

    I just ran across some black & white prints I shot in 2002 of two retail plazas on New Halls Ferry Road in Florissant, MO.  Above is a detail of one of the two signs that represented Cross Keys Shopping Center, which went up in 1969 as a combination mall/open air retail giant at New Halls Ferry and North Lindbergh Blvd.  The signs were ungodly tall and shiny, and always reminded me of a cross between Johnny Sokko’s robot and Batman.  The signs were demolished in 2003 along with the rest of the original Cross Keys.  The site was born again.

    02-madrid-plaza

    Still standing in its original state, about a mile south of Cross Keys, at New Halls Ferry and Parker Road, is Plaza Madrid.  This plaza went up in 1970, and as you can make out on the photo above (click to enlarge), this part of Madrid was originally the National grocery store.  Spent a lot of time at the magazine stand inside this building, but even as a kid, I knew this place looked cheesy.  During its boom years, this part of town had a deep fascination with anything Spanish, and Madrid Plaza really went over the top with the theme.

    03-cross-keys

    Back at the original Cross Keys, this is a detail of what was originally a Krogers grocery store, which disappeared around the time Cross Keys also got a Schnucks.  The center of this retail oasis was an indoor mall, but I can’t remember a time when it was as lively and thriving as the open-air stores along the perimeters. Actually, I remember the mall being a bit creepy.

    04-cross-keys

    In 2003, they cleared all the buildings and started from scratch, even giving it a new name:  The Shoppes at Cross Keys.  When you use pretentious, Olde English spelling for 21st century suburban shopping parks, you know there’s no place for a stainless steel Batman sign.  The new concern is all Big Box open air, and though it lacks personality (which is the point, really) it is doing quite well, if cars on the parking lot are a fair indicator.

    05-madrid-plaza

    Plaza Madrid is also open-air, has loads of personality and its parking lots are sad and lifeless. They’ve been that way for about the last 15 years.  Some other businesses have moved in and out of National building over the years, and it sits empty yet again.  The beloved Dairy Queen (that occupied the Knockouts space, below) disappeared by the start of the 1990s, and you knew the jig was up when even the Radio Shack closed.

    Plaza Madrid is in a good location, the buildings are holding up very nicely (especially those clay tile roofs, which are not budging) and the layout is perfect for exposure of individual shops, yet owners just can’t seem to make it happen.

    06-madrid-plaza

    I know retail is an unsympathetic creature of New, Newer, Newest and Madrid has the stench of old about it.  Retail also requires either a complete lack of personality or the EIFS-fake personality of “lifestyle centers,” while Madrid just has played out kitsch from a different century, so it’s the wrong kind of personality. I’m not claiming this place is worthy of preservation, just saying that remodeling the buildings we already have is a smart idea.  I will always hold on hope that retail can learn to think differently, maybe learn to save some money by recycling buildings, and that Plaza Madrid would be a good test lab for such a radical idea… scrub it up, patch it up, market the kitsch.  Let’s learn to think outside the Big Box of retail Shoppes.

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  • Ferguson’s David & Goliath Moment

    Posted on February 7th, 2010 Toby Weiss 10 comments

    ferguson-cvs-01

    One of the most prominent intersections in Ferguson, MO has lately become notorious. CVS is mining the St. Louis area, and as they require being near an existing Walgreens, they want to move into the intersection of Hereford and North Florissant, on the spot of the now-vacant Sinclair gas station (shown above).   The issue is covered in depth here at NOCO StL, and that post also includes comments that capture the tone of the debate.

    In essence, CVS wants to buy and tear down 8 homes and receive a 5-year TIF in order to build a new store on the northeast corner of a desirable intersection, and have been working on procuring the homes and advancing the plans since spring of 2009.  Ferguson neighborhood associations did not learn of these plans until September 2009.  It’s become a case of who in Ferguson City Hall knew of these plans (and when did they know it), and were they purposely trying to usher in this development without public discourse?

    ferguson-cvs-02

    The group Preserve Our Ferguson Neighborhood’s concisely explains why they are opposed to the plan here, and note that they are not opposed to CVS coming to Ferguson, just opposed to this plan.

    The photo above – and the next two that follow – are photos I took in May 2007 as part of a personal photographic survey of Hereford/Chambers Road from N. Florissant east to Halls Ferry Road (I hope to document straight through to Riverview Dr.).  These homes atop the hill on the northside of Hereford are a long-standing, iconic representation of Ferguson.  Even though everything to the southwest of them long ago turned commercial, these houses remained.  Meaning, that even during the boom years of Ferguson’s mid-century development, planners left this stretch of homes alone.

    From 1945 – 1970, the clear delineation of commercial and residential in Ferguson is what made it so desirable for St. Louis city dwellers looking to relocate to the suburbs, and the long-standing respect for that pattern is a huge contributor to the renaissance Ferguson is now experiencing.  There is a growing and tangible St. Louis population reclaiming both our city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs because of the distinct flavor (and existing infrastructures) they retain.  It is an organic reaction against anonymous homogenization that depletes resources and a reclamation of community that is at the core of the human experience.  Ferguson is quickly becoming a poster child for inner-ring possibility, which is a responsible balance of respecting the past while moving forward.

    ferguson-cvs-03

    From casual observation of how CVS has grown in the Midwest, it is clear that there is a corporate game plan that requires their stores to be in close proximity to a Walgreens.   I’m not debating their strategy – it must work for them or they wouldn’t insist upon it – but I am noting that there stubborn adherence to this strategy finds them offering lame excuses when faced with community opposition.

    For instance, in the Ferguson situation, the community has suggested other nearby commercial sites that could most likely be had without disrupting residential, and most of these  sites are within eyesight of the Walgreens.  But CVS corporate responds that there might be a lease restriction on the site, and they want to work only on the Sinclair site they have been working on for almost a year.

    The City of Ferguson may have already offered them a 5-year TIF, and CVS might also get a Brownfield tax credit for building on the site of a gas station.  Note that Ferguson can extend TIF to most any location it desires, so that’s not a crucial factor for CVS staying put with the Sinclair Plan.  But one thing is very clear from our brief history of the company in St. Louis: they want empty commercial and seemingly expendable residential buildings near a Walgreens because dealing with an existing corporation can get tricky.

    ferguson-cvs-04

    For instance, their Ferguson plan procures 8 occupied homes, but spares the Little Caesar’s pizza building at the northern end of the block on N. Florissant.  It is cheaper to pay above-market price for private homes than wrangle with an existing business that full-well knows the rules of the real estate game.  This may be why the Aaron Rents site mentioned as another possible location for CVS at the same intersection was immediately dismissed; who wants to tangle with evicting a retail chain when the goal is to get in, get what you need and seal the deal as quickly as possible?

    From the CVS perspective, these location strategies are logical, and it worked perfectly for them at the intersection of  Gravois and Hampton in South St. Louis City, the former site of a vacant Amoco station that also required 3 homes to be demolished.  The Ferguson site is a repetition of that same game plan, so why not?  But there’s another example that Ferguson needs to keep in mind: the failed attempt for a CVS at Lindell and Sarah in the Central West End.

    Yes,  the plan took place over vacant commercial buildings, but this property was not in eyesight of the existing Walgreens, just a few blocks east on the same side of the street.  So, not the most ideal way to meet the corporate mandate, but still a viable property on a valuable street.  But the next problem was persistent community opposition.  In general, the majority of residents affected were not opposing the store being there,  but rather the layout and design of the store.  CVS played ball for one inning with some design modifications, but residents still weren’t satisfied and asked for further revisions.  Without fanfare, CVS took their ball and left the game, and the CWE CVS plan was abandoned.

    Simply because a corporation with deep pockets says it should be so does not make it fait accompli, especially within a proud community committed to the safe-keeping of their town’s present and future.

    ferguson-cvs-05

    It is easy to understand the need to increase the Ferguson tax base, and this is classically accomplished in two ways: more residents and more business.  It is a delicate balance, and Ferguson is once again facing the hefty kid on the playground who wants to plop down on the other end of their seesaw.  The important message of this “controversy” is that Ferguson residents are expecting transparency and fair negotiations about developments that will produce the most good for their city, and that is the sign of a community with healthy self-esteem and optimism about their future potential.  Ferguson’s heartbeat is gaining strength, and it is now healthy enough to fight for a fair deal.

    There is valid concern about what to do with the Sinclair site if the CVS deal should fall through.  Size-wise, old gas station plots can be problematic if you’re thinking inside the retail box.  Though, considering the current revitalization in the heart of Downtown Ferguson, extending that line of thought a few blocks up to Hereford is not a stretch of the imagination.

    And when it comes to revitalizing odd-shaped, vacant gas station sites in Ferguson, I do need to point out the photo above, also taken in May 2007.  This is at Ames Pl. and (Hereford turns into) Chambers Road, less than a mile east of the Sinclair intersection.  I once lived within walking distance of this former gas station, and was always intrigued by it because it appeared to be growing out of the side of a hill.  Plus, those people above it could walk out their side door and onto the gas station roof, if they wanted to (and I really wanted to).

    The building is short and narrow, while the lot is long but very narrow.  So when the gas station finally folded many a year ago, it sat in this forlorn, vacant state.  The asphalt was removed, and once the grass grew in, it really looked odd, like a cedar and glass carbuncle growing out of the greenery.  But the last time I drove by, the site was back in use as a used car lot, which was a pleasant shock because I thought that plot of land and the building was a goner.  Instead, against all odds, it’s reborn!

    I am not at all suggesting that the Sinclair site should become a used car lot.  I am just pointing out that even the oddest, and seemingly hopeless sites can find another life when it’s in a community that works together to make such things possible.

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  • Can Northwest Plaza Be Saved?

    Posted on January 23rd, 2010 Toby Weiss 20 comments

    northwest-plaza-01

    The news that Macy’s is closing its Northwest Plaza store marks the sound of the footsteps of a dead mall walking.  The fate of both the former Famous-Barr department store and Northwest Plaza makes me ultra sad, and even before this news I was always nostalgic for the Northwest Plaza of old.  It once had energy and personality, then someone decided to put a lid on it.  It’s been a slow suffocation ever since.

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    My deep fondness for the Famous-Barr at Northwest Plaza stems from one exact moment in time, and it radiates out from there forever more.

    November 1978, Olivia Newton-John releases the album Totally Hot.  It was a calculated move to capitalize on her “bad Sandy” from Grease.  The songs were the most rock she’d ever be, and it was matched with a look which was a modern-day continuation of the 1950s black leather look that had ended the movie my friend and I had seen 7 times in the movie theaters that summer.  Some of the songs on this record were more guitar driven, the vocals randy and tough, and to a long-time Livvy fan (Nerd Alert: I belonged to her fan club years before Grease) it was revolutionary.

    Just as important as the music (which still sounds just as great today, thanks to the brilliance of producer John Farrar) was the album cover art work.  I had just turned 13, and had been given the go-ahead to wear make-up to school, and this is exactly how I wanted to look!

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    A Friday night in December 1978, I was dropped off at Northwest Plaza, and I trudged through the snow to get to the very spot shown above: the Estee Lauder counter at this Famous-Barr.  Where else would a newborn teenage girl go to get that smokey-eyed Livvy look?  I stared down through the glass case at all the eye liner pencils, and my heart pounded with excitement at this whole new world of possibility before me.  Then a sales lady asked how she could help, and my head started pounding with fear because I had no clue what to say, what to do.  I was only used to using the products in my Mother’s make-up drawer, not buying my own!

    The sales lady was very kind, and after a swift transaction, I walked away with a fat Estee Lauder eye liner pencil of a deep blue-gray.  It was my first make-up purchase, my first adult thing, and I still remember the smell of the winter air as I walked out of the store, and turning to look back inside at the warm glow of a cosmetics department that had accepted me as one of their own.  Even then, I knew it was a milestone girl-to-woman moment.

    As most teenage girls tend to do at the start, I too often left the house looking like a hussy raccoon.  I abused that pencil something fierce, and still never came close to looking like Lovely Livvy.  I do believe that the stub of that inaugural eye pencil still exists in one of my junk piles, holding onto it because that time resonated so deeply.  And so does the place that it happened at.

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    Which is why I went there today, to take one last look around, take some photos, and see if the Ghosts of Shopping Past still float under that majestic, astro ceiling.  Today was also a gathering of the Facebook groups I Hung Out at the Northwest Plaza Fountain as a Teenager and Let’s Revitalize Northwest Plaza Now! As a person still grieving from the death of Northland Shopping Center, I had to join both groups and then get a look at the people who were foolhardy enough to try and save a dying mall.

    I was there around 1:30, so didn’t get to see what was eventually about 300 people, as reported by NOCO StL.  But Northwest Plaza is so scary dead that seeing the healthy handfuls of people already gathered at the spot where the fountain once lay was heart-warming.

    Putting a roof over this outdoor plaza was a bad idea from the start; back in the day, I don’t recall a single soul agreeing that this was just what the place needed.  But this is what the then-owners felt was necessary to keep up with the Retail Joneses, that shoppers want a hermetically sealed environment more than they want personality and ease of access that comes from open-air malls.  With millions of dollars of renovation, they erased the low-slung, mid-century midwest ease that changed with the seasons for a clinical, soulless, Any Town U.S.A. warehouse.

    I have a sharp, instinctual sense of direction, but once they put the roof over Northwest Plaza, I got lost (as in “will this be an anxiety attack?” lost) every time.  I’d try to use the anchor stores as place reminders of the old layout, but it was all so tall and bland and disconcerting, that I’d get discombobulated.  The jagged contrast between what it used to be and what it had become was so depressing that I haven’t stepped foot in the place for well over 10 years.  It had nothing to do with crime or location or the types of stores within.  It was about being creeped out about walking over the burial grounds of a once-beloved place.  Oh, how I long to see even the blurriest photo of those lighted deers that graced the Plaza at Christmas time… Northwest Plaza exists only in memories. This mall that has its name is just a tombstone.

    northwest-plaza-05

    I am so ecstatic to see a passionate group of people wanting to save this place that I can taste it, but there’s also a bitter aftertaste.  There is very little original fiber left to Northwest Plaza, so only a sense of the place we once loved can be revitalized.  Even if future plans do include removing the roof, it still won’t be the Northwest Plaza being honored today, it will just be a new “lifestyle center” hoping to coast off nostalgic momentum.

    Today also poked at the mental scab I have about the demolition of Northland Shopping Center, another beloved North St. Louis County place that could instantly transport you back to the golden days of yesteryear because it was still in its original state.  And because of the era in which it was built, Northland was more architecturally significant than Northwest Plaza.  But back in 2002-2003, when news of Northland’s demise was first reported, there was not yet Facebook groups to make people aware of what was happening and spur them into action. And trust that people feel just as passioantely about Northland as they do Northwest; even all these many years on, I still regularly get e-mails from people sharing their Northland memories after they’ve found my cyber memorial.  The St. Louisan sense of place is very strong, and we should be proud of that.

    But back in the pre-social network year of 2003, it was just me and a couple of other mourners who documented Northland’s last days.  Even then, I knew trying to save it was a losing game;  acceptance and love of mid-century modern architecture was barely stirring, and the idea of trying to save retail is a brand new concept brought about by the deaths of enclosed malls.

    northwest-plaza-06

    What was particularly galling was that as the last walls of Northland were being toppled, retail trends were swinging to (or actually, back to) open air plazas.  Wow, and they just killed a great opportunity for a retro open air plaza, which could have been the mack daddy of St. Louis lifestyle shopping destinations.  It was also right around this time that the first rumors of removing the roof swirled around Northwest Plaza.  This double dose of irony was more than I could withstand and I learned to just let go of any efforts or thoughts of preserving retail because it’s just about following the money which is about following the trends, and obviously, no one cares about retail buildings anyway.

    Until now.
    These hundreds of people who signed up cyberally and then, today, showed up in person are stirring hope in my heart.  Are we ready to embrace sense of place, and ready to expect people-friendly and attractive built environments?  Are we realizing how wasteful it is to keep destroying the places of our past for a future with a short shelf life?  Regardless of what becomes of Northwest Plaza, I’m just relieved to hear others joining this conversation, and am so proud of St. Louis for taking this stand.  You guys rock!

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  • Why’d Ya Tear It Down?

    Posted on January 12th, 2010 Toby Weiss 6 comments

    former-commerce-bank

    475 N. Lindbergh
    Florissant MO

    This building was always a bank, as long as I can remember from growing up in North St. Louis County.  In December of 2001 I snapped this quick picture as I waited in traffic, as a visual reminder to go back and photograph it properly at a later date.  I like round buildings, in general, and I liked how this one’s roundness was composed of blonde brick panels with long, skinny windows between.  It was a low-key but slightly whimsical building.

    Since taking this photo, I’d passed the bank many times, but conditions were always wrong for photos.  One brilliant spring day in 2007, I was back in the area and thought, “This is the day to shoot the round bank building!” But no, it was gone.  All that remained was a busted up blacktop parking lot and a round hole where the building was.  This is the only photo I have, the only reminder.

    Now here it is, almost 3 years later, and Desco still has a For Sale sign up on an ugly, busted up blacktop property, with a listing price of $1.7 million.

    The building was torn down and the property put up for sale well before the real estate meltdown, so that excuse for its vacancy is only 18 months old, at best .  And I’m assuming Desco figured it would be easier to sell property in this dense retail corridor without the building on it.

    It’s always been expensive to build new buildings, which is why – in the current financial climate – many companies are happy to convert existing retail/commercial buildings to their needs.  And it has always been expensive to demolish a building of this size, but in happier economic times, realtors could afford to gamble on a bigger gain by clearing a property.

    But in this case, the gamble has yet to pay off, and I wonder if Desco had left that unique bank building in place if maybe someone in today’s climate would have been more willing to take it at a reduced price and remodel to suit?

    Our recession is teaching everyone a lot about thrift, sustainability, resources and conservation.  It now seems shockingly wasteful to demolish a perfectly serviceable building in hopes of landing a buyer with really deep pockets for acquisition and construction.  Especially in the case of this property, which  – because it has neighbors on all sides – can only accommodate a small-to-medium sized building, much like the one that was once there.

    I do miss the building, and do hope that Desco and their ilk contemplate the proverb: Waste Not, Want Not.

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  • A Clip Joint

    Posted on January 6th, 2010 Toby Weiss 14 comments

    clip-joint

    Natural Bridge Road
    Bel Ridge, MO

    Great name for a barber shop, isn’t it?

    This tiny place, just east of the inner belt, fascinates me.  Built in 1930, it’s only 252 square feet, and appears to have always been a barber shop.

    Barber shops, in general, fascinate me because it’s a Guy Place.  Ladies are no more welcome in them than guys are in beauty shops.  Oh sure, anyone’s welcome through the door, but when the opposite sex “invades” one of these places, you can cut uncomfortable with a knife.

    When the Clip Joint is open, there always seems to be at least two cars parked around it.  Seems it would only take 3 people for the joint to feel crowded, but that’s probably part of the appeal of this joint.

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  • Wild Safari in Jennings

    Posted on November 15th, 2009 Toby Weiss 10 comments

    giraffe-01

    West Florissant Avenue between
    Goodfellow Blvd. & Lucas and Hunt Rd.

    The only place I’ve seen such exotic exterior cladding is in a finite section of North St. Louis County, inside the inner-ring suburbs of Flordell Hills and Jennings.   Most of them are on – or not too far away from – West Florissant Avenue, were built in 1940, and range from 850 – 950 square feet, so it’s a safe guess that it’s the work of the same designer/construction company.

    The year they were built is of special interest, as it was that brief time period after the Great Depression but before World War 2.  Meaning, this part of the county was already experiencing westward migration a full 5-6 years before the official start of the post-war Baby Boom.

    But as a toddler living in Ferguson in the late 1960s, the only thing that made these houses stick out in my mind is that they have giraffe skin!

    giraffe-02

    I first made the connection after seeing an episode of Marlin PerkinsWild Kingdom about giraffes, and then passing by these homes the next day.  Did the original builder take inspiration from dreams of a wild safari in Africa? Or was it an idea cadged from someplace else?  If anyone has any insight or information, please do share.

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    It’s especially exciting when parts of the giraffe skin survive an exterior remodel.  Adds a bit of pizazz, don’t you think?

    I encourage you to take a drive down this exact stretch of West Florissant and note the harmonious mingling of bungalow residential and mid-century modern commercial buildings.  It’s a compelling and easy-to-read chapter of the post-war development of our Metro St. Louis area, and makes a good case for a return to mixed-use zoning, which always brings variety and energy to any area that still allows such an old-fashioned way of living.

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