Like a Phantom Limb: The Ambassador Theater

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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.

5 thoughts on “Like a Phantom Limb: The Ambassador Theater

  1. I had the great pleasure of working at the Ambassador, first in the capacity as a usher and later a box office treasurer back in the 1960’s. I worked part time during my high school years and early college during the era when the theater was a first-run “roadshow” house. These were reserved seat film presentations of such classics as “Doctor Zhivago” and and “My Fair Lady”. The theater was equipped with the very latest in 70mm projection and eight-track magnetic stereo sound and the grand curtain parted to reveal an enormous screen with an image of perfect clarity. It was a magical environment and it never felt like “work” to be surrounded by such beauty. The craftsmanship that went into buildings of this caliber was astounding and could never fully be realized today. The sculptor who designed much of the interior ornament was Victor Belindas, a Italian immigrant who was taught the classical discipline and who’s work can still be seen over the proscenium arch of the Peabody Opera House and the St. Louis Central Library. I went to the sale of pieces of the interior back in the 90’s and it was like attending the funeral of a best friend. I purchased a beautiful gilded rams head that once graced the area above the mezzanine/loge doorway. I had it shipped to my home in California where it is on display and a reminder of how fleeting beauty is in this crass Capitalist society that values very little but money. It boggles the mind how short sided the powers that be in St. Louis are. One only needs to observe the empty streets of a once vibrant downtown to realize the terrible mistakes that have been made. Tearing down the Ambassador Building was like ripping the very heart of the city out.

  2. I, have photos of the autograph wall that was in the lobby these photos are perfect,you can read every signiture on the wall,if interested I can be contacted at-314-849-3117 leave message and a return number,nobody misses this place more than me! I attended many concerts there in the 70s what a fabulous theater!

  3. i’ve gotten to the point that i’m numb to the preservation battles in st. louis. with so many examples now of how to build a stable city, i just can’t conceive of how our ‘development officials’ allow this crap to continue. my latest cause celebre is ‘city garden’. what a frakking disaster in the making, and it gets more outrageous with each visit of a concrete truck.

    thanks for the memories, tho. i worked with a group that tried to save the ambassador in the 80’s, and even then, its fate was sealed. the chicago slum lords were only interested in its cash value.

  4. Toby,

    I didn’t live here when this building was razed, but a friend of mine tells me that you could see the intricasies of the interior as it came down. He typically couldn’t care less about architecture or resucing historic property, but tells me that in this instance he was horrified at the sight of such a beautiful structure crashing to the street. So I can just imagine how the architecture junkies felt!

    Also, do you have any updates on the crazy house in Sunset Hills? I would like to see how the buyer is coming along with the restoration.

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