by Michael R. Allen
The Mark Twain Hotel at 9th and Pine streets downtown opened in 1907 as the Maryland Hotel. Albert B. Groves was the architect.
A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch again raised complaints against downtown’s Mark Twain Hotel at the corner of Ninth and Pine streets. The article informed readers that the venerable residential hotel housed more registered sex offenders than any other downtown address. The old cries against the supposed degenerate effect of the Mark Twain emerged, despite the fact that the Post article itself quoted a downtown police officer who remarked on the lack of crime at the address.
The trouble with the rumors is there is almost nothing behind them. Downtown is not teeming with vice and crime, and neither is the Mark Twain. In fact, the most remarkable and least-mentioned aspect about the Mark Twain is it is the last single-room occupancy hotel east of Tucker Boulevard in the heart of downtown. That should trouble us.
The phrase “single room occupancy” (SRO) came into parlance in the 1930s in New York City. It describes a type of residential building, frequently a converted guest hotel, in which residents can rent single rooms on a weekly or monthly basis. These rooms may come with a private bath or small kitchen area, but most don’t. SROs became popular due to massive migration into cities. Workers new to a big city could procure lodging at an SRO while seeking employment or seizing a better opportunity elsewhere. Residents tended to be laborers at factories, railyards or docks. Many residents lived in an SRO for years or decades due to economic circumstance or because they enjoyed what the SRO offered: cheap living in the heart of downtown; with employment, entertainment and transportation literally outside of the front door.
The Mark Twain is located in the ornate former Maryland Hotel, built in 1907. The hotel became an SRO some time after World War II. As downtown areas in large American cities declined, SROs closed up. Urban renewal projects targeted legendary SRO districts in San Francisco and Chicago, while age of buildings, lack of employment and other factors spurred others to close. In downtown St. Louis, a few have held on into the modern era, but none as visible as the Mark Twain.
While the hotel deserved a sordid reputation by the 1980s, the Mark Twain was fully renovated by 1998. Amos Harris, a developer from New York City, bought the hotel in 1995 expressly to rehabilitate it for continued SRO use. Harris wisely reasoned that there was a need for such housing downtown, especially as economic prospects changed and downtown saw the creation of service jobs in hotels, restaurants and later casinos. Harris reformed the management, improved the rooms, cleaned the exterior and made the Mark Twain a decent, affordable place to live.
The hotel has since become a haven for people who would otherwise be left behind in downtown’s renaissance. Indeed, some of its residents have criminal records and can’t rent elsewhere. Others are disabled or elderly and need access to public transportation, social services and hospitals. Still others are just new to town. Some were recently homeless, and would be without the Mark Twain. One of the most important factors: Few residents own cars.
Negative publicity might blind us to the important role of the Mark Twain Hotel. Flexible in length of occupancy, affordable and small, SRO rooms are quintessentially urban. They offer a gateway into urban living outside of ownership and traditional renting. The Mark Twain is not incompatible with the expensive condominiums around it, but is a complement that ensures diversity in the downtown population and equal access to the amenities only downtown can provide. A downtown with too much of either type of housing would be segregated, monotonous and vulnerable to economic forces like the current recession.
We could probably use a few more SROs in St. Louis. In the meantime we are lucky to have the stable, affordable Mark Twain Hotel ensuring downtown can be a residential option for everyone
This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2008 issue of the Vital Voice