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 2 comments
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.
Posted on August 4th, 2007 25 comments
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.
Posted on April 17th, 2006 31 comments
206 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.
The 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.
The “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.
Abruptly, 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.
This 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.
Above 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.
Speaking 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.
Needing 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.
Second-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.
Posted on September 16th, 2005 6 comments
July 31, 2005
The last visit was July 26th.
And with the former Famous Barr building utterly gone and buried in a massive pit (above, right), the demolition crew got busy on the north arm of Northland.
(Above, left) In the foreground, we’re looking down into what remains of the Famous-Barr upper basement as we stand on the upper parking lot. And what are the tree roots growing into? I never comprehended the complexity of Northland’s multi-levels until it was dismantled, and I’m still impressed with the designers’ ingenuity.
(Above, right) The former Baker’s Shoes gets a good medicine ball whack before the crew went home for the weekend.
Demolition debris can’t help but be poetic in its descent. In person, the flow of the plaster and brick (above) was balletic.
It’s hard for me to watch them take this building down, but tearing it down also reveals the older layers I remember, and hidden layers that the public was never meant to see. The southern next door neighbor of the former Kresge’s was obviously an International Shoe at the time the place was built. This wooden construction plaque (above, right) had been buried behind the original drywall.
The former Kresge itself (above, right) revealed a few hidden treasures, and unwillingly gave up a few more pieces for me to cart off. Kresge’s is such a special and mythical place for me (and some others, too), that I will post a separate farewell entry to Northland’s Kresge’s in the near future.
As we head down to the lower level, a sign (above, left) still recalls what shops were there right around the time Famous Barr vacated in the very early 1990s.
And Northland was obviously shoe shopping mecca with Kinney (above, right) being one of two stores that permanently marked their footware territory in concrete. The clothing store Worth’s had done the same, and it’s always a thrill to find store logos embedded in entry ways. From small towns to large cities, it was assumed that a shop would always be in that location, so it was no problem to pay a little extra for some sidewalk branding art.
To aid in asbestos removal, the demolition crew blasted a hole into the west wall of the top floor of Kresge (above), and by doing so, they revealed the deep aqua blue tile of the original facade. Actually, all shades of light to medium blues, in concert with all that stainless steel, was the dominate color scheme of Northland. Hmm, wonder where my inbred love of a light blue and silver color combo comes from…?
Here was a sobering moment.
A rubble mountain had sprung up in the middle of the lower level parking lot (above). At peak, it’s easily 25 feet tall, possibly taller, since I’m lousy at judging height. It’s a rather long ascent, and once at the top it does provide fantastic photographic views. Then it hit me:
These are remains I’m standing on.
All the busted up concrete and plaster they pulled out of the Famous Barr pit made this temporary landmass. And suddenly I was creeped out and ashamed to be standing atop it.
Got a good perspective on how the upper and lower levels of Northland come together on the southernmost end (above, left) by standing in the outdoor utility stairwell of the Northland Office Building. The patchwork of blue glass that makes up the exterior walls of its stairwells (above, right) are pretty banged up, with some panes missing, but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful to my eyes.
August 13, 2005
I was going to Northland at least once a week to survey, spelunk and photograph, but it started to weigh heavily upon me. So I let some time slip by, to give myself a break from the emotional burden. But I needed to get back with camera and tools to try and salvage as much of the Kresge as was possible for one girl to cart off. I desperately wanted to find something that said Kresge on it, just to have proof that it really existed.
The moment I got off work on this particular Saturday, the sky erupted into a mad, blazing storm that eventually caused massive wind damage and flash flooding throughout most of the St. Louis area. But I drove on, hoping a storm this wicked would quickly blow over.
And I wondered if the grocery store would still be there. Pictures I’d taken of it on my last visit are above.
It’s still an incessant downpour when I barge through a “Do Not Enter” gate, only to find this empty void among the debris (above). The grocery store was history, vanished into mud. I had so wanted to rescue one of those obscenely bright glazed tiles, but those had probably been ground into dust about 4 days ago. Now it was part of the oozing paste in the hole that was once a grocery store.
And quickly looking to my right, I see that exactly half of Kresge was sliced off (above, left)!
Now, it’s pouring down rain. I have no rain gear and a digital camera that’s allergic to water. I’m stuck in the car until it stops raining. So, I drive around Jennings and Ferguson for about 30 minutes, wondering who’ll stop the rain?
It never stopped.
In the upper level Aldi’s parking lot, I forlornly stared off into the dreary distance at what was left of Kresge’s (above, right). I couldn’t get to the building and its remains, and even when it stopped raining, it would be a toxic muddy mess. I also contemplated the irony of how Northland was now offically 50 years old, making it eligible for Historic Registry…yeah, whatever.
Water dripped down my windshield and my face; I knew it was over for me and Kresge. This was not how I wanted to say goodbye, but that’s how it ended.
This is all becoming too much of a heartache.
August 21, 2005
I return a week later and immediately notice that the large and elaborate Northland sign that officially greeted everyone at the the Lucas & Hunt/West Florissant intersection had been – literally – smashed into the dirt (above). They hadn’t even bothered to cart away the plastic letters, so what remains of the “R” seen in the foreground is now in the trunk of my car.
The crew made a broad sweep across the upper parking lot, knocking down rows of light poles (above, left). It looked a bit like a razor had run across a beard, and left a fine layer of broken glass everywhere, like powdered sugar on a lemon bar.
The tower that accents the south arm of Northland (above, right) is still standing tall, but they have prepared the store fronts for the final blow by removing all glass and interior contents.
The detritus of demolition has featured many a poignant and/or odd sight (above, left).
And the “opening up” of the former Walgreens (above, right) once again reveals how airy that space had once appeared from the sidewalk. With a footband of blue green tile, topped by panels of smooth stone and bookended by flagstone columns, it was certainly the most sophisticated Walgreens store, materials-wise.
With heavy heart, I made the trek across the wreckage of the parking lot to where Kresge once stood. On the upper level, it’s northernmost wall still stood (above), reminding me of some ancient ruin as it stood among its fallen parts. I stood for a long while in these remains, but didn’t have the heart to poke around for treasure. I was a bit too numb.
So I walked around and down to the lower level. The space that was the Ambassador nightclub was formely a bowling alley, and since they were currently crushing it, long-buried bowling pins (above, left) were scattered among the asbestos-crusted construction shards.
The lower level West arm in the middle of being beaten to the ground (above).
So far, this sections demise has been the most colorful, because these store fronts had retained more of it’s original store fronts, including the coral pink Vitrolite (above).
Here comes another sobering moment.
(Above, left) This area tucked under a “lattice work” stainless steel canopy once housed a popular music store, a cobbler and Worth’s clothing store. To the right of this picture (taken about a month previous) is the lower level Kresge display windows.
(Above, right) Standing in roughly the same position, the tree is still standing and…that’s about it. And here’s exactly where it became too much for me to bear…
As I stood ankle deep in the rubble (above) of what was my beloved Kresge, I literally lost it. I doubled over with stomache pain and cried and wailed with grief. And it surprised me.
I’ve been surverying and photographing Northland since March 2002. Away from the site, the sentimental angle takes over, but while “working the site,” my historical, architectural and photographic eye is in play. I seldom get too too emotional about it because I have documentation work to attend to. But at this very moment, my heart broke into a hundred pieces and tears literally dropped into the dust as I bent over trying to catch my breath. The eternal “goneness” of it all hit me too hard, and at the wrong time. I just lost the strength or the urge to continue on. I just wanted it to be over, because I was tired of smelling, seeing and shooting the corpse. I was numb from attending The Longest Wake.
Maybe ten minutes later, the emotional drama and physical drain subsided and I trudged on. I’d come too far in this self-appointed project to stop now.
And we find Lunch Among the Ruins (above, left), and the Rubble Mountain becoming just as wide as it is tall (above, right).
The lower level of the South arm is also prepped for crushing (above, left & right).
And I marvel yet again at the massing of space and place that is just one of the West Florissant entrances to Northland (below). It literally looks and feels like a section of any downtown city.
September 4, 2005
Oddly enough, the bank (above, left) is still open for business. Obviously, money talks. But how creepy is it for the folks working there?
When we invade the orange plastic fence boundary (above, right)…
…to check out the deconstruction details. There is now an unobstructed view from the upper level to the Northland Office Building on the lower level (above, left). And has been their consistent policy, the demolition company places their sign (above, right) on the section that will be crushed next. This tower is the last remaining sign post of the main shopping center. It’s obliteration will be another sore point for me. Not looking forward to it, while also wishing they’d just hurry up and put the horse down…
Where Famous Barr was (above) is now filled in with all its own remains. This area was 3 stories deep. It’s now maybe a half-story deep. And looking across north, it’s just flat ground. It’s depressing. But at least it’s over.
Southernmost lower level “sketch”, above.
The demolition crew was using Office Building as it’s cool zone during the intense heat wave of early August. But now they’ve begun stripping and throwing out the interior of the building, leaving a ring of trash along all sides of its perimeter (above, left). And they’ve begun peeling off the the metal sun screens that gives the building its distinctively modern look (above, right). Paint lines show these panels were once blue green, but I don’t remember that at all. Though the thought of this color in horizontal bands against the white building sounds appealing. Many people mistakenly assume that modern architecture means stark white, and from Le Corbu to Northland, that simply wasn’t the case. Color and texture played a large part in shaping the spaces.
(Above, left) Hauling in the dumpsters also means the medicine ball is coming. I’m positive this is my last moment with Office Building (and a solo entry on it will also be forthcoming). I’m in no hurry to get back to the site because it’s just too large of a brain and heart drain. Almost 3 weeks weeks will pass before I can get back, and this demolition crew is fast and effcient. Everything will be gone by the time I get back. I dread the moment, but I will return.rf