A Few Blocks of Gravois on a Sunday Morning

Gravois & Quincy in the Princeton Heights neighborhood
South St. Louis, MO

There’s been some renovation work going on at the Jimmie’s Saloon building (built circa 1906). Permits are taped to the windows, and one day, all of the 2nd story windows were gone in anticipation of replacements.  As happy as I am to see it coming back to life, I worry about the fate of the signage… will they keep it in place? Oh please, say yes!

So I had other places to be on this Sunday morning, but stopped just a moment to take a few photos of the signage, and peer through the windows to see what they’re up to. Then I started looking around and in that moment of looking I finally SAW this part of town, and I just kept walking and snapping, totally gaga over finally seeing the truth.

I saw that in the same block we have two head shops. I’ve been in one of them before, but can’t quite remember which one it was, heh heh. This started life in the early 1920s as a Kroger grocery store, and also housed Southside Cyclery before they moved to a bigger space just on the other side of the Jimmie’s Saloon block.

I saw that from Quincy to Kingshighway, this section of the Princeton Heights neighborhood was dense and alive and useful. It was everything we remember/crave in an urban environment, and it’s all going on without any revitalized fanfare because it just keeps on keeping on.

The head shops are divided by a building all vacant and boarded up, slightly forlorn, but look at that entrance!

This building is circa 1924, and used to be a 5 and 10 cent store.

This block of Gravois is directly across the street from the QT. That side of the Loughbourough intersection has been demolished and given car-centric infill, but the rest remains refreshingly intact and vital.

This place still retains part of the Ragsdale Beauty Shop legacy, evolving into Randy Ragsdale’s barber shop.

This building just recently came back to life with a new business. And even though this circa 1924 building has been greatly altered throughout its life, all it took to abide by the latest tenant was lots of paint, new doors and grill work and some ingenious interior remodeling to be back in action.

This place (built circa 1920) has long been a curiosity to me. It underwent a renovation around 2004-2005, with new windows, tuckpointing, refurbished interior… it was a joy to watch it coming back to life after being vacant for so long.

Because of the crappy door installed, I assumed the new owner was Bosnian (no disrespect, but do take a look at the doors on the buildings they revive; everything else is top notch but they’re just not into quality doors), and city records show that to be true. And the building sits vacant to this day…and the crappy door is falling apart. This building is too pretty and in too prime a spot to still be vacant.

Directly across the street is a favorite neighborhood restaurant to walk to. The original building dates from 1908, with a newer bump out. To one side is the suburban-esque tear out for a former 7-11 (and that building is being re-used, which is good), while the other side of Apollonia continues on up the hill without any interruption to the original density. Actually, both sides of this block are uninterrupted, which is a glorious (and rare) sight to behold.

Moellenhoff’s neon sign is an old beauty, but it’s not the original business for the spot. And the circa 1907 building right next door is also owned by the Moellenhoffs, now housing Bo Fung Chinese, which has been there seemingly forever because it’s pretty good take-out. I also love the the nonsensically off-kilter windows of the newer-period street-level bump out.

One thing to note about all the businesses in the blocks between Lougborough and Kingshighway: On-Street Parking. Not a one of them has a parking lot visible from Gravois. And many of the businesses in this block have been there “forever,” so this does not seem to be a detriment. I wish City Hall would take note of this the next time a new city business says they need to tear down a perfectly good building next door for more parking. If you maintain the density of the area, a quarter of the people walk to the place, another quarter takes the bus, and the driving half never seem to have too tough a time with parking to keep them from coming back.

Gravois Glass is one of those businesses that also seems to have been here forever, though the Elvis TCB on the corner post and signage is a relatively recent addition. Which just makes them cool.

I absolutely adore this building, which dates to circa 1948.  With Vitrolite and glass block and stainless steel, it’s simply Retail Art Deco charming.

It’s a minor miracle that the original doors have remained in place, and standing next to them always makes me feel all cosmopolitan and clean.  Need to do some research to see what was originally in these two separate store fronts (or if you know, do speak up). There’s been a few different business in here since the 1990s, and a Bosnian bakery just only recently closed. Here’s hoping new tenants arrive soon, and that the owners continue to baby this fabulous facade because that is the calling card.

Here’s the true King of Forever on this block – Arnold Hardware. Ain’t nothing can dent their productivity, not even the bank and its parking lot that went in next door a few decades ago. That bank killed the density winning streak on this side of the block, but across the street…

…these two buildings continue the chain all the way to a break in “the wall” for the old St. Marcus cemetery/park.  Losito Brothers Auto carries on the tradition of that spot, while the clay tile roof of the tower is always a striking sight (in fact, it inspired one renter of a house behind here to draw it on a bedroom wall!).

I was gloriously lost in crushing hard on these few blocks I’d seen and used a thousand times but never appreciated fully, when I realized I was supposed to be somewhere else and better get a move on. I need to come back with a better camera and also do some research where the awesome website of the Princeton Heights Neighborhood Association has yet to fill in.

And while driving away, I – who does not have a degree in urban planning and such – wondered exactly how did these few blocks survive so relatively intact? How did they remain so consistently vital while other similar blocks in similar neighborhoods did not? Let’s also ponder how little attention they get because they never died and needed oxygen pumped back into its lungs.

The City of St. Louis has plenty of workhorse stretches of original density and vitality that deserve a little lovin’ for takin’ care of business for so long. They may not be glamorous by revitalization standards, but you don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show. I just love knowing that you’re always there for us!

Farewell to Globe Drug Store on Cherokee

Globe Drugs
2626 Cherokee Street
South St. Louis, MO

The Cherokee Street News broke the news that the venerable Globe Drug store had closed its doors, and got the sentiment right in the headline: 1939-2010. It does feel like a friend has died.

I was expecting a mass outpouring of reports and condolences in the St. Louis press, but so far, only the RFT has jumped on the tragic news. Thank you.

After the initial shock, my first thought was of Sandy Cohen, the son of the Globe Empire begun in 1939.  Sandy was born into this store, and it’s the only job he’s ever had. His enthusiasm and love for his working retail museum never seemed to waiver, and if – from his perch in the pharmacy – he noticed you taking pictures and reveling in the atmosphere, he’d cheerfully offer to take you on a tour.

Sandy would point out that the place was a 905 liquor store before his family took over, and iron grills over the vents in the ceiling confirm that this 1913 building was the home of a long-gone, sorely missed St. Louis cheap buzz tradition, from 1937 – 1953.

A Sandy tour gave you backstage access, which in this case is a ride in the original, unadulterated freight elevator up to the 2nd floor. The door loudly slid open to reveal a vast, dark area used for storage, with still-decorated Christmas trees and unopened Easter baskets scattered about.

And then comes the reveal of a bowling alley?

Sandy wasn’t quite sure if there actually was a bowling alley in the building, or if this was just a rescued relic from elsewhere that found a permanent home in the Globe Museum.

The business office truly was a scrapbook of the history of the Globe, and of the Cohen family, both blood related and extended.

The rendering of the St. Louis cityscape (above) was commissioned by Joe as a way to feature all 4 Globe locations. As of this writing, the variety store on South Broadway near Soulard, and the wholesale warehouse at Clark & Tucker in downtown St. Louis remain open.  The Globe variety store a couple of blocks west of 2626 Cherokee closed in the mid-90s.

Among the hundreds of photos on the walls is a shot of this store when it was 905 Liquors.

And here’s the same ceiling fixture still in place today.

One of Sandy’s favorite mementos is a letter he received in 2008 from someone confessing to having stolen candy from the store when they were 10. They apologized and sent along this dollar to pay for what they took.

Globe Drug was one of those rare birds: a still-vibrant, direct link to the past. History has personal meaning when you can physically trace the connections and experience a small slice of what life was like before it hit warp speed, before it was corporate, before rat-a-tat gloss suffocated neighborhood personality.

We’re at the reverse of needing to advance the population; the earth is suffering the damage of too many people at one time. So the modern need for offspring  seems an instinctive drive for immortality. Globe Drug felt like a slice of immortality, St. Louis style. I can feel the heavy sadness of Sandy Cohen and family as they pack up 57 years of life and cart it out of this building. And even as the neighborhood comes back to life all around it, all of us will feel the emptiness as we pass by 2626 Cherokee.

From a Suburban Journals article on the office wall:

“Who says that you can’t go back? In the “hurry, hurry” world of today’s super conglomerate drug stores, Globe Drugs…stands proudly as proof that quality and commitment to its customers needs still make a difference.  …the Cohen family has worked hard to keep the nostalgic atmosphere that you would have found when FDR was in the White House… So, go back. Go back to a time when a variety store was the cornerstone of a community.”

Bright Future for a Mid-Century Modern Church

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss
3900 Meramec St.
South St. Louis, MO

Resurrection Church is a 1952 mid-century modern beauty that survived abandonment by the Catholic church to become a thriving Vietnamese church in the Dutchtown neighborhood. Let Rob Powers take you on an extensive tour of this gorgeous building.

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

Notice anything shiny and new in this photograph of the side of the church, snapped just the other day?

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

And you can see it on the rear of the church, above.
Crews are just about done capping all parapet walls of the church (and there’s a lot of them) with brand new copper. Some of it is replacing old, green patina copper original to the building, and some of it is going over original concrete parapets, which will protect them from further water erosion.

There are a couple of reasons why this is a significantly great bit of news. This maintenance project is really, really expensive. They could have saved quite a chunk of change by using any other metal but copper, but they stayed with the original material for this repair and maintenance.

And when you estimate how much they’re spending on copper and other roof repairs, consider how that money could have been applied to some serious renovating/remodeling/remuddling. But instead, they made a conscious decision to use appropriate, high quality materials to preserve the look of their church.

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

Their commitment to,  and understanding of, the beauty and value of their building is heartbreakingly noble and life-affirming. Especially in light of Dotage St. Louis’ recent report on some seriously heinous remuddling of an art moderne building about 2 miles away from Resurrection.

While I am sickened and saddened by what they’ve done to the face of the building, I’m also pragmatic: these are business owners who have made a commitment to stay in their building in this city, and in tight financial times, put their money toward improving their property. Taste is debatable and subjective, but there’s no arguing the fact that they have contributed to the sustainability of this community by staying put in an old, mid-century modern building. I’d rather see it tarted up like a misguided prosti-tot than be torn down for no good reason.

So, the current owners of the Resurrection building seem to have a refreshing appreciation of the worth and beauty of their building, and their financial commitment to its upkeep is also like an insurance policy that this is one St. Louis City modern classic that can be removed off the Demolition Worry list. I hope their example can resonate with others who own buildings of this vintage, and that it inspires them to reconsider rash moves that can compromise the architectural integrity of this important chapter of our built environment legacy.

Tower Grove’s Fountain Pond is So Shallow

Fountain Pond & Mock Ruins
Tower Grove Park
South St. Louis, MO

Great News Long Overdue
As reported from the park’s Facebook page,  the work “already underway includes: masonry repairs, plumbing upgrades, enhanced lighting, and improved landscaping of the area. The project is scheduled to be completed this summer.”

Good To Know
Look how shallow the water is in the pond!
The only thing that’s kept many of us from wading in that pond on a sweltering summer day is not knowing how deep it was. Now we know it’s not deep at all. In fact, it’s much like Paris Hilton – it’s very shallow.

So, now knowing exactly what’s under there + an improved sidewalk = I’m going in.
And I’m not the only one who’s seen this sight and had that thought. When the pond re-opens, the park rangers are gonna be busier than usual.

A Bank Sign Resurfaces

5701 Chippewa
South St. Louis, MO

The original bank sign buried under the Gospel Church sign has broke free and come up for air! Click the photo to enlarge it and check out the hand-lettered cursive.

Here’s the building the resurfaced sign belongs to.

And the building is now for sale. Did an interested buyer want to see what’s under there, or did Mother Nature’s recent fireworks send the panel airborne?

Either way, it’s nice to see the old Public Service Savings & Loan Association sign. Welcome back!

Beer, Bands, Bricks & Kitsch

New Additions to the Soulard Stable Hootenanny…


Bill Streeter will show am exclusive sneak preview of footage from his documentary Brick By Chance & Fortune: A St. Louis Story.
He’ll also air some of his favorite Lo-Fi Saint Louis clips.
Details straight from Streeter’s fingertips.


Galen Gondolfi of Fort Gondo is donating a choice pile of kitsch bric-a-brac as $1 a ticket raffle prizes.  Items will be on display and small enough to cart of while drunk, if you win one.

Michael Allen has a beautiful summary of why we’re fighting and celebrating.

What Anti-Wrecking Ball: Soulard Stable Hootenanny
Where Stahl Stable, 2412 Menard Street, 63104
When 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, May 22
Cost $10 benefits the Friends of the San Luis and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation
Bands Union Electric, Leadville & Pretty Little Empire
Beer 2 Schlafly kegs

Soulard Stable Hootenanny, see ya there!

The Sinclair Dinosaur is Extinct in St. Louis

South Broadway & California
South St. Louis, MO

One of the most delightful sights in South St. Louis is the pristine green Sinclair dinosaur on South Broadway near Interstate 55. Or it was…

…until May 5, 2010. I drove by on that evening and its absence was glaringly obvious. Where did he go?

His disappearance was bothering me more than I felt comfortable with, so I drove to the station two nights later to get some answers.

A hastily erected canvas Conoco over the Sinclair sign revealed all. But I went inside, bought anything to stand in line and ask the guys behind the counter, “What happened to the dinosaur?”

They said some men came on the very day I noticed it gone, picked it up and carted it off on a flatbed truck, and that they were collecting all the dinosaurs because Conoco had bought out all St. Louis Sinclair stations.  Did they ask where the dinosaur was headed to? Their responses were “Probably someone’s back yard”  and “I heard one guy say something about an amusement park.”

A half hour of web research did not reveal any news about Conoco buying out Sinclair, but since the dinosaurs have been going extinct for quite some time, at least one site has been cataloging what remains and helping out those who want to buy or sell the green dinosaurs with the sardonic smile.

The Sinclair station (above) at Big Bend near Hwy 44 closed in the summer of 2007.  Its dinosaur disappeared a few days before the “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign hit the door. The building has since been re-purposed as a scooter and ATV retail outlet.

The reason for this Sinclair’s demise seemed obvious; QT is the Walmart of gas stations. But Sinclair has been dwindling in the Metro St. Louis area for the past 10 years, and I’ve been snapping the empty buildings across the region for several years. Because of the gas tanks underground, the sites tend to sit unused in perpetuity. Only mega-corporations like CVS have the cash to sniff around their vacant sites.

So, the few remaining Sinclairs in operation have a deep, nostalgic resonance in my soul, and when one so close to home still had a dinosaur, it was a point of privilege and pride.

Saint Louis Patina may have the last official photograph of our South Side dino. And I will call the Conoco media relations during normal business hours to see if they have an official process for retrieving and re-using the dinosaurs.  I can already feel their eyes rolling as I ask the question. I’m also picturing a Citizen Kane-like warehouse filled with hundreds of dinosaurs, their necks intertwined, a fine coat of dust dulling their luster…

In the scheme of things, the extinction of the Sinclair dinosaur in St. Louis is a pimple on the ass of the universe. But it’s the little things that tend to bring the most satisfaction, and I already miss that little jolt of happiness received every time I passed by Dino. Farewell my prehistoric fossil fuel friend!

Updating the Public Face

Gravois Avenue & Hamburg
South St. Louis, MO

Just southwest of the River Des Peres is Chippewa Glass & Mirror. Not sure how long they’ve been around (though at least since the early 1980s when I used to file their invoices while temping at PPG, a glass wholesaler), but wouldn’t it seem they once used to be located on Chippewa, hence the name?

In Fall 2009, they began the remodeling work shown above. They added an ADA ramp and clad it in a handsome natural stone, which ran around to the front of the building and stopped abruptly, in mid-stream.

Actually, all work stopped for the longest time, leaving the building looking forlorn and undressed.  This building dates from 1908, an era of great modesty, so was probably embarrassed to be seen in its skivvies!

Come the change from winter to spring, they completed the remodel in rather quick fashion. All that remains to be done is a new sign. I love the clean, modern look of the place, all industrial and stone, which is a nice combo.  It is a radical new public face for a previously unassuming building, but rather than be a groaner of a remuddle, it’s well thought out, gutsy and spunky.

I also adore that they have reused and updated a long-standing building, giving it a whole new look for a new century rather than take the easy way out by either moving or demolishing to build new. This is a fine example of acting on “the greenest building is one already standing. A hearty round of B.E.L.T. applause to these business owners for improving their portion of the city streetscape!

Hidden Mid-Century Modern

Bingham Avenue & Newport
South St. Louis, MO

Right next door to the South Side City Block For Sale, and practically in the shadow of the former candy company (background left in the picture above) is the home of Lyon Sheet Metal Works.

The company dates back to 1922, while their “new” building went up in 1950. The building itself is a basic brick factory, but the the glass block windows with stainless steel sills and that entrance are top of the line style for a company buried back in a part of town where few tread …today. But back in the day, with the candy/paper factory open and Western Bowl down the street, it was probably a rather hoppin’ intersection, but still off the beaten path.

Looking through the peeling grey paint, the metal panels that make up the mod, “L”-shaped facade appear to have originally been beige. In this case, I like the light grey better, as it poetically evokes what the company does, along with the stainless steel letters.

This is a strange and personal aside about Lyons:
I always get a pleasant little flutter in my tummy when I walk by this building, and always hear this line from the Pixies’ song “Subbacultcha”:  “She shakes and she moves me or something/she’s like jelly roll/ like sculpture!”

Head half a block down Newport to Meramec and you’ll find this little mid-century modern gem tucked into the line of dingy brick homes.  Built in 1956, it’s 1,362 square feet, slab on grade.  It’s taken a large amount of abuse, but I still see its glamor dying to shine again.

There is no other house even remotely like this within a mile radius. All the homes around it are 1910-1940s tiny brick bungalows. Circumstantial evidence would point to this being a mid-century in-fill. And because it’s such an oddity in this area, it boils my imagination….

…the original brick home burnt down, and the owners – who vacationed in Los Angeles every year and loved modern art – decided to turn that insurance money into their own slice of Southern California. They hooked up with a 3rd year architecture student at Wash U. for the drawings, but the construction foreman was not impressed: “No basement? In St. Louis? You’re nuts!”

Yeah, like I said, the imagination tends to runaway…

South Side City Block For Sale

Gravois Avenue & Meramec Street
South St. Louis, MO

This is a rather rundown intersection in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, but if you look through the grime, there’s some interesting visual history of when St. Louis (like other Rust Belt cities) actually produced goods, and those industries dictated the transportation, housing and society of the neighborhoods they resided in.

While stuck at this stop light contemplating these fanciful thoughts, I noticed the two buildings above had Hiliker For Sale signs.  The building on the left is a 2-family flat from 1915, and next door is a 4-family from 1915.

And the one-story industrial building next to it, from 1918, is also for sale by the same company.

Even around the corner, on Meramec, the 4-family from 1915 is also for sale.

Which means the entire block bound by pink in the above aerial map (courtesy of bing.com) is for sale by the same agent, though info about these buildings are not on the Hiliker site.   Included in this full city block is the jewel of the lot…

…the 9-story-total factory from 1928 which was formerly the Graham Paper Company. It sits majestically at the top of the viaduct, and in the late 20th century it served as a storage warehouse.  I remember idle talk in the early 20s of it becoming loft apartments, but obviously that never happened.

All of these properties currently for sale are listed in city records as being owned by 4230 Gravois LLC, c/o Imagine Schools, which begs the question: did this organization buy all these properties with the intent of creating a campus, then changed their mind?

The Graham Paper Company building is a gorgeous example of dignified industry, which was par for the course for the 19th-into-20th century, and I admire how they tucked this large complex into a block already populated with multi-family housing.

What will become of this block? Must the buildings be purchased as a whole, or will “the whole” turn off any but the deepest pockets? It’s easy (but not desirable) for potential developers to dismiss the residential and remuddled one-story warehouse as demolition fodder, but the Graham complex cannot be denied.  It’s a strange and intriguing plot of land, and the possibilities for a new use are plentiful…and worrisome.

If anyone has information on what’s happening with this block (including – and most especially – history of Graham Paper Company), please do share.