Exploring Midtown’s Musical History

by Michael R. Allen

On Saturday night I sat in the balcony watching some 250 dancers heating up the floor at the Casa Loma Ballroom. Even my two left feet were itchin’ to join the action at this weekend’s Nevermore Jazz Ball and St. Louis Swing Dance Festival, a multi-night, multi-venue extravaganza. Credit goes to two of this town’s most go-getting young people, Christian Frommelt — former PRO intern — and Jenny Shirer, for bringing the scene to our town in a big way.

We started at the Castle Ballroom (1908), located at the northeast corner of Olive and T.E. Huntley streets.

On Friday, Kevin Belford and I had a small part in the weekend’s festivities as guides for a tour of musical and architectural heritage sites in midtown. Many of our guests were from out of town, so we enjoyed getting to promote neglected aspects of our cultural heritage to them. If St. Louis could tell the stories that Kevin Belford has told in his book Devil at the Confluence and elsewhere, our national image would be much different — and far more compelling to cultural tourism.

Kevin Belford discusses the bands and musicians that played the Castle Ballroom.

We started at the Castle Ballroom, originally opened in 1908 as Cave Hall, and wended our way across the fields of what was Mill Creek Valley. There we chased the ghost flats of musicians as well as the glory days of Laclede Town. Back up to Locust Street, we saw how St. Louis’ music industry lived side-by-side with the rising automobile age in the early part of the twentieth century.

The main entrance to the Palladium on Enright Avenue as it appeared in 2009.
The south elevation of the Palladium (1913) on Delmar Boulevard is where the entrance to Club Plantation was located (at right here).

Our tour ended at the Palladium, built in 1913 as a roller rink but most significant as a ball room later known as Club Plantation. While the Castle Ballroom is now on the path to finding a good owner and new life, the Palladium faces the threat of demolition and the interest of the Veterans’ Administration that wishes to expand the Cochran Veterans Hospital to the north.

We were surprised to see work in progress at the Sweetie Pie's building west of the Palladium. Looks like the VA will have a hard time getting the whole block.
Demolition Midtown

That’s What Happens Without Demolition Review

by Michael R. Allen

Earlier this year.

This week, the city said farewell to the Midtown commercial building at 3714 Olive Street just west of Spring Avenue. Sitting behind the massive Coronado Hotel on a block nearly devoid of historic buildings, the two-story building has been a fairly anonymous part of the urban fabric for most of its years. However, as its context diminished, the building became a more important part of potential development of small businesses in Grand Center. The arts district had become a plane of parking space and institutional users, with nary a spot for a coffee or cocktail aside from a few places on Grand Avenue.

The loss of this building makes the dichotomy between Grand Center’s super-scale and its cultural pretensions (“art” and “life” of the sort one finds on, say, Cherokee Street require storefronts) even more stark. Yet the bigger issue is that the building’s demolition never received review by the Cultural Resources Office. This block is outside of the Midtown Historic District, and located in the 19th Ward. the 19th Ward does not have demolition review aside from historic districts and official landmarks.

Now the south side of the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street is down to just four historic buildi ngs, including the National Register-listed William Cuthbert Jones House at 3724 Olive Street and the Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge-designed Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind (originally Southwestern Bell’s Lindell Exchange) at 3842-44 Olive Street. Two buildings with storefront additions, including one at 3808 Olive Street, also remain. The north side of the street has also been a mess, especially after the demolition of the Central Apartments in 2007.

The alien landscape of this block is the definite result of a once-curable lack of preservation planning. Hence, demolition of 3714 Olive Street makes a strange sort of sense.

Adaptive Reuse Mid-Century Modern Midtown

Saucer Saved!

by Lindsey Derrington

Despite the rain and cold, a small group of students, news outlets, and supporters — including the building’s original architect, Richard Henmi — gathered at the former Del Taco saucer this afternoon to hear current plans for the building from developer Rick Yackey and Alderwoman Marlene Davis. The news was good – with the help of Klitzing Welsh Associates, an architectural firm specializing in historic rehabilitation (including the mid-century modern Washington Avenue Apartments at Tucker and Washington), Yackey will restore the saucer back to its historic 1967 appearance to accommodate two national tenants.

While reluctant to state which ones, the developer said he is in negotiation with chains of a far “higher caliber” than the building’s former occupant, but which would include “food and coffee” amongst their offerings. Simple renderings showed the saucer’s original rounded storefront restored in place of the current drive-thru to expand the interior to 4,800 square feet. Yackey also plans to rework the surrounding, which will hopefully include improving access from Grand Avenue and Forest Park Boulevard. And while the renderings failed to show outdoor seating beneath the saucer’s cantilevered roof, he said that a patio is definitely part of the plan.

Yackey is seeking Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credits for the project so all renovation plans will go through the State Historic Preservation Office. This means the building will be in good hands, and that all alterations made to its exterior will be in keeping with its historic appearance. These will surely include the now painted-over clerestory windows wrapping around the saucer’s rear which are not reflected in current renderings. Apart from this temporary oversight, we can hope to see a restored and fully occupied saucer next year — ideally, according to Yackey, by March 2012 when the new Grand Avenue bridge is set to open.

South elevation drawing by Schwarz & Van Hoefen, 1966.

When asked, architect Richard Henmi, who designed the saucer in the mid-1960s while an associate with the firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen, replied, “I think it’s good. I like it. It pretty much keeps the original intent of the building.” In light of renderings which essentially show the saucer returned to the same striking design he envisioned almost fifty years ago, there wasn’t much more for him to say. But hopefully, come next year, we’ll all being saying much more than that as we’re riding our bikes, walking our dogs, and strolling our kids to have lunch and cup of coffee at the coolest mid-century modern patio this side of the Mississippi. And for St. Louis, that’s saying a lot.

Mid-Century Modern Midtown

Flying Saucer Announcement Wednesday

by Michael R. Allen

We are getting closer to knowing what the flying saucer will look like in its new life. On Wednesday, September 14 at 6:00 p.m., in front of the beloved building itself, at 212 S. Grand Boulevard, developer Rick Yackey will hold a press conference. Yackey is expected unveil the awaited renderings of what the former rehabilitated Phillips 66 gas station at Council Plaza will look like in its new life as a retail building.

We can expect an adaptive reuse plan that includes an addition to the building that adds enough space to create two spaces for tenants. Perhaps we will even get a slice of information about the new tenants. Hopefully the plan includes making the corner of Forest Park Boulevard and Grand Avenue, which lacks sidewalks at its intersection, more pedestrian friendly and safer for residents of Council Plaza to use.

At the least, we will see the concept for reviving one of the city’s most beloved mid-century landmarks. Rick Yackey has embraced one of the region’s largest preservation upswells in recent years. A renewed flying saucer not only will provide an example of successful adaptation of a difficult purpose-built building, but testament to the power of public engagement of the built environment.

Mid-Century Modern Midtown

Public Meeting for Del Taco Wednesday

The Phillips 66 building before Del Taco closed.

This morning Alderwoman Marlene Davis sent out a notice of a public meeting on the former Phillips 66 station at Council Plaza. The meeting, which will take place at the building (located at 212 S. Grand) will be this Wednesday, August 17, from 6:00 – 7:15 p.m. Davis and developer Rick Yackey will present an update on the building.

What that update shall be is unknown, but we take this announcement as a very good sign.


Tony Scarpelli and the Club Plantation

by Kevin Belford

The Enright Avenue facade of the Palladium.

This post continues with the history of the Palladium Building/Club Plantation, and reveals the ownership and managers behind the famous St Louis nightclub. Like the stories and musicians in the book, Devil At The Confluence, this information has never been published before. Currently, the Palladium building may be sold and demolished like so many other lost historic landmarks, so this series of stories are being gathered and posted as quickly as possible so the important history of this legendary nightspot is available while the structure still stands. The inadequate historical record and disinterest for preservation of cultural landmarks by the alderman and governance of the city of St Louis does not reflect the pride that the citizens have of their city. But there is a new attitude of appreciation and preservation in the citizenry and it outnumbers the old. Even though the current office holders do not reflect that yet.

Al Capone may be one of America’s most well-known gangsters and a symbol of lawlessness in Chicago, yet his crimes are proudly exhibited in Chicago’s History Museum. There is no museum in St. Louis for the prohibition era gangsters of the city. While that may be due to, well let’s just say, an overly-sensitive inhibition concerning all facets of its history, the true fact why the Mob bosses in the Lou aren’t well known is a testament to how much better they were than Capone. After all, surely the main job of a good Mob boss is to keep everyone in the city from knowing you’re the Mob boss.

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.

St. Louis has a long-held distaste for liquor laws. First, because beer and wine are a part of the traditions and culture for the St. Louis German, Irish and Italian immigrants, and second, because of the great brewing industry that employed many of the citizens. There’s also a long tradition of organized crime in St. Louis as well, including mobsters Dinty Colbeck and Buster Wortman, whose careers were also principally, well let’s just say, in the liquor and spirits trade. So St Louis had Jazz Age prohibition entertainment and nightlife as vibrant as Chicago, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, and they also had the same kind of prohibition trouble.

But the Club Plantation’s Tony Scarpelli was, it appears, nothing more than a minor hood with only minor liquor law violations on his record. But dig a bit deeper and you might find that his rap sheet included armed robbery and a file with the FBI. Most of the people in the city probably didn’t know about that. Sure, there was talk around but that was just rumor. Now Tony’s younger brother Jimmy’s rap sheet included bootlegging, robbery, gambling and a murder charge, so his involvement with the nightclub was kept on the QT. There was a lot about the Club Plantation that was on the QT. So maybe Tony was just good at, well let’s just say, keeping his nose clean.

Kevin Belford is author of Devil at the Confluence, a book about St. Louis’ pre-war blues music. Contact him at

Mid-Century Modern Midtown

IBM Building, Fully Shorn

The IBM Building (Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, 1959) at 3800 Lindell Boulevard.

The former IBM Building, now Adorjan Hall at St. Louis University, now stands fully shorn of its concrete block brise soleil. (See “Taking Care of HOK’s Works on Lindell,” July 12.)

Art Midtown Parking

Art Is in the Eye of the Monthly Parking Pass Holder

by Michael R. Allen

On land once part of a thoroughfare renamed for our native superstar Josephine Baker now rises a menagerie of sculptures. In 2007, the city closed this block and deeded the land to St. Louis University, which planted grass. The university had just demolished a historic livery stable building at the northwest corner of the intersection for yet another giant Grand Center surface parking lot used sporadically for special events. The demolition and the resulting gaping asphalt heat island dealt a blow to nascent renewal on Locust Street, but the area has recovered somewhat. The little strip of closed street has even begun to become something other than an unpleasant lawn.

The maiden sits in the sun achieving a rather bronze tone.

The lawn now sports this sultry nude, whose most private parts are tastefully concealed by earth and sand — yet the shapely parts that identify her as woman are evident to freshman and Fox patron alike. The careless reviewers who call this statue a mere figural representation of a naked young woman in a wading pool are incorrect. The intent of the artist no doubt is complex, and I surely am stumbling in my interpretation. Still, the lady clearly represents fair beauty Grand Center, with one foot playfully set upward suggesting the whimsy of the performing arts. The sand, however, represents the ominous force of parking lots. Our damsel is smiling yet actually is in distress.

The livery stable before its demolition in 2007.

The paradox inscribed in a single statue is powerful, and far more useful to our citizens than any block of street or any nod to a long-gone banana-skirt-wearing dancer.  Right?

Central West End Mid-Century Modern Midtown Pruitt Igoe Urban Renewal Era

Destroying Modern Architecture in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The twists and turns of mid-century modern preservation in the last three weeks have been heartening. Let’s recap: since the end of June we have witnessed St. Louis University chipping away at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s IBM Building (1959) at 3800 Lindell, developers trying to green-light demolition of the old Schwarz & Van Hoefen-designed Phillips 66 gas station at 212 S. Grand (1967) and CVS quickly and almost quietly testing the waters of demolishing the W.A. Sarmiento-designed AAA Building (1977) at 3925 Lindell. The last two have generated a lot of public protest as well as the open concern of Mayor Francis Slay.

Left to right: The old Phillips 66 station, IBM Building and AAA Building.

Many preservationists have expressed some version of “they can’t do this” or “how could they even think about it”. Fortunately mid-century modernism has reached a level of wide acceptability that, even if the three aforementioned buildings fall, will save dozens in the long term. Yet things have not always been this way for modern architecture here, and St. Louis retains the burden of having one of its most indelible recent-past architectural events being the destruction of innovative modern architecture.

The blast at Pruitt-Igoe Building C-15 on April 21, 1972.

Whoa — this writer just heard the mad dash of his readers! Of course, the phrase “Pruitt Igoe” is not one that enters into the mid-century modern dialogue alongside mentions of pleasant-named ranch house subdivisions and Jetson-modern round commercial buildings. Hyphenated public housing names are more likely to be denigrated in preservationists’ discussions of postwar urban renewal policy. The homes, offices, gas stations and diners of the middle and upper classes get the praise, the scholarship and the activist defense that modernist dwellings for the poor may never get.

Mid-Century Modern Midtown

Taking Care of HOK’s Works on Lindell

by Michael R. Allen

This week St. Louis University’s removal of the concrete block screens on the former IBM Building has visited the main elevation on Lindell Boulevard. Late in June, the university started removing the crucial architectural design feature on this early Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum-designed office building, which dates to 1959 (see “SLU Picks Apart HOK”, July 1). Located at 3800 Lindell Boulevard and now called Adorjan Hall, the former IBM Building is part of a district of mid-century modern buildings built on Lindell Boulevard between 1945 and 1977.

The Lindell Boulevard modernism corridor includes Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s earlier Sperry-Rand Building (1956) at Lindell and Sarah. That building has a similar modular plan to the IBM Building, with overhanging upper floors, clear-span window bays and very similar bay widths.  Like the IBM Building, the Sperry-Rand Building gains its significance less from its own design than from its role in the larger Lindell Boulevard context. This plain, elegant International Style-inspired office block escaped the CVS demolition threat that has now taken aim at the W.A. Sarmiento-designed AAA Building at 3915 Lindell Boulevard (1976). Despite the drug store chain’s looking elsewhere, the fate of the Sperry-Rand Building is far from certain. Given the hatchet job being endured by the IBM Building, even preservation of the building could be a veiled threat.