Atomic Ranches Tucked into Dellwood

Kappel Drive at West Florissant dellwood mo photo by toby weiss

Kappel Drive at West Florissant
Dellwod, MO

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.

Kappel Drive at West Florissant dellwood mo photo by toby weiss

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.

Kappel Drive at West Florissant dellwood mo photo by toby weiss

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.

Kappel Drive at West Florissant dellwood mo photo by toby weiss

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 the intersection was completely built up by 1961, and development spread further north every month.

Kappel Drive at West Florissant dellwood mo photo by toby weiss

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.

Personal Architecture: 509 Teston in Ferguson, MO

509 teston drive ferguson mo photo by toby weiss

509 Teston Drive
Ferguson, MO

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.

509 teston drive ferguson mo in late 1960s photo by Barb Weiss

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.

Richard and Toby Weiss on carport of 509 Teston Dr in Ferguson MO 1967

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).

Barb, Toby & Richard Weiss, 1968 in Ferguson MO, 509 Teston Dr

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.

Modern day interior of 509 TEston Dr Ferguson Mo photo by toby Weiss

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.

Toby Weiss inside 509 Teston Dr Ferguson MO 1967

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.)

Original kitchen of 509 Teston Dr Ferguson MO 1969

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.

Christmas 1969 at 509 Teston Dr Fergsuon MO

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!

Saved: the “Ackerman” Buick Sign

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.”

From left to right: Joe Wieneke, my hero Dean Wieneke, and their father, Jim.

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?

Personal Architecture: Northland Day Nursery School

Hudson Road & College Drive
Ferguson, MO

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.”

Rolling Along the River in NoCo

St. Louis, approved 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, page 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.

Ackerman Buick: 50 Years and Gone

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.

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!

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

Retro Retail Holiday

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.

No Casino at Chain of Rocks

Riverview Drive at 270
North St. Louis City, MO

There remains one untouched portion of North St. Louis where you can see and feel the river.  Bike or walk the Riverfront Trail and the Chain of Rocks Bridge, and see years worth of diligent work by Trailnet and Confluence Greenway to give everyone a tranquil taste of the beauty and power of  the Mississippi River.

St. Louis City Hall and Koman Properties see this same area as empty land ripe for a casino – a way to keep within city bounds the 13th gambling license that was put in jeopardy when the President Casino folded. They have devised a plan for inserting a new casino here that does not take into consideration the people who live here, the people who use this area, and the ecology that makes the area unique. Their plan is not well thought out, and they’re trying to keep it closed to public input.

This is why the residents of the Chain of Rocks neighborhood and other concerned citizens gathered on October 23rd to stage a photo that will be sent to the state Gaming Commission. And I was honored to be asked to take the group picture (that’s me on the ladder!). Here’s KSDK coverage of the event.

Barb Floreth,  one of the planners of this event (and a resident of the City’s 2nd Ward in the bluffs above Riverview), wrote this piece explaining their side for Urban StL.

Together with other neighborhood associations who would be directly impacted by the proposed casino, Barb and her husband Chris Ballew have worked hard to ensure that this project is not a backroom handshake deal. The State Gaming commission has welcomed response from concerned citizens, and will keep that in mind when they make a November decision on which – if any – location gets the license.

So far, the group has handed out 1,000 pre-printed postcards for us to fill out and send to the Gaming Commission to express your concern. Print out this postcard to help show your support of No Casino at Chain of Rocks.

Chris Ballew (left), Barb Floreth (seated) are Chain of Rocks neighborhood residents. The man on the bike pedaled to thephoto event from Grand Ave. & Hwy 44.

If you are familiar with this part of town and this spot at the foot of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, in particular, then you know the 2-lane road that is Riverview Drive. When looking at the drawings and plans for the proposed casino, the residents learned that the developers are only concerned with traffic coming in from Interstate 270. They have not given any thought to who will use Riverview and its existing traffic problems. If the developers have overlooked this crucial factor – how consumers would get to the casino – what else have they overlooked?

The projected financials are another interesting aspect. Mayor Slay acknowledges that the new casino could bring in $50 million in business from Alton. Basically, that’s poaching business from another casino, right? Which is rather un-neighborly, and highlights the cut-throat aspect of casino competition. No one seems to concentrate on creating NEW clients, just re-routing the same base. And let’s consider human nature: gamblers will flock to the newest casino, but will eventually return to the one closest to their house. The proposed Chain of Rocks Casino will most likely wind up dead in the water because of its remote location.

But Slay is willing to bet on this project because of the projectd $2 – 11 million it could bring to the City coffers.  But what is the long-term cost of this project? Is it worth decimating everything Trailnet, Greenways and the 2nd Ward have achieved? Is it worth alienating the people who live in this part of town (who happen to be City voters) by literally putting a casino in their backyard?

The Gaming Commission granted a half hour public meeting about this project, which was more than City Hall or Koman wanted. But the Commission is open to further comment. If you think this proposed casino is a bad idea, please speak up by writing to the Missouri Gaming Commission to let them know you do not want a riverfront casino built in St Louis City at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge.

Leann McCarthy
Missouri Gaming Commission
3417 Knipp Drive
P.O. Box 1847
Jefferson City, MO 65102

Learn more at the blog No Casino at Chain of Rocks.

MCM Library: The Lewis & Clark Branch

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.

Remembering Shopping Plazas in Florissant


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.