On October 17, Grand Center, Inc. applied for a demolition permit for the curious hybrid building at 3808 Olive Street. Today, crews were “doing taps” — removing the connections between the building and the cityâ€™s water and gas lines. Soon, yet another small-scaled, perfectly usable building will disappear from the purported intersection of “art and life” — raising the question of what Grand Center has in store for other smaller buildings in the district.
On the face, perhaps the doomed building is a tricky concoction to admire. Yet the turret and stone-faced town house that rises above an appended, plain red brick storefront is every bit as beautiful today as it was when built in the 1880s. The storefront is an added bonus, that could be utilized or removed depending on future plans. In sound condition and potentially eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation (likely if the addition came off), the house with storefront addition should be marketed as a redevelopment opportunity.
Grand Center’s streets are notably absent of the small-scale, affordable buildings that incubate small businesses, artists’ studios and apartments. These are the building types whose graceful practicality define areas like Cherokee Street and the Central West End, whose street-level vitality outshines Grand Centerâ€™s cycles of big-show and dead-empty. While Grand Center has improved a lot lately, much of that change comes from smaller spaces on Locust Street and in retail storefronts that have generated commercial activities long absent from the mix.
The 3700-3800 block of Olive Street is bereft of density, to be sure. From the Sim-City view, it may look like the sort of place to bulldoze and build again. Yet that approach would be utopian and short-sighted — although the view of cleared land from Spring to Vandeventer would be a very long, and anti-urban, view. Unfortunately, Grand Center has already started removingassets on this block, with nothing in their place to indicate demolition brings anything beneficial.
Rather than forecast utopian redevelopment, Grand Center might look at a building like 3808 Olive Street as an asset: a building with immediate economic utility, indelible architectural character and enduring contribution to a citywide sense of place. Neighbors of the building even include two buildings that are listed in the National register of Historic Places: the William Cuthbert Jones House (1886), designed by St. Louis architect Jerome B. Legg; and the former Lindell Telephone Exchange/Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind (1899-1902), whose original Renaissance Revival front was designed by the not-so-insignificant firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge also designed the Art Institute of Chicago (1893) and many other architecturally-renowned works in the US and Canada â€“ a plus for a district that touts its concentration of works by important architects across time like Tadao Ando and William B. Ittner.
â€œRightsizingâ€ need not mean the casual removal of viable buildings on admittedly depleting blocks. Too often, however, that is how it is done. Effective rightsizing can be posing those remaining assets as catalysts for regeneration. In Grand Center, there is plenty of large-scale (ART), but not enough small-scale (LIFE) to make the district into anything approaching a real neighborhood. Retaining buildings like 3808 Olive Street and offering them for sale to small developers would be a step toward a compelling and complex urbanism.
Grand plans are invisible on vacant lots, and diminish feelings of safety as well as sense of place. Buildings are assets, even the small and weird ones. Buildings generate activities that tell people where they are â€“- and give them something to do. Grand Center needs these little buildings on Olive Street. The city can grow again, and we should not be throwing away any potential building block for our future.
The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the questions of the values we want to live by â€“ rather than merely of how we want things to look.
â€“ Alan de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
In 1956, two small one-story buildings were completed around the downtown area. One was designed by a renowned modernist designer for a growing financial institution, while the other was a modest building built by a family-owned business. Yet both buildings were modern in style, and, more importantly, built amid rapid and often conflict-laden demographic changes around the city’s commercial core. These commercial outposts would become most significant for association with the city’s struggles for racial and social equality. Today these two buildings speak of the contradictions inherent in mid-century modernism: the remaining beauty of design and the unacknowledged backdrops of overt racism and economic strife.
Yet neither building sports a plaque, and one most likely will be demolished. Both are keys to showing the story of the city’s social justice struggles in the recent past. While businessmen perched at desks in modern office towers downtown, and families enjoyed sunlight from large banks of windows in their latest Eichleresque ranch in St. Louis County, thousands of St. Louisans fought for the same opportunities. Modernist architecture sometimes was the backdrop there as well, as two very different buildings show.
The Jefferson Bank and Trust Company Building: W.A. Sarmiento Meets CORE
Earlier this year, the Cultural Resources Office kicked off the citywide St. Louis Modern architectural survey (conducted with assistance from Portland-based Peter Meijer Architect PC and modernista Christine Madrid French) by publishing an image of the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building at the southwest corner of Jefferson and Market streets. The architectural symbolism was double: the building is both the work of one of St. Louisâ€™ most important modernist commercial designers and the site of one of the cityâ€™s most significant (and complicated) civil rights demonstrations. That the project would be visually marked by a building connected to both aesthetics and social unrest bodes well for future local scholarship in modern architecture.
The striking modernist bank building is the work of celebrated architect W.A. Sarmiento, in his capacity as chief designer for Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America, and was completed in 1956. The building was the second home of a bank that started on a site three blocks north and moved to its present home on Market Street in 1977. When the new bank opened on April 2, 1956, the press reported that it was the first new bank building in the city completed since 1928. The unknown veracity of that claim does not diminish the fact that Sarmientoâ€™s hand places the building among the regionâ€™s finest modernist works.
Wenceslao A. Sarmiento, born in Peru, started designing for the prolific Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America in 1949. By 1952, Sarmiento was chief of design and had reoriented the company’s design practice toward a brand of iconic, playful modernism that drew inspiration from work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Oscar Niemeyer, Harris Armstrong and other less-than-doctrinaire designers. Sarmiento eschewed the functionalist conventions of the International Style, and even introduced ornament to his designs through lettering, grilles and other elements. Sarmiento is a peer to Edward Durrell Stone and others nationwide breaking from academic modernism. In St. Louis, Sarmiento’s work includes the IBEW Local #1 Headquarters (1960), the Chancery of the Archdiocese (1963) and the AAA Building (1976, designed through his subsequent solo firm).
Ahead of the contract for the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building, the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation felt the pains of the postwar building economy. Remodeling projects outnumbered new buildings ten to one in 1952. However by 1956 the firm had 35 new projects, including substantial new construction projects. These trends reflect trends across St. Louis in which postwar modernismâ€™s first major commercial wave consisted largely of remodeling and recladding projects.
For the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company building (incidentally built after demolition of the St. Louis Coliseum of 1908 designed by Frederick C. Bonsack), Sarmiento conjured a planar sonata of sorts. The main entrance, now bricked in, was located at the corner under a prominent sloped wall plane that joined a dramatic back-sloped roof plane over the office areas. This was offset with a roof plan of diverging slopes on the west side of the building, where the lobby was located. As prominent as the pronounced roof forms were the eight drive-up banking windows underneath projecting flat roofs. The buildingâ€™s materials bridged the gap between resolute modernism and local building culture: local red brick, metal and stucco. The price of construction was reported at $650,000.
Implanted in a space age building, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company’s assets grew future-forward, from $22 million in 1955 to $52 million in 1963. The context for the building changed greatly as well. The city cleared the 97 block Mill Creek Valley district to the south starting in 1959, changing the entire context of the area from a historic African-American neighborhood to a monumental corporate and institutional park. The massive Pruitt-Igoe housing project had opened to the north in 1956, fostering changes in surrounding blocks. All of a sudden, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company was central to the storms of struggle and radical urban surgery. The corner of Washington and Jefferson was no longer a placid spot for business, but ripe with potent unrest as palpable as the lines with which Sarmiento endowed the building.
In 1963, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) led demonstrations against Jefferson Bank and Trust Company over the bank’s dismal record in hiring and promoting African-Americans to professional positions. While other banks were equally complicit in these patterns, Jefferson Bank and Trust Company stood in a historically black neighborhood and held state and city funds (including public employee pension funds). CORE’s leaders thought that pressure on the bank could lead to withdrawal of public funds.
CORE demonstrations in summer 1963 quickly led to an injunction from the St. Louis Circuit Court. On August 30, 1963, 250 demonstrators gathered and marched into the bank singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome” in defiance of the court order. Nine demonstrators, including future Congressman William L. Clay, Marion Oldham, Norman Seay and others, were arrested and late sentenced to jail time. Other demonstrators were arrested on October 4 and 7 following more demonstrations. The demonstrations raised public awareness of racist bank practices, but failed to achieve the result of getting the city to remove funds or immediate bank changes. Many people served jail terms, and activists became divided over the tactics and strategy used.
The outcome of CORE’s efforts galvanized more radical young activists who widely viewed the failed demonstrations as the result of timid traditional activism. New paths were forged in the wake of the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company demonstrations. Percy Green II denounced the “battle fatigue” of older CORE leaders and founded the Action Committee to Increase Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) in 1965. Green soon after would shake up the city by attempting to scale another modernist landmark, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch. That iconic work of architecture bears the scars of inequality in construction job hiring, the target of Greenâ€™s protest.
The lack of an identifying marker or official City Landmark status for the Jefferson Bank building is unfortunate. Then again, in the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood to the south not a single marker stands to commemorate the African-American experiences there. Only on Locust Street is there a sidewalk plaque, marking the childhood home of poet T.S. Eliot. The refusal to acknowledge these African-American history sites brings to mind the words of Norman Seay when interviewed in 2010 about the Jefferson Bank protest.
When in 2010 St. Louis Beacon writer Linda Lockhart asked if racism was still alive in St. Louis, Seay said yes — with a sobering qualification: “It’s sneaky. It’s subtle.” Interest in preserving modernist architecture in St. Louis and elsewhere has largely deflected the messy strands of design and race. Urban renewal and its landscapes are largely panned by preservationists, and the social injustice decried. Yet modern architectureâ€™s complexities extend far beyond obviously contested sites. Struggle is as worthy of commemoration as is exemplary design — because both are integral components of the architectural battleground of postwar St. Louis.
The Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Station: A Modest Monument
Across Cass Avenue from the forest marking the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, at 2411 Cass Avenue stands a little building with a sun-catching tapestry of modern brick on its front wall, and plain concrete blocks on its sides and back. The Richardson family built the building in 1956 and opened a delicatessen that no doubt benefited from the arrival of some 12,000 residents at the brand new public housing complex. Yet the little building would play a more significant role in the life of Pruitt-Igoe, albeit briefly.
The Urban League of St. Louis assumed operation of St. Louisâ€™ anti-poverty program in September 1965. With funding coming through the Human Development Corporation, the Urban League opened four “neighborhood stations” to serve districts in north St. Louis identified as having high concentrations of poverty. These districts were Wells-Goodfellow, Easton-Taylor, Yeatman and Pruitt-Igoe. Today, with the exception of the mostly-cleared Pruitt-Igoe district, the areas are still among the city’s poorest and most in need of social services.
The Urban League leased the Richardson delicatessen from 1966 through 1969. During those years, the building was the Pruitt-Igoe Neighborhood Station. There, the Urban League offered an array of services including job training and placement, sex education, tutorial programs, Head Start and health classes. By 1965, Pruitt-Igoe’s woes were dire. The 33 towers already had a vacancy rate of more than 25%, and the remaining residents were nearly all African-American and among the cityâ€™s poorest. Still, residents had moxie. The people who used the Pruitt-Igoe Neighborhood Station established an advisory committee and helped the Urban League reach more residents and find private resources not included in the anti-poverty programâ€™s annual public grant.
Panacea for Pruitt-Igoe’s ills was not even remotely possible, but stopgaps were. In the little brick-faced building on Cass Avenue, the Urban League tried to help residents do the best that they could â€“ with limited funding and limited resources. In the end, the Neighborhood Station was not enough, and when it closed drastic measures were in the works for Pruitt-Igoe. The Model Cities program went into effect nationwide, and the city of St. Louis chose a big part of north city including Pruitt-Igoe for federal funds that — had they been sufficient and steady enough â€“ might have cleared and reshaped the area. Model Cities briefly assumed the Cass Avenue building as an office.
Where planners next dreamed of utopian solutions to address the dystopian realities of north city, today one will find no traces. Today, the little building is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC, which purchased it after it had long gone vacant. The four walls are strong, but the roof structure forms a wooden mess inside. Paired with the adjacent Grace Baptist church, founded by Pruitt-Igoe residents and utilizing a former neighborhood grocery store, the Neighborhood Station building is a key fragment of St. Louis’ housing crisis. I am not the first to state that the small building would make a fine Pruitt-Igoe museum. At the least, it stands silently testifying to the social realities of modernism.
To understand mid-century St. Louis, we must peel off our filters that privilege high-style modernism and the lives of the middle and upper classes. Our Sarmiento-designed landmarks lose a lot of context without the backdrop of Pruitt-Igoe and homegrown modern buildings like the Richardson deli. The vagaries of time, use and memory dispel any notion that we can save all. Yet as we evaluate what parts of architectural epochs are worth keeping, let us not forget sites of struggle and sites built through poverty. Until the city has vanquished racial and economic barriers, these landmarks tell us as much about ourselves as do the valuable, colorful and sophisticated modernism seen in designs that include Jefferson Bank.
This Building Matters last visited the demolition site of the Powell Square building near downtown. Everything that Ryan Albritton said about buildings having economic value for entrepreneurs rings true in our latest episode, in which we visited with Amber Giessmann and Christopher Janson of The Space at Morgan Linen.
The Space at Morgan Linen will be a new event space in the historic Dinks Parrish Laundry Building at 3124 Olive Street in Midtown. As the video shows, the Morgan Linen crew was drawn to all of the details that preservationists have long admired. We all see beauty, but some see an excellent place for a new business. Seems that old buildings are good for the local economy.
Many may know the Mission Revival style building at 3207 Washington Avenue by one of its string of tenants over the past forty years, from the St. Louis Conservatory and School for the Arts (1970s-1990), to the Midtown Arts Center (1991-2000), to a series of nightclubs including the Kastle, Dreams, and Club TV (2002-2008). But whether you attended a poetry reading in its atrium, got down to hip hop on its balconies, or just drove by wondering what this whimsical, seemingly out-of-place building was doing there, you will be pleased to know that it is entering into its next phase of life with a dedicated new owner and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Preservation Research Office prepared the building’s nomination to the National Register for Chameleon Integrated Services, a Saint Louis-based IT firm established in 2002 and currently located in Lafayette Square. The company purchased the building earlier this year for its new headquarters, and is pursuing a $2 million rehabilitation of the property using state and federal historic tax credits. After many decades the project will return the building to its somewhat surprising use: offices.
Designed by St. Louis’ own Tom P. Barnett, the building was completed in 1921 as the $140,000 headquarters of the Central States Life Insurance Company. Established in 1909, Central States was a small local firm with big aspirations, aggressively expanding its policy coverage throughout the West and Southwest in under a decade. The company’s decision to build on Washington Avenue just west of Compton was unusual at a time when virtually all of the cityâ€™s insurance firms were located downtown, yet this stretch of the recently-widened thoroughfare was then projected to become the “Fifth Avenue of St. Louis,” a modern, upscale commercial district to match those in Chicago and New York. The building’s Mission Revival design, with its bell tower, heavy trussed roof, Conquistador stained glass window, and Spanish Baroque terra cotta detailing, embodied Central States’ ambitions and stylistically identified the company with the region it sought to dominate.
Central States was the first major enterprise to invest on Washington Avenue between Jefferson and Grand, but unfortunately the promise and hope of Washington Avenue as a future “World Famous Street” quickly fizzled. Its impressive new headquarters was soon surrounded by boarding houses and automobile-related industries, and Central States abandoned the building in 1928. From then on it housed dozens of tenants over the ensuing decades, bringing us back to the present.
PRO couldn’t be happier to have a been a part of this project; not only will Chameleon rehab the Central States Building for its new headquarters, but the company has leased its parking lot to its western neighbor, the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, for the brewery’s new biergarten. This project illustrates the best in what historic tax credits can do for local communities by facilitating development in long-dormant neighborhoods, stimulating small-business growth in the city, and, of course, bringing new life to our long-vacant architectural gems.
For more on the Central States Life Insurance Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 25, 2012, read on.
When development firm Sangita proposed demolition of the three Midtown buildings at 3834-38 Laclede Avenue last May, this writer offered no protest. Later last year the two two-story buildings, built as stores and flats, and the one-story storefront fell to the blows of wreckers, and soon spring up a double-pen drive-though building housing not just Jimmy but also Papa John.
The loss of the apartment building at 3949 Lindell Boulevard (rebuilt in 2009 after a 2007 fire) after a devastating fire on Monday has raised questions about lightweight construction’s fire resistance. Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson has questioned whether the city can stand the risk of allowing the construction of buildings like the lost apartment building, which had an open attic with only drywall partition fire stops. The roaring fire quickly ate these thin, flammable stops, and raced across the top of the building in a matter of minutes.
The fire chief’s concerns are appropriate. Although no lives were lost, the construction of 3949 Lindell Boulevard clearly was not adequate to resist what started as a small fire on the fourth floor. The wake of the fire might lead to revisions to the city’s building code reminiscent of past changes that have shifted away from requiring fireproof masonry construction. In 1961, the city created its first code that permitted exterior wall systems — “curtain walls” — to not include any masonry. Subsequent revisions have modified provisions in concert with both changes in building technology and the desires of developers who wish to lower constructions costs while shortening building times.
Monday’s fire brought to mind the impact of another disaster on Lindell Boulevard. On September 27, 1927, a major tornado raced northeasterly through the city. Damage on Lindell Boulevard stretched from Vandeventer Avenue west to Taylor avenue, and many buildings were destroyed completely while others were badly damaged.
A lot of what you need to know about the Castle Ballroom can be read on its exterior. The commercial first floor of the building indicates its historic place on a busy streetcar line. Graceful double-height arched windows above the first story reveal a ballroom which extends almost from the street to the alley. The lively Renaissance Revival brickwork indicates the aspirations of the owners in 1908 — this is a proper dance academy, not a warehouse. Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence isn’t part of the building itself, but in the enormous expanse of lawn across the street. The Castle Ballroom had epitomized early 20th century elegance, but half a century later it was only spared from the nationâ€™s largest urban renewal slum clearance project by virtue of being on the north side of Olive rather than the south side. Put all of these pieces together, and youâ€™ve got the story.
In just over four decades of operation, the Castle Ballroom witnessed and responded to wave after wave of changing taste in music and dance. Herman Albers and Cornelius Ahern constructed the building in 1908. Architect J.D. Paulus designed the building. They had previously operated the dance academy at Cave Hall, the above-ground entertainment center associated with Uhrig’s Cave at the southwest corner of Jefferson and Washington. When the old Cave Hall was demolished to make way for the Coliseum, they took the name with them.
Mr. and Mrs. Albers and Mr. and Mrs. Ahern themselves supervised the dancing at the new hall, and the Uhrig’s Cave Orchestra followed them to the new location. By this time, traditional tastes in music were giving way to a new sensation — ragtime. The syncopated rhythms of the ragtime music invited a daringly different style of dancing. Scandalous new “animal dances” (the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, and Grizzly Bear, among others) were popularized at the highest levels of society. In 1911, Chief of Police William Young instituted a Morality Squad to inspect public dance halls and stop the vulgar new dances wherever they occurred. Newspapers gleefully covered the controversy, their condemnations illustrated with titillating line drawings of couples in unseemly poses. Alexander DeMenil, always a spokesman for Victorian values in the Edwardian age, wrote that the dances were a symptom of society’s decadence. “We do today openly and publicly what we would have been ashamed to do in secret ten years ago,” he wrote in 1913. “Far from being ‘new,’ these dances are a revision of the grossest practices of savage men.”
Interviewed in 1929, Herman Albers indicated that Cave Hall had always remained a place of the utmost propriety. There is no evidence to contradict him. The owners never offered comment in the press wars over the new dances. Their Central West End colleagues Jacob Mahler and Alice Martin, both still remembered in St. Louis dance history, were the most frequently quoted. When the Post-Dispatch accompanied the Morality Squad officers on a night’s rounds near the end of 1911, they made it all the way to Cave Hall only to remember it was closed on Mondays. (The article, dated December 12, 1911, boasts one of the most memorable headlines of all time: “Morality Squad, Seeking Revelry, Fails to Find It.”)
If the moralists thought the ragtime dances were bad, what came next was much, much worse. Jazz music invited even more jumping and gyration. Instructors of traditional ballroom dance banded together in self-defense, encouraging additional legislation to eradicate dances such as the “Camel Walk.” The new ordinance was designed to “reach the irresponsible dancing teachers who, because of the money there is in it, will teach any kind of wiggle.”
After his partner’s death, Albers changed the name of the venue to Castle Ballroom. In doing so, he embraced a more modern image for the academy. Vernon and Irene Castle had been the greatest names in dancing until Vernon’s death in a training accident during World War I. The Castles earned their success by taking modern dances and making them completely respectable. Today, the name “Castle” may sound like a reference to the building, but in 1922 the allusion to the famous dancers could not have been missed.
The dawn of the Jazz Age spelled the end of the great ballroom dancing academies of St. Louis. As early as 1922, dance instructor Alice Martin claimed to have “practically given up teaching ballroom dancingâ€ because of the “vulgar extremes of these times….” By 1930, most teachers of ballroom dancing had stopped advertising. The Castle’s newspaper advertisements increasingly emphasized the hall’s availability for rental.
In 1934, Herman Albers closed the Castle and filed for personal bankruptcy. The end of Prohibition had played a role, his attorney noted, since people now danced at cafes where liquor was sold. He also blamed the widening of Olive Street and a change in streetcar stops. His comments to the Globe-Democrat overlook an obvious demographic shift in the neighborhood.
In the second and third decades of the 20th century, the immediate neighborhood of the Castle Ballroom, especially the blocks just south, had transitioned from an almost completely Caucasian neighborhood to one that was dominated by African American institutions. The fabled Mill Creek Valley neighborhood developed the city’s greatest concentration and number of black residents. When the Castle re-opened in 1935, it was advertised as “THE MILLION DOLLAR DANCE PALACE â€“ Exclusively for the Best Colored People of St. Louis.” The hall again held dances on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights, but they were advertised to a different clientele.
Manager Jesse Johnson was frequently touted in The St. Louis Argus as the city’s top black promoter. A favorite house band was Eddie Randle’s St. Louis Blue Devils. According to one account, it was at the Castle Ballroom that the teenaged Miles Davis first auditioned for the band. With Eddie Randle (playing regularly at the Castle as well as other venues around town), the young prodigy received his first experience playing in a professional band. By the end of the 1930s, Johnson brought in more national acts, including Duke Ellington. Under other management, the entertainment included Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino, and Count Basie. Through the 1940s, the Castle featured local and national touring acts and hosted many private events for black organizations.
The early 1950s brought the Mocambo Club (named for a famous Los Angeles hot spot) This club lasted barely a month before a dispute at the bar turned into a sensational shootout which claimed the life of the owner and a local underworld figure. The Globe-Democrat reported that there were thirty people present but only one witness. When the club reopened under new management, it was still able to attract national favorites such as Louis Armstrong and the Ink Spots, both in 1952.
The final days of the Castle Ballroom coincided with a civic effort toward slum clearance. Mill Creek Valley at this time retained the deteriorated housing stock of the 19th century, densely packed with African Americans who were allowed few other living options. The neighborhood had a high crime rate, high infant mortality rate, and low indoor plumbing rate. One planning document described the neighborhood as “100 blocks of hopeless, rat-infested, residential slums.”
A bond issue for clearance and redevelopment failed in 1948. Amendments to federal law in 1954 allowed the Mill Creek Valley to become an urban renewal project, and voters approved matching local funding in 1955. Original plans called for 4,200 families to be relocated from a 107-block area. Roughly 2100 buildings plus accessory structures were to be demolished.
The northern boundary of the clearance area was Olive Street. Beginning in 1959, nearly every home, church, and business in Mill Creek was demolished. Thriving commercial districts, significant institutional buildings (including the Pine Street YMCA) and untold homes were knocked to rubble and sent to the landfill. The vast majority of Mill Creek residents were not resettled in the new housing that was built across from the Castle.
Today, the Castle Ballroom is one of the last buildings in the area to retain a strong association with the African American community that once surrounded it. The second story ballroom has not seen dancing since the 1950s, but now it has another chance. The building is on the market and substantial historic tax credits are available for its restoration. Several potential buyers have come forward, but none have committed yet. (If you’re interested in purchasing the building, visit the realtor’s web site at www.leighmaibes.com.) Public interest is also increasing, with recent appearances on music history tours by Michael Allen and Kevin Belford. Landmarks Association’s hard hat tour this past Saturday sold out, and a second tour is scheduled for February 4 (details here).
Our full nomination of the Castle Ballroom is on the State Historic Preservation Office web site here.
by Kevin Belford, Christian Frommelt and Michael R. Allen
The Palladium Ballroom is located in the Grand Center Arts and Entertainment District of St. Louis. With Delmar Boulevard to the South, Enright Avenue to the North, and Grand Avenue to the East, the Palladium is one of a fraction of historic entertainment buildings which have remained since the early twentieth century, and one of the few remaining entertainment venues in St. Louis which provided both music for social dancing and floor shows to watch.
Appearing on the scene in the final days of ragtime and the earliest days of the jazz age, the Palladium was host to St. Louis’ early jazz bands. Continuing into the war years it was the Club Plantation, St. Louis’ gangster-run jazz and swing night club like the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City. From its construction in 1913 through the early 1950s, the building has been associated with important musicians involved in both local and national development of dance, jazz and swing music.
The Grand Amusement Company obtained a building permit for The Palladium on August 18, 1913. The permit shows a construction cost of $35,000 for a two-story building with stores and skating rink. The dimensions reported were 152 feet by 220 feet. The permit also noted iron girders, a composition roof, terra cotta cornices and steam heat. Charles N. Lund was the contractor, and his office address was the same as the owner’s: 415 Burlington Building. James S. Lee was the architect, and his office was located at 6038 Delmar Avenue. Little is known about Lee.
The Grand Amusement Company opened the Palladium Rink as a roller skating rink on December 29, 1913. Soon after the opening, the company initiated what would become a strong association with local and national music and dance acts with a Sunshine Society’s Benefit Ball on January 19, 1914. Thomas Allan Rector and Irmgard Blebiger were the feature attraction and showcased, “the Argentine Tango, the Brazillian Maxixe, the Vienna ‘Hesitation’ waltz, and other modern steps.” 1000 couples were expected to attend the ball to dance throughout the evening to Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, the first St. Louis jazz band to have its music recorded. After 13 continuous seasons, the rink was scheduled to reopen on September 9, 1926 after floor resurfacing, renewing skates, and comprehensive redecorating. New programming included Wednesday and Thursday party and club nights, Friday ladiesâ€™ nights, and a special feature each Saturday.
The building at 3618 Enright remained the Palladium Roller Skating Rink until 1940 when the Plantation Club night club, which had existed on the west end of the block at 911 North Vandeventer since 1931, replaced the roller skating rink. Almost certainly modeled after the successful Cotton Club, which opened in Harlem, New York in 1920, the Plantation Club offered the best working conditions and wages for blacks while also being the first venue to offer top black entertainment to a whites-only clientele. The St. Louis gangster, Tony Scarpelli owned the Club Plantation. The club operated as a set-ups nightclub, meaning they sold food and provided ice, soft drinks, and glasses and the customers brought their own liquor. This way they could stay open later than the 1 o’clock curfew for taverns– a liquor law work-around.
Scarpelli and other owners altered the building to fit changing uses. The city issued a substantial permit for alterations to the building to the Palladium Amusement Company on July 20, 1922. The cost of these unknown alterations was $3,200 with Lund serving as contractor. Additional permits for significant alterations date to 1933 and 1940. These are all interior remodeling projects.
As a 1942 Billboard review remarks, increased soldier and defense worker patronage provided for booming business and that year the venue installed air-conditioning units and booked a summer schedule. The Plantation Club also avoided the 1:30 am curfew through its set-up-only policy and drew its largest numbers in the early hours of the morning, offering shows at 11 pm, 1 am, and 3 am. Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, a well-established local band that included Harry “Sweets” Edison and Clark Terry, served to be the usual featured band, but top names in jazz and pop of the time, such as Jimmie Lunceford, the Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, and others also regularly performed at the Plantation Club in conjunction with national dance acts and floor shows.
At the Club Plantation, two extraordinary young musicians joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, bassist Jimmy Blanton and guitarist Charlie Christian. In 1939, Duke Ellington dropped by the club and hired away Blanton who, more than anyone else in jazz, made the string bass a solo instrument. In September of 1939, record producer John Hammond heard Christian playing with the Jeter-Pillars band and recommended him to Benny Goodman. The Jeter-Pillars Orchestra also saw in its ranks, Jimmy Forrest who recorded the hit single, Night Train.
By 1942, the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra became the most popular band in St. Louis with local radio shows on WIL and KMOX, and being featured on the national radio program, The Fitch Bandwagon. Popular St. Louis bandleader, Eddie Johnson talked about his memories of the Club Plantation,â€
I had a band that was twelve pieces. I had a chance to work with all these top bands in the country, like McKinneyâ€™s Cotton Pickers, Fate Marable, Duke Ellington … I opened the Plantation Club back in 1931, that’s when I had a fellow called Tab Smith in my band.
In the interview, Johnson named a number of other St. Louis clubs from the 1930s, such as the Dance Box, the Chauffers’ Club, and the Finance Building but none of those landmarks remain today. The Jeter-Pillars Orchestra backed many popular national talents when they came to town including Louis Jordan. The biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis talk of the Club Plantation and the St. Louis jazz bands of George Hudson and the visiting orchestra of Billy Eckstine’s. Davis was eighteen years old and sat in with Eckstine and local trumpet man Clark Terry was in Hudsonâ€™s band. Terry remembered the Plantation orchestras as having the best local talent and being known nationally for their excellent musicianship:
We played the Club Plantation and all the acts from Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, the Nicholas Brothers â€“ all acts came to the Club Plantation because it was a very, very popular place. They brought their music and we would play their music better than anybody ever played it. They would hear the music played like theyâ€™d never heard it played before. They would go all over the country, “Man, you got to go out to St. Louis and have that George Hudson band play your music. You’ll never ever hear it played like that.” So thatâ€™s how the band got their reputation. It was a great band.
The Club Plantation occupied the building at 3617 Delmar Boulevard until the early 1950s. A significant building permit dates to April 7, 1949, and encompasses alterations to a “bowling alley.” The owner reported was Nat Gordon, and the cost was $7,500. It is likely that the stucco cladding was part of these alterations since no other permit seems to correspond with that work. The city issued permits for small alterations to the Palladium until 1962, with one permit dating to May 27, 1952 with a reported cost of $8,000 possibly corresponding to major interior alterations.
While various taverns and bars have passed in and out of the building’s storefronts, it is Veteran’s Village Clothing, which occupied the space between 1963 and 2006, that has kept the building in use and extant. In 2011, the owner of the thrift store passed away and the store was closed.Â Currently, the building is vacant.Â Recently, the Veterans Administration expressed interest in purchasing the building for expansion of the John Cochran Veterans Hospital to the north across Enright.Â Yet the Veterans Administration has not purchased the building yet, and its actions are subject to public input and the National Historic Preservation Act.Â Whether the Palladium remains standing as a reminder of St. Louis’ rich 20th century musical heritage ultimately is our choice as a city.Â Will we take action to keep it standing?