Posted on April 18th, 2009 7 comments
Towards the effort to save the San Luis, a documentary was made in 48 hours over the first weekend in March 2009. I was honored to be asked to be a part of this adventure, and a big round of applause to everyone involved. You’re all brilliant.
There are plans for a proper screening in May during Preservation Week (details forthcoming), but you can watch it now. It’s less than 8 minutes long, so watch it a couple of times, and pass it around. It’s an easy way to raise the profile of a building longing to be spiffed up and returned to its glamorous life.
Posted on April 10th, 2009 9 comments
St. Louis was extensively covered in the November 1965 issue of National Geographic. The Arch was almost complete, the new Busch Stadium was under construction, and wiping out old ugliness for new (federally funded) progress had many optimistic for the resurgence of the city that was just around the corner.
Much thanks to Jonathan Swegle and Jeff Vines for putting this issue in my hands.
Click on each individual spread and it will pop into a new window so you can read it. Within the following pages, many projects are mentioned. Please help me keep track of the following:
Which buildings are now gone?
Which projects panned out as expected?
Which ones didn’t?
Is there anything to be learned from this snapshot of the past?
Posted on April 6th, 2009 10 comments
Cherokee Street, between Gravois and Jefferson Avenues
South St. Louis, MO
The Cherokee Street Open House felt a bit like a debutante ball, but rather than debuting young ladies into society it was more like grand dames getting their groove back after a messy divorce. So actually, it was more like a Cougar Coronation… Anyhoo, the old broad is back, much like “Hello Dolly, ” wherein they bridge the gap, fellas and find her an empty lap, fellas ‘cos Cherokee Street will never go away again.
The Cherokee business district was a major retail hub that sprung up around the electric street car lines. Come the cancellation of the street cars in the late 1950s, Cherokee worked on accommodating buses and cars, but as population fled the city, this district was left high and dry. Here’s a good history of the rise and leveling off of the district.
Come the 1980s-90s, things got a bit bleak and seedy. The vast majority of old guard retail died off, retired or moved to the county. New business moved in to old spaces, but not at the same pace as vacancies, so the district took on the look of a period piece movie set after filming had ended. But this faded grandeur offered up its own charms.
The retail architecture chatted about its past as you walked by, and even if you weren’t listening closely, you still got the gist of what it used to be.
During the near-desolate 1990s, I spent a lot of time at Hammond’s Books, Record Exchange, Salvation Army, and both the Globe Drug and Globe Variety stores. In 2009, gloriously, only Record Exchange and Globe Variety are gone (the former relocated, the latter retired), while the others remain, to be joined by heaping handfuls of new and unique businesses.
(A magical history tour of Globe Drug will be coming up shortly.)
It’s pure delight to have new proprietors walk over the terrazzo thresholds of past shopkeepers and prop their wares into the same display windows. It’s both an appreciation and continuation of a grand tradition.
Talking in sweeping generalizations, key South City business hubs were vacated by whites and left floundering until two groups unaffected by the weight of its history came along: immigrants and young people.
Think Bosnians bringing Bevo Mill back to life, or Asians injecting flavor into the South Grand business district. In both cases, it’s a group of foreign people settling into an old American city, noticing the near-empty spots of high density business and residential similar to their homeland, noticing how cheap the real estate is and noticing that it’s theirs for the taking.
With optimistic foreign energy percolating, the young and adventurous come along to bask in the freedom from mall culture, and a new “frontier town” blossoms. And so it went with Cherokee Street and the large Mexican population blooming in St. Louis City. They took advantage of the ready-made space, and now the young and adventurous native entrepeneurs are filling in the gaps with shops and unique concepts that perfectly compliment the veterans in the area. Here’s a brief smorgasboard of the variety of the area.
So, on one deliciously sunny spring day, Cherokee Street proprietors opened up their doors for a massive meet-and-greet party, a genius way to distill and bottle the new essence of the district, letting visitors drink until drunk on the goodwill of possibility.
Pianos tinkled and aquatic fairies twinkled, and all was right in South St. Louis. Cherokee Street has set the bar high for civic pride, education (the historic plaques on the buildings are frickin’ brilliant) and uplift by osmosis. Their brand of Open House is a model I hope other burroughs of the city will adopt to embrace and elevate what makes St. Louis City so vibrant.
As the sun set on the day, a loop paraphrasing Dr. Suess kept on in my brain: “and to think that I saw it on Cherokee Street.” Click here to see more photos ot the Cherokee Open House.
Posted on January 24th, 2009 1 comment
A “Special Progress Section” was included in the May 7, 1961 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. These 3 examples shown boasted about the progress on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End, like the Optimist building.
And then there was the new chancery office for the Catholic Archdiocese, which was under construction at the time of publication. By clicking on the above photo to read the caption, one finds this quote:
The Catholic Church has been a bulwark in the fight against decay, providing assistance for the Central West End Association and other neighborhood groups.
Ironically, the same Catholic Church that championed progress on this block of Lindell now wants to tear down one of those progressive buildings they helped usher in.
Learn more about the push to save the San Luis here.
It was a sweet justification to find this “Special Progress Section,” because it supports what I’ve been trying to say about the Central West End and Lindell Boulevard, in particular: all chapters of its story are important and vital. And it is highly irresponsible and short- sighted to begin destroying buildings that were considered the desirable solution to older buildings they felt needed to be destroyed. The cycle has got to stop! We can no longer (literally) afford to squander our history and resources. There must be real understanding of past and present, and a practical plan and vision for the future based on the realities and aspirations of the entire community.
You can see how these 3 buildings look today by clicking here.
Posted on October 15th, 2008 4 comments
Inside the late Ambassador Theater
7th & Locust, Downtown St. Louis, MO
Upon learning the news of a plans for a parking garage to go up on the plaza that brought down a building, I’ve been reminiscing hard about the Ambassador.
The theater itself closed long before I could see shows that created life-long conversation about concerts within. To this day, I still hear folks older than me tell tales of shows they saw there, and those memories keep the building alive.
In the final days of the 17-story Ambassador building, there was only one business left inside. It was a scroungy, hole-in-wall Chinese restaurant that I ate at about once a week, because I worked at the Famous-Barr building nearby. Rather than the food court on the 4th floor of the leaky-roofed St. Louis Centre, I preferred eating there because it had weathered soul, and allowed me to “use” and be inside the Ambassador building. I clearly remember the day in summer of 1989 when the owners told me the restaurant would be shutting down; they’d been evicted because the building had been bought and was coming down. That shock was followed by a slow and painful lingering death over the next 7 years.
In the late spring of 1990, they opened up the ground floor of the building for a public auction of the theater’s contents. During the time one could tour what they might want to bid on, I spent lunch hours photographing as much of it as I could. The two black & white photos above are from one session, and click here to see the color shots I shared with Rob Powers.
Those hours spent inside the remains of the Ambassador still pop into my memory with alarming frequency. I remember the sights: as I photographed the ticket booth (above), a man asked, “Are you buying that?” I remember the smells: a stack of musty sheet music found backstage and the lingering scent of stale perfume in the ladies’ rest room. But it’s the overwhelming feeling of sadness that sticks the hardest. I still feel it every time I walk by that unused bank plaza.
That I’m not the only one who feels renewed outrage at the latest developments on that property highlights how important our landmark buildings are. They can tear down the building itself, but just can’t kill its meaning or the resonance of its demise. The Ambassador is downtown’s phantom limb.
The Ambassador remains a cautionary tale about dunderheaded downtown planning politics, and how “they” haven’t learned anything in the 13+ years since its demise. For instance:
* If the building could have been mothballed for just a few more years, it would now be a precious gem in the crown of downtown’s rehab renaissance.
* Now, let’s put up a parking garage on the land, and revisit the bad juju of another parking garage just 2 blocks away from the burial grounds of the Century Building (another phantom limb).
It’s not just the misguided and clueless idea of another new parking garage surrounded by a minimum of 5 other parking garages within less than a 4-block radius that burns. It’s that we have City Fathers’ missing the importance of the tax dollar influx from our rehabbed historic forest for the precarious limbs of a banking tree. This corporation already once wasted an opportunity for the entire downtown region with a flimsy excuse, and are potentially being allowed to add insult to the lingering injury. That they are seriously discussing giving them $700K in tax incentives for this folly creates a chilly parallel to the $700 billion U.S. bailout of national banks being rescued for bad behavior.
I sincerely wish our city could learn from past mistakes and work toward elevating our resources and potential rather than financing another dog and pony show.