3 Minute Record

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Architecturally Sound - Preservation helps St. Louis music scene

The latest architecture battles being waged in St. Louis are over the fate of a former gas station (cum Del Taco restaurant) built in 1967 with a distinctive saucer-shaped roof and a circular AAA office building. While not the most important landmarks in the city, the fact that St. Louisians are getting tired of losing old buildings with character to developers ready to put up a suburban strip mall is telling. Losing buildings and landmarks is nothing new in St. Louis. Big swaths of the city have been razed over time for large-scale building projects. From the demolition of 40 square blocks in the early 1940s for the Arch grounds including the Old Rock House (not to be confused with the current concert venue of the same name), to the 1950s when a large chunk of North St. Louis became the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project only to suffer an even more terrible fate. Entire stretches of the city were bulldozed to build the Interstate highway system through the city for I-70, I-55, I-44 and Highway 40 in turn dividing neighborhoods from each other.

The 1960s brought the demolition of Chinatown neighborhood (or "Hop Alley"), an area of 30 acres bounded by Seventh on the east, Tenth on the west, Chestnut to the north and Walnut to the south to make way for Busch Memorial Stadium. Finally, the last 10 years developers replaced several blocks of older homes in the McRee Town area with vinyl clad facsimiles that will be lucky if they last as long as their predecessors. Yes, the urban space is constantly changing and re-shifting, but more often than not its replaced by cheaper buildings with less character.

Buildings along the riverfront which will be torn down to make way for memorial parkway, St. Louis, Missouri. Collection of Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection, Photography by

John Vachon

, May 1940

Currently, crews are in the process of dismantling another local icon that gave countless St. Louisans memories. The sight of the SS Admiral, a staple for decades along the brick lined riverfront, being cut up and sold scrap is sad. Recently, Midtown lost another piece of history as a nondescript warehouse building at Vandeventer and Forest Park Ave recently succumbed to an entity without a clear vision of both the past and future.

However, even though St. Louis has retained many historical buildings over the years, I'm surprised that after this year's April storm damage to the main terminal at Lambert International Airport that someone didn't start bringing up the idea of tearing down the iconic terminal in favor of something more stale and square.

After years of allowing historic buildings to be demolished for parking lots or mostly unused urban plaza spaces, (i.e. Ambassador Theatre 1925-1997) St. Louis has finally started to fight back against developers trying to destroy the character of the urban space.

The Ambassador Theatre, erected in 1925 by the Skouras Brothers and designed by Rapp and Rapp who had designed the St. Louis Theatre (now Powell Symphony Hall) debuting the year before, opened its doors in 1926. Seating 3,000 people, the lavish theatre rivaled the Fox Theatre (opened in 1929) as one of the grand movie palaces of the 1920s and welcomed 2.6 million visitors the first year. Movies and live performances showed for 40 plus years, but by the early 1970s the Ambassador was in decline and the movies stopped in early 1974. Concert promoters started hosting rock 'n roll concerts by some of the most famous bands of the era. In fact, a concert by St. Louis based Pavlov's Dog opening for progressive rock band Nektar was broadcast on KSHE-95 on May 7, 1974. Even though the theatre was designated an official city landmark in 1978 that didn't keep the owners from stripping the important elements from the lower six floors in the late 1980s or the eventual demolition in 1997.

Ambassador Theatre, 701 Locust St., St. Louis, Mo. 63101
Ambassador Theatre, 701 Locust St., St. Louis, Mo. 63101

Ambassador Theatre (demolished), Corner of 7th and Locust, St. Louis, Missouri - Courtesy cinematreasures.org

A decade later, St. Louis lost another iconic entertainment venue, Mississippi Nights, as a new casino felt they needed more parking spaces, further destroying the character of Laclede's Landing and the warehouse district that once stood where the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the Arch) now stands.

Not that there haven't been success stories too. The benefactors of Fox Associates banded together to save the Fabulous Fox Theatre from the brink in the early 1980s. After being dormant for a few years, the group poured in over $2 million dollars to rehab the building.

During an earlier preservation movement, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra saved the St. Louis Theatre by transforming the building into Powell Symphony Hall, moving from its home at the Kiel Opera House in 1968. When the Ethical Society moved from the city to the county in the mid-1960s it left behind the Sheldon Memorial, but the building's perfect acoustics were saved numerous times over the years and finally recast as the Sheldon Concert Hall. More recently, the Old Post Office, a building dating to 1884 received new life even hosting music now and again while historic preservation tax credits during the 1990s saved the Washington Avenue district creating lofts, bars, restaurants and more.

Thankfully, in recent times there has been an upswing of preservation advocates and architecture bloggers in St. Louis thoughtfully discussing the relative merits of the urban landscape and offering suggestions to what new use buildings. See their work regarding the Del Taco and AAA building here and here.

While the tide is turning, however, these advocates are usually up against much stronger forces at work looking to demolish these structures for something new and shiny yet lacking soul. Even the preservation board, a group that should take things slow and keep the wrecking ball at bay, seem at times to be on the developers side.

A renaissance is currently underway downtown, but it took 20 years and an ownership change (and over $78 million including over $29 million in public bonds) to breathe life back into the Kiel Opera House, the venerable limestone building at the corner of 14th and Market. The newly renovated 77-year-old building, now dubbed the Peabody Opera House, will again open its doors to the public this October. The rehabilitation project, in the final stages of being updated for the 21st century, is nearly complete. With an updated loading dock and state-of-the-art back stage area, the Peabody Opera House will be one of the premier venues in St. Louis to draw touring acts, stage shows and live entertainment.

A July 2010 St. Louis Post-Dispatcharticle stated that the venue could "host 135 main theater events in its first year, up to 190 a decade later." The reopening of the opera house, however, drew the ire of some at Fox Associates causing the group's president Richard Baker to say:  

"It's a horrible waste of public money. At a time when the city is cutting back or charging for services, I don't see how they can justify spending money on a venue that isn't needed."

However, Baker looked childish as it seemed he felt his turf was being invaded by the new kid in town which he felt could afford nice toys because of a perceived silver spoon. The fact is that larger cities like Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York support a myriad of entertainment venues and the only way St. Louis can hope to have that sort of cultural vibrancy is to have different spaces for promoters to choose from when deciding where to book their shows. This diversity of venues can only help St. Louis bring in more entertainment allowing marketers to paint the area as a destination city rather than a pass through.

With renovation happening and new buildings going up (including one for St. Louis Public Radio station KWMU) and a plan in place, Grand Center will be fine. The Fox Theatre will continue to flourish even in this economic climate with the right management and entertainment mix.

While music venues come and go, St. Louis music fans have fond memories of seeing great shows at the Arena, the Hi-Pointe, the Rocket Bar, the Side Door, the Galaxy, and more. Each space had their own good points and bad points, but a common thread between each is that all were old buildings that had character and charm albeit crumbly bathrooms. Most, however, need other businesses nearby to keep patrons coming back.

When the Pageant opened in 2000 the live music scene was at a low point as stopping in St. Louis was lower on the pecking order for many touring acts. Impresario Joe Edwards and Pat Hagin put the city back on the map and over the years, the venue became a lynchpin for the revival of the University City Loop east of Skinker into the City of St. Louis. This gentrification meant that as other buildings were rehabbed, businesses opened and nightlife flourished and a neighborhood teemed with activity. No one can deny that the venue gets high marks from many people including websites like Pollstar and preservationists are happy because of the neighborhood revival.

Overall, I enjoy places like the Pageant and to large extent the Old Rock House, however, these new venues do not match the grandeur of the older spaces. A sterile room with concrete floors and little ornamentation gives the audience no feeling they're in a special place to see an interesting event. Yet, it's easy to criticize when the bankroll is someone else's and the costs run into the millions of dollars.

Even when Blueberry Hill took over the space formerly occupied by Cicero's and raised the ceiling, upgraded the facilities to put in the Duck Room, a dank club with bare rock walls and a low ceiling covered with stickers of touring bands was transformed. However, something special was lost including a slightly better sound experience as now the orientation of the stage on the side of the room bounces the sound off the back wall quicker than if the stage was located at one end.

Even Cicero's current location seemed promising when opened in the 1990s, but the sound proofing installed to keep the loud music from rattling the upstairs tenants as the they slept made the room dead - much like a recording space. Here there is no need for a band to crank the amplifiers up to eleven unless they're set on damaging the hearing of their fans.

All this brings us back to the Peabody Opera House. With the best of both worlds: an updated historic building with everything going for it including character, ambiance and a room built for sound, the management and promoters could be onto a potential gold mine. Entertainment dollars are hard to come by in the current economy, I hope that St. Louis gets behind this new venue while continuing to support the old ones. When Aretha Franklin and Jay Leno come to town to help rechristen the space on October 1 let's all head downtown to cheer them on. Now I'd better figure out where I'm going to park.