East St. Louis, Illinois Granite City, Illinois Infrastructure Metro East Mississippi River

New Bridge Could Widen the Gap

by Michael R. Allen

In a St. Clair County Journal article discussing the possibility of tolls being imposed on the proposed Mississippi River Bridge, mayors and alderpersons of several different Illinois cities were quoted, and all favor the new bridge. The mayor of Granite City, Ed Hagnauer, thinks that the new bridge will bring Missourians into Illinois.

One city rarely mentioned in discussions of the new bridge, and without an elected leader quoted in the article, is East St. Louis. Perhaps this neglect is due to the fact that new bridge has no real physical connection with East St. Louis, and will instead divert I-70 from even passing through the old city. The new bridge’s backers tout the economic growth it will bring to Illinois, but overlook or dismiss the inequity such growth will bring. Cities farther east, liked Edwardsville and Collinsville will benefit greatly from a quick route connecting their new strip malls and office parks to the moneyed residents of St. Charles County. This economic flow will miss older cities close to the river, like East St. Louis and even Granite City — cities that face depopulation, widespread poverty and a lack of economic growth. The bridge will allow the haves to gorge on growth while ensuring that have-nots continue to remain economically malnourished. It will carry people over the old cities and their minority populations, just as the highways built in the late twentieth century did for larger cities.

Proponents of the bridge dodge the issue. The bridge will spread the sprawl eastward, and balance out the effect of the far-west suburban growth in St. Charles and Warren counties. But it will be creating a distribution pattern resembling a donut, fueling new growth on the edges of the east side’s developed area instead of helping redensify the inner core of east side cities.

East St. Louis is left out, again. Why not? Dealing with its problems is too difficult and requires careful, long-term action. Preventing exurban growth requires strong will on the part of politicians, who would have to tell their big-bucks backers “no.” Building a bridge gives everyone a relatively quick dose of what they want: faster profits on new east side development, a short-term decrease in commute time between far suburbs in Illinois and Missouri and a fancy new structure to experience from a car.

East St. Louis, Illinois Neon Salvage Signs Theaters

French Village Drive-In Marquee Recovered

by Michael R. Allen

The marquee in place on March 6, 2005.

The landmark enameled metal marquee at the French Village Drive-In was installed in 1945 and was manufactured by C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois. After appearing as an item on eBay in fall 2005, the marquee was recovered by Greg Rhomberg of Antiques Warehouse and salvage specialist Larry Giles. The marquee now resides at the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. The marquee was manufactured by the C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois.

Demolition East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

French Village Drive-In: Gone

East St. Louis, Illinois Mid-Century Modern

Seidel’s Apparel Company Building

by Michael R. Allen

This delightful Art Moderne storefront at 239 Collinsville Avenue in East St. Louis was installed in the late 1940’s for Seidel’s Apparel Company, which was in business at various locations in East St. Louis from 1905 until 2004. This was the final location for the store. (Read more about Seidel’s in Chapter 8 of the online edition of W. Edward English’s The Good Things of East St. Louis.)

The boldly modern facade consisted of large plate-glass display windows on the first floor crowned with a pattern-stamped sheet-metal facade covering the second floor. A neon sign with letters running horizontally was in place on the second floor. This sheet metal area was painted aqua blue except for an accent section with raised parapet above the doorway. A large neon sign on a projecting, steamlined sign board with vertical-running letters attached to this accent section, off-center on the left.

In 2005, the owners of Club Onyx bought the building and by the end of September had removed the Seidel’s letters and repainted all of the sheet metal on the facade black. At least they installed a neon sign of their own on the old sign board.

East St. Louis, Illinois Historic Preservation Theft

Murphy Building Secured

by Michael R. Allen

Someone has finally re-boarded the front entrance to the lovely and decaying Murphy Building in downtown East St. Louis. On March 6, we reported that thieves had removed the boards and stolen three terra cotta keystones.

Demolition East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

French Village Drive-In Under Demolition

Abandonment East St. Louis, Illinois

Elks Club / East St. Louis Public Library

by Michael R. Allen

In 2000, the East St. Louis Public Library left behind its cramped old building at 409 North Ninth Street for a spacious new building on the western end of State Street. Fifty years earlier, such a move could have been seen as a flight from the aging inner city and into the newer parts of town. Instead, the move was purely pragmatic — yet not without pathos of an unexpected sort.

The Public Library left at least 10,000 books behind, as well as magazines and record albums. Making matters worse, no one realized these items were left behind for almost four years.

During this time, the left-behind items endured the ongoing damage the old library building has sustained: broken windows, water infiltration and the carelessness of numerous squatters. A few thousand volumes are too moldy to save. Much of the neglected collection was already unusable when library director Cynthia Jones discovered their location. A patron’s request for a missing item led staff to the discovery that so many items were missing that they had to have been left behind when the library moved.

A citizen’s group organized by Reginald Petty recovered 3,000 volumes in summer 2004 before East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer pledged to put city government resources to work to save the remainder of the abandoned collection. Unfortunately, his pledge has not been fulfilled; the continuous upheaval in city government has stymied any efforts on his part to save the volumes. Thus the abandoned books in the abandoned library were found and then lost again.

Photo taken on May 8, 2005.

The old library building was the second home for the East Saint Louis Public Library, purchased by the city government from the East St. Louis Elks Club in 1927 for $150,000. The Elks Club built the building around the turn of the century for their meeting house.

East St. Louis, Illinois

East St. Louis, Illinois: “Hog Capital of the Nation”

by Thomas Petraitis

In the 1960’s, a large sign surrounded by a landscaped park welcomed visitors to East St. Louis and proudly proclaimed the city to be the “Hog Capital of the Nation”. Today, academics and historians are trying to justify the immense decay of this city by blaming the factories and packinghouses that closed over 40 years ago for the problems of the city today. They look at ruins like the Armour Packing Plant in National City and see only death and despair in places that were actually triumphs of the human spirit.

It is no great societal conspiracy when a building is left to decay: The owners and inhabitants just didn’t want to be there any more, so they left. But an abandoned building is defenseless. Anyone can make up stories about it, usually to create a myth justifying the abandonment. We pretend that any abandonment has some sinister, explainable cause because we want to believe that our own new happy buildings, filled as they are with our own dreams and emotions, will last forever. We don’t want our buildings to become obsolete because that may mean that we can become obsolete.

Nowhere is the idea of a building more important than in the buildings that comprised the stockyards and packinghouses of National City (and Chicago). When you look at these ruins, you are looking at ideas and innovation that live on in virtually every manufacturing facility around the globe. What happened there changed the face of America. The East St. Louis workers who struggled mightily to better themselves amidst the difficult and dangerous working conditions were not victims. They were proud participants in an extraordinary American drama.

East St. Louis, Illinois

The Spivey Building: Death of a Dream?

by Thomas Petraitas

Like most East St. Louis alumni, I was shocked when I heard that the Spivey Building in East St. Louis, Illinois might be demolished. Everyone just presumed that the Spivey Building always was and always would be. Even in its decrepit condition, it remains the city’s most visible landmark.

Recently, I visited downtown East St. Louis and was surprised by the dire condition of the Spivey and by the desolation of its location. From a distance, the building still stands proud and true. Up close, it is a bare shell, rotten and sad. Giving this building some serious thought, I now wonder if it is time to say a sad good-bye to this timeworn symbol of the past.

Spivey’s City of Dreams

In Allen Spivey’s time, East St. Louis was a city of dreams: a place of jobs and optimism. People came from around the world to settle in East St. Louis because of its bright future and opportunities. The residents truly believed the oft repeated motto: “If you can’t find a job in East St. Louis, then you can’t find a job anywhere.”

Mr. Spivey was a civic booster and owner of the East St. Louis Evening and Sunday Journal (later the Metro East Journal). He ran his newspaper from this building and from the adjacent Journal Building (built in 1936). His splendid skyscraper clearly reflects his own commitment to the future of his city, a future that never happened.

Abandonment East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

Ghosts of the Screen

by Michael R. Allen

Photographic collage by Eric Seelig.

LOCATION: 8601 St. Clair Ave.; Caseyville, Illinois
ORIGINAL NAME: East St. Louis Drive-In
ORIGINAL OPERATOR: Publix Great States Theatres
DATES OF DEMOLITION: August – December 2005

The decrepit and broken floorboards of the ticket office at the French Village Drive-In near East Saint Louis don’t look like a place of terror. For anyone who has spent time around broken-down buildings and abandoned places, the ticket office building doesn’t seem very remarkable save its streamlined, late Art Deco facade. Yet only a few years ago, in November 2000, police recovered the body of a missing East Saint Louis dentist, Kenneth Long, in this vacant space. His body was stashed in the ticket office — on the floor — where it lay until its staunch smell disturbed residents of nearby homes. The residents called the police, who came to find the gruesome source.

Perhaps it is somehow fitting that the French Village Drive-In was then and still is the property of a church congregation, the Church of the Living God of Fairview Heights. The forces of abandonment forge unlikely and unsettling relationships and transform functional spaces into locations of intense historical mutation. Add to the mix the possibility that Dr. Long himself had seen a film at the Drive-In and that many of his patients had also attended screenings at the Drive-In, and the story begins to raise many connections whose significance is uncertain yet troubling. Here is a place built to stimulate the collective imagination becoming the scene of almost-cinematic carnage: the dead body in the abandoned drive-in theater ticket office. What could be more disturbing or fantastic to anyone who had seen a movie, perhaps one involving dead bodies being discovered in foggy and forgotten places?

Still, the French Village Drive-In retains a more direct importance. From its opening in 1942 until its close fifty years later, the French Village Drive-In — originally named for East St. Louis — provided entertainment and escape to thousands of East Siders. People such as my mother fondly remember a night spent gazing at the huge screen in the middle of farm fields, removed enough from the bustle of East St. Louis to provide some sense of getaway to the filmgoers.

J.P. Dromey of Publix Great States Theatres, Inc. opened the East St. Louis Drive-In as perhaps the first drive-in movie theater in the St. Louis area. The original capacity was 500 cars. It attracted local competition by 1949, when the noted Jablonow and Komm chain opened the now-demolished Mounds Drive-In Theatre at 7400 Collinsville Road. By the late 1950’s, the ownership fell into local hands, that of the Bloomer Amusement Company (BAC) of Belleville. BAC renamed the drive-in the French Village Drive-In, perhaps in response to the growing out-migration from East St. Louis. The theater was successful until the 1980’s, when the multi-theater format and home video technology lured people away from viewing an only-choice film under the sky.

Throughout its life, the theater’s stylish design enhanced its presence. Being a relatively early drive-in in the St. Louis area, the theater was constructed when patron and proprietor alike still wanted each movie theater, even a drive-in, to look as lavish as the movies it screened. The French Village Drive-In fulfilled these demands with its stately and colorful Art Deco style. The head-house, site of the ticket office, consists of a two-story, narrow center portion with projecting canopy wings for cars to pass through. All of the corners are heavily rounded, giving the building a space-age look that must have seemed quite sophisticated in 1942. Directly behind the head-house — symmetrically aligned — is the trapezoidal screen structure, which presents gray corrugated aluminum walls that are punctuated by lively red rectangles on the main facade.

The screen structure is unique for a drive-in theater in that its builders built it to accommodate stage as well as screen entertainment. The screen is fronted by a long, somewhat shallow stage. The screen is actually one wall of a building that houses a few dressing rooms, prop storage areas and various lighting controls. During the early days of the drive-in’s life, the stage was used often for pre-film and stand-alone live performance.

The screen and stage now look out upon a field of small trees that cloak the comparatively banal projection house. This field in winter appears to be occupied by countless skeletal forms instead of hundreds of east side filmgoers. Of course, the trees are far from deathly as they continue to grow strong in soil that must still be polluted from the exhaust of the thousands of vehicles that people parked there. Traces of the past use are embedded in the very earth here. The blank screen still commands one’s gaze from the field; something kinetic seems imminent there.

In front of the Drive-In is the outstanding although likely not original marquee, a concoction of red and yellow aluminum, neon tubing and the traditional white letter-board space. C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois made this marquee. The marquee. The marquee frames the words “French Village” in a three-color palate (green, yellow, blue) with accompanying paintbrush. This sign is imaginative — the subtle palate motif rather than an obvious Eiffel Tower image — and shows that the East Side’s aspirations have always been as grand and as accomplished as those of St. Louis. This drive-in is finer than almost any other that has stood in the St. Louis area. Certainly, its architecture proclaims a confident optimism that has been betrayed, however momentarily, by current events.

In the meantime, the French Village Drive-In awaits some future greater than that of body repository. It is owned by a Fairview Heights church that may seek to build a new church on its ground, but it will likely stand for years to come. Perhaps it may even reopen, beating the forces of history that led to its unbecoming and horrific misuse.

From a nearby hillside, one can catch a view that includes the barren theater grounds as well as the Gateway Arch. The French Village Drive-In came into this view first, before anyone would have predicted that anything much more modern could come along.

More information

  • The Web Yard
  • Cinema Treasures
  • A version of this article appeared under the same title in the Fall 2005 issue of the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley Chapter.