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.