South St. Louis, Then & Now

Bates Street & Morgan Ford
South St. Louis, MO

FILE PHOTO This venerable “gasoline service station” opened in 1931, back when 2 gas pumps in front of a tiny garage was all that was needed to handle vehicular volume in this section of Bevo Mill.  We are fortunate to have such historical remnants of the city’s past still standing and operating today.

OK, this is actually a lame Photoshop gag.
I took this photo just the other day. With the vintage pickup truck parked in front, the place was an endearing warp in the space/time continuum.  This brief, anachronistic moment is Reason #1,238 why I love the City of St. Louis.

Walking Tour of CWE MCM, May 17th

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From Landmarks Association:

Sunday, May 17, 2009:  Film and Walking Tour

This was the Future: Mid-Century Modern Architecture on Lindell Blvd.
10:00 a.m.

Begin inside the Chase Park Plaza Cinema, 212 N. Kingshighway

Have a mid-century modern morning in May! A screening of the new short documentary San Luis: This Was the Future tells the story of the threatened San Luis Apartments.  After the 10 minute film, Toby Weiss of beltstl.com and Michael Allen (ecology of absence) will lead a walking tour of the many mid-century treasurers along Lindell Boulevard, where modern design flourished between World War II and the 1970s.  The walk will run from the Chase Park Plaza Hotel to Vandeventer and back, so be prepared for serious walking.

See a free movie, take a free tour, get a little exercise, get a lot of knowledge… there are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning!  Please do join us Sunday if you can.  Michael is the brains of the outfit, I’ll be the “little song, little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.”  It promises to be a good time.

This Was The Future

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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.

St. Louis in National Geographic, November 1965

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 remain?
Which projects panned out as expected?
Which ones didn’t?
Is there anything to be learned from this snapshot of the past?

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RELATED
Busch Stadium Farewell
Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future
We Brick This City
Pius XII Library, St. Louis University

Remembering Famous-Barr
Missouri Botanical Garden

Cherokee Street Evolution

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Central West End "Progress"

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.

They also touted the new building for the Engineer’s Club, which is by the same architecture firm as the Optimist building, Schwarz & Van Hoefen.

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.

Like a Phantom Limb: The Ambassador Theater

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.

(One of these lamps – above – wound up in the movie theater at the revamped Northwest Plaza.)

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.

Little Bevo

Morgan Ford St. near Delor, South St. Louis, MO
This Strassenfest weekend is the perfect time to discuss Little Bevo, of which I know very little.

This needs to be said right up front: I find this building horribly unattractive and it creeps me out. But I’m often unable to control a fascination with things I hate (like Styx), and this building is a perfect example. I instinctively loathe all manner of traditional German architecture and food. Being a product of a predominantly German bloodline indicates I have some self-loathing heritage issues, but this doesn’t bother me near as much as, say, Mel Gibson does.

With the unflattering disclaimer made, a detached observation of Little Bevo is now possible.

This 1924 building is directly across from the notorious Bevo Mill, and since it was built 8 years later, it is a Mill pastiche which tends to give the immediate area a theme park feel. From the look of it, seems a safe guess that it was once a tavern and/or restaurant, and if anyone knows the history of this building, please do speak up because Little Bevo is defiantly silent.

In the 17 years of living in the South Side, I’ve never seen it anything other than boarded up. City inspectors haven’t touched it since 2001. Every single building around it has been brought to life by the Bosnian community, so it’s a sure bet that many of them have looked into buying and renovating this place, since Little Bevo sits firmly in the middle of Little Bosnia.

While life swells around it, Little Bevo just sulks. Aside from the layers of poop from years of being an elaborate pigeon coop, everything is intact. With three apartments above the retail ground floor, it’s a multipurpose building in a prime location. You just know there is a businessman who gets irked every time he has to walk by this hulk of wasted potential.

So, the building is a constant mystery, calling all kinds of attention to itself because of its silence. Is this a premeditated business maneuver of the owners? Perhaps a stand-off in a grudge match? No one wants it because it’s haunted? The character of this building encourages such exaggerated speculation.

River Roads Bulletin

River Roads Shopping Center (remains)
Jennings, MO
If you’ve been patiently waiting for a chance to nab one of those aqua bow ties off the former Stix, Baer & Fuller store, better hurry.

It’s taken well over a year for them to get to it, but now less than a quarter of this section remains, and the bow ties, hexagons and triangles litter the pit of the demolition site.
Above is what I was able to take with me, and the gathering of just these 2 pieces was accompanied by a constant hissing of “shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!”
Why?

Because having come from a birthday dinner, I was in no way dressed for spelunking into a pit of construction debris. I had on the completely wrong shoes for climbing over fencing and hopping over large chunks of building guts. I was freaking out as I took photos and saw hundreds of pieces of that sophisticated, geometric marvel of wall scattered below. So the wrong shoes be damned, down I went.

One has to park rather far away from the demo site, and when carrying armfuls of heavy ceramic tile, the walk is noticeably long (especially in the middle of July, trust me). And there’s only me, and I’m hopelessly inappropriately dressed. So, I could only salvage the two pieces shown above.
But this is the kind of stuff I had to walk away from! Look, a section still intact enough to get the full picture of how they puzzle-pieced the facade together. It’s sublime! And take a look at that hexagon piece. Dozens of them are lying – intact – all over the ground, looking like MCM birdbaths. I was losing my mind at how much stuff survived the fall, and how little I could save. That piece shown above? Way too heavy for me to carry that far by myself in heels….shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!!!!

So, if you want some shopping souvenirs, please hurry, because as the demolition work week continues, more and more of it goes into a trash dumpster.

Rossino’s Italian Restaurant

rossino's italian restaurant st louis mo photo by toby weiss206 North Sarah Street, Central West End
St. Louis, MO
An underground Italian restaurant that was a loosely kept aboveground secret is closing at the end of April. In the middle of a mostly-residential block, in the basement of an apartment building, Rossino’s (under various names) has been in business since the mid-1940s. Originally known for their pizza, over time it became a place for city movers-and-shakers to lunch, lovers to hide away, hardcore regulars to roost and an exquisite jewel to discover.

entrance to rossino's italian restaurant st louis mo photo by toby weissThe freshly painted, off-hand “shack” facade is already at odds with the dense urbanity of the neighborhood. Going down the stairs from street level (above) sets the stage for the time warp about to be entered.

interior of rossino's, st louis mo photo by toby weissThe “lobby” (above) is crammed with antiques both retired and in-use. It’s also relatively well lit because of outside light seeping in. This is the last time you will see any form of blank space, or your feet.

celebrity autographs inside rossino's, st louis mo, photo by toby weissAbruptly, the ceilings lower, as does anyone over 6 feet. You’re bombarded by stuff nailed, propped and stuffed onto every surface, and one has only taken 2 steps away from the lobby. Then, BOOM, you can literally crash into the bar (featuring a signed photo of Tom Cruise’s first wife Mimi Rogers, as well as a less-crazy Tom with Mama Rossino, above). Bumping and stumbling is de rigueur because there are hardly any light bulbs; candlelight is it. You know that moment when you come from bright outdoors into a darker room and your eyes need a few moments to adjust? Underground at Rossino’s, your eyes stay in that suspended moment of disorientation. The wait staff is well-practiced in playing seeing eye-dog, leading the blind through narrow alleys, and politely ignoring the clumsiness and exclamations of those dealing with Alice In Wonderland alternate reality.

interior panorama of rossino's italian restaurant photos by toby weissThis was my maiden voyage to the institution that was retiring. I’d never known of the place, which is shocking considering all the Italian-descent, city-dwelling people in my life. What brought me here was my mother and my friend, Bob Dielman. Both of them are 70-years old, and Rossino’s was a regular hang out for them during the late 50s/early 60s. Back then, the main calling card was, yes, the pizza, but more importantly, they had a 3 o’clock liquor license. When the other places closed, Rossino’s was the place to go for more booze, or to sober up. When they heard of Rossino’s imminent retirement, they wanted to take one last nostalgic trip to relive fond memories and to say goodbye.

Both of them recognized the bar and the main dining room (above). They peered into their past as the hostess walked us right past it, and Mom and Bob slightly freaked. As of the mid-1960s, that bar and dining area was the extent of Rossino’s. Somewhere in the following decades, a wall was knocked down and the restaurant oozed into the rest of the basement. As you proceed, the ceilings get lower, it gets even darker, and the bric-a-brac piles higher.

atmosphere of rossino's italian restaurant april 2006 photo by toby weissAbove is a fair representation of the cozy, netherworld ambience, as interpreted by a non-flash digital camera pushed to maximum capabilities. It was an exercise for me to decipher the menu (which I folded up and stashed in my purse as a keepsake) by candlelight, and my eyes are pretty good. My 70-year old companions? They didn’t even bother reading it; they simply ordered from “ancient” memory: lasagna for Bob, spaghetti and meatballs for Mom.

Both were thrilled that it was just as good as they remembered it. I had the carbonara, and it was truly amazing (both the cream sauce and the bacon perfectly prepared and balanced). Later, when I paid the bill, I was stunned at how cheap our meals and drinks were. It was as if having a 5-star Italian meal in 1962! That’s the moment my heart broke: I had just fallen in love with this glowing ember, an eccentric, sentimental oddball oasis inside a tear in the space/time continuum… and this love affair could only last for 2 weeks. This is how I genuinely felt after 1.5 hours. What about those who’ve felt this way for decades? One would buckle under the weight of their sadness.

rossino's ladies room photo by toby weissSpeaking of buckles, what will become of the very old-school sanitary napkin dispenser (above) in the ladies room? What will become of 60-years worth of memorabilia, antiques and junk that hold up the concrete walls? If there was light, you could stare at just one corner and never see everything hiding there.

interior of rossino's pizzeria, st louis mo, photo by toby weissNeeding to know what was being missed, I finally let the camera flash strobe blindly into the vast darkness, and only later was I able to see what we couldn’t see right in front of our faces. In the shot above, that’s only a 5-foot sqaure piece of Rossino’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. Multiply that by 10,000 other items that never see the light of day, soaked in warm memories and appetizing aromas… that it will all be dislodged and uprooted is just… heartbreaking, really.

exterior of the late rossino's italian restaurant, central west end st louis, photo by toby weissSecond-generation owner/ manager Nancy Zimmerman has been at the restaurant since her early teens. She now wants to retire. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to make, for not only is her entire life in that basement, but also her family, past and present. The sadness of loyal patrons’ just adds to the hugeness of her decision, and the strength of conviction to do the proper thing. She’s given everyone fair warning and plenty of chances to say a fond farewell. She and her family have contributed something lovely and worthwhile to the history of St. Louis. Thank you.