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  • Underpass Picnic

    Posted on June 7th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

    On a beautiful spring day, the St. Louis Riverfront was crowded with folks renting bicycles, taking helicopter rides, watching a high school bandplay under a tent overlooking the river, and climbing up and down the Arch steps.

    In Downtown St. Louis, a neighborhood loft tour was underway, the restaurants and hotels were hopping and tourists were walking around with cameras.

    These two areas are severely divided by the Interstate 70 overpass, which creates a dark, dirty, noisy and imposing barrier people have to navigate through to get from, say, the Convention Center to Laclede’s Landing.

    In this concrete, steel and pigeon poop void is where Kara and Steve Holland hosted a Picnic Under the Highway. That’s the video above. And you can see photos of the event here.

    Turns out it’s people who make a place vibrant and alive. Huh. Would be nice if this simple concept could become a part of city development and planning. Maybe start with how people would use a space and work out from there. There’s been some official recommendations passed onto the powers-that-be about this very thing.  Let’s hope all the pieces come together to create a win/win for everyone.

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  • A Fresh Coat of Paint

    Posted on April 5th, 2009 Toby Weiss 5 comments

    jefferson-washington-01

    Intersection of Washington Blvd. & Jefferson Avenue
    North St. Louis City, MO

    The buildings on both corners of the west side of this intersection have got a new coat of paint, and the effect is absolutely stunning.  It looks like colored eggs in an Easter basket.

    jefferson-washington-02

    When we get a new hairdo or whiten the teeth, it spiffs us up without changing the basic essence of who we are.  Same goes for buildings.  A little patching, a little paint and some prideful TLC goes a long way towards boosting civic self esteem.  Thank you to these building owners for their fabulous efforts.

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  • Dork Art and the Board of Education Building

    Posted on December 31st, 2008 Toby Weiss 4 comments

    While digging in the basement for something that’s still missing, I found the artifact shown above. It is a detail of the former Board of Education Building in downtown St. Louis from a photo I took in the mid-1990s. It is rendered in acrylics on a sheet of linoleum 30″ x 22″. It was to be a floor mat for the kitchen.

    Yes, a floor mat.
    Yes, it’s OK to laugh.
    I remember that it was because of everyone’s laughter that I abandoned the project in the first place. This is why it has remained hidden for well over 10 years. Enough time has passed that I now, too, find it hilariously dorky.

    But I am not embarrassed at how inspiring this building has always been for me. The shapes, the colors and the textures of this 1893 building by architect Issac Taylor make my heart sing. Learn a little more about it here.

    In the days when downtown St. Louis was on life support and my daily lunch walks felt like traipsing through a graveyard, this building always appeared optimistic, as if it knew better days were coming.

    The elaborate art deco store front on the Locust Street side was always a special thrill, especially when the Board of Education was still actually in residence. As seen above, kids’ art work in the gracefully curved display windows was disgustingly charming, and just added to the impulse to paint a portrait of the building…. so I could walk on it?

    In 2005, the Roberts Brothers erected a few signs promising a new life for the building, and my heart fluttered. But because it stood in the shadow of the scars of the Century Building (to the left in the photo above), cynicism and worry trampled on hope.

    But all is now well. The building – now called Roberts Lofts on the Plaza – is fully rehabbed and renovated and nearly full. The art deco store front is even safe and sound. The Roberts Brothers are truly knights in shining armor for rescuing so many worthy buildings and creating new ones, and my heartfelt thanks goes out to them for keeping the Board of Education building forever fabulous.

    I wonder if they’d be interested in a commemorative floor mat for the lobby…

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  • Like a Phantom Limb: The Ambassador Theater

    Posted on October 15th, 2008 Toby Weiss 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.

    (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.

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