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Personal Politics: Revitalization of the Kiel Opera House

by Steve Sagarra, Special to Ecology of Absence

Photograph of Kiel Opera House by Michael R. Allen, 2005.

The architecture of St. Louis is beyond compare. Unfortunately, the city has demolished more historic structures than many others have ever had — a loss that has affected the marketing of the city in attracting potential residents and businesses alike. Why must these buildings be demolished in order to move forward? The formula of destroying and rebuilding in the name of progress has only further eroded the already dismal character of the city. Rather than demolish the past with a wrecking ball, the city should preserve it for future generations and look to its historic architecture to reinvent the city, just as other cities have done. [1]

Empty since 1991, the revitalization of the Kiel Opera House has consumed Saint Louis politics for years — a self-perpetuating issue that has been a nightmare for all parties involved. Perhaps it is a simple matter of hype over an old and decayed building, which has outlived its usefulness. The problem is, who will be — or better yet, can be — the winner in the resolution of the issue? Has it been strained beyond any possible resolution, or even an agreeable compromise? No matter the outcome, the issue has been hotly debated and marked by a history of personal politics.

In 1991, Sverdrup Corporation became the managing construction firm responsible for the development of the proposed Kiel Center Arena, which included the renovation of the Opera House, in a deal between the city of St. Louis and the newly formed Kiel Center Partners. [2] The estimated completion date for the Center was 1994. Through use from the St. Louis Blues and other events, the project would in turn pay for itself. [3] As projected, construction of the Center was completed on time; however, the Opera House adjoining it sat as it did when it closed in May 1991, with no signs pointing towards its future restoration. [4] What happened? Why was work on the Opera House not completed as promised?

Alderman Daniel McGuire asked these very questions when he introduced a resolution in 1995 that stated restoration was an “integral and important component” of the agreement between the city and Kiel Partners. [5] The vice-president of the Kiel Center Partners, JoAnn Miles, stated they were studying the final cost of the restoration, and that “…everyone’s goal is to reopen the Opera House.” [6] The reason for the delay? The strike- shortened hockey season of 1994-95. The Kiel Partners had spent $2.5 million to make repairs to the House, as estimates of damage were more than expected, but were unable to raise the $5-7 million needed to finish the work due to the strike. According to spokesperson Al Kerth, the necessary funds would be generated from private rather than public sources to expedite restoration. [7] Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a long and torturous scheme of delays and studies that would encompass the dark Opera House.

Photograph by Michael R. Allen, 2005.

By 1997, the Opera House still sat as it had in 1995: decaying, with only $2.5 million invested for negligible repairs. Other than that, nothing more had been done. St. Louis City Comptroller Darlene Green raised the issue of suing the Kiel Center Partners/Clark Enterprises [8], but determined it was not in the best interest of any parties involved. She felt the Kiel Partners, who naturally concurred, had fulfilled their obligations by making the repairs in 1995. [9] However, the real reason for the city not filing suit involved other projects between Clark Enterprises and the city. The city administration did not want to “…alienate Clark member companies … needed for other downtown revitalization efforts.” [10] As a result, the city was unable, or more accurately unwilling, to push the issue beyond talk due to its business relationships.

In October 1997, the Downtown Now! Master Planning Committee formed to explore options for improving the city. At one workshop, many of those participating identified several items seen as priorities for improvement. Aside from beautifying the city itself, they conceived that stabilization and restoration of historic buildings was a major priority. Of the buildings receiving recommendations, the Kiel Opera House was on the list. [11] As a result, Green stated that the Opera House would be completed as part of the overall development plan for the city. At the same time, she deemed it necessary to explore options for its restoration and eventual reopening. [12]

Incensed by this, several members of the Board of Aldermen felt that Green had not kept them informed nor had the Kiel Partners fulfilled their obligation. Likewise, Mayor Freeman Bosley felt that the issue had long been delayed in resolving itself and that the Opera House should be restored as agreed. The Partners, however, had been unsuccessful in locating any private investors at the time, and were unwilling to spend the $10-12 million needed to finish the work. The only question: how did estimates jump to $10-12 million? What happened to $5-7 million? In the time of two years, how had the cost doubled? Again, Green proposed yet another study to see if restoration was economically sound after all. [13]

In the meantime, at the behest of Comptroller Green, the Urban Land Institute initiated a different study of its own to help resolve the issue. [14] After a local committee, St. Louis 2004, compromised of residents and cultural representatives, gathered information, the Institute began their study at a cost of $75,000 to the city. What was their conclusion? They recommended against opening the Opera House as a performance hall, citing two venues that would deter it economically: Grand Center, i.e. Fox Theater, and the proposed University of Missouri-Saint Louis performance hall. [15] Coincidence or not that Green had suggested the Institute for the study, their conclusions served to validate her apparent underlying agenda: delay renovation until there was no other option but to tear it down. There is no other explanation for her actions and the exhaustive studies involved.

Photograph by Michael R. Allen, 2005.

As example, Green announced her ideas for utilization of the Opera House in February 1997, suggesting its possible use as “… restaurant-stage-tourist complexes such as those run by the Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe chains.” [16] Undeniably, she had taken a cue from then-Mayor of Philadelphia Ed Rendell, who found it unbelievable that the city of St. Louis did not have a chain like the Hard Rock Cafe. He had been instrumental in the chain’s rehab of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal as a Hard Rock restaurant, and the city’s self-esteem had improved as a result. [17] Perhaps the same could be done for St. Louis. So why not convert the Opera House into a Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Cafe? The answer was simple: plans were already being made at other locations for them. Planet Hollywood signed a lease in May 1997 to open on Laclede’s Landing, opening in October of that same year. [18] Was it again only coincidence that Planet Hollywood signed such a lease only three months after Green suggested the Opera House for such use?

In July 1998, after both Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe were fully entrenched at their respective locations, the Urban Land Institute concluded their study. Despite the Institute’s recommendations, St. Louis 2004 did not consider any of the proposals due to their economic feasibility. Naturally, David Fay, the then-president of Fox Associates that operates the Fox Theatre, agreed with the findings by stating that a reopened Opera House would destroy the Fox economically. [19] However, as Greg Freeman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had earlier questioned, where did this concern for the viability of the Fox, and Grand Center in general, originate in relation to a reopened Kiel Opera House? “There was a time … when both of these venues thrived,’ he wrote. [20] Further, why had this issue not been raised when the purchase agreement was reached between the city and the Kiel Center Partners? The Fox Theatre was being used then as it had always been, and it would undoubtedly continue to be once renovations to the Opera House were finished. Why was no attention given to such an apparently critical issue at the onset of talks in 1991? [21]

With other locations being used as performing arts centers and restaurant-style attractions, there was no need for such ideas. Kiel Partners/Clark Enterprises and Comptroller Green appeared to have done all they could to save the Opera House — and as well, were free of their obligations on the matter. It was a superficial facade, as some on the Kiel panel committee members were suspicious of the Urban Land Institute’s thoroughness in its findings. One committee member, Regional Arts Commission director Jill McGuire, felt the Institute’s findings were incomplete and that ” … the out-of-towners seemed to have a preconceived notion that only the opera house’s main 3,500-seat theater could be used for performances.”

Aside from such an apparent incongruity, the biggest problem concerning the renovation of the Opera House had always been the question of funding. At the start of 1997, Clark Enterprises declared that they had been unable to find a suitable “… entertainment company to take on a share of the Opera House.” This was not entirely truthful. More accurately, they were unable to find a company who would go along with the interests of Clark, the other entertainment venues, and the city. In 1995, Steve Schankman, the then-co-president of Contemporary Productions, offered seven million dollars to help reopen the Opera House as a performing arts center. This was the exact amount of money that the Kiel Partners needed — and had requested — in order to complete the renovation, at a time when they were facing financial troubles with the project. Further, Schankman felt that the need did exist for a venue such as the Opera House, stating that St. Louis had missed shows due to the inefficiency of having only one such place — the Fox Theatre.

Why was Mr. Schankman’s offer not accepted? It would have ended everything, and everybody would have won. The Kiel Partners would have been off the hook, not having to deal with the Opera House anymore; the city would get a renovated building, which they supposedly had been seeking, with all the benefits of jobs, taxes, etc; and Contemporary Productions would be the long-sought entertainment company in charge of the facility. This was a win-win situation for everybody, and yet the offer was rejected. It is reasonable to infer that somebody — perhaps a city official, but more probable someone connected to Grand Center — had a hand in the rejection of the proposal in order to preserve their own interests. No other logical explanation exists for the rejection of a plan that would have been a savior for all — the Kiel Center Partners, the city, and particularly, the Opera House. [26]

Nevertheless, other ideas for utilizing the Opera House had yet to be explored. The Urban Land Institute had proposed two uses for it: a jazz and blues museum, and a satellite Smithsonian museum. [27] Following the Institution’s recommendations, Steve Schankman again put forth an offer to turn the House into the jazz and blues museum. [28] As for the Smithsonian, a private group headed by Alan Bornstein worked to bring such a museum to downtown St. Louis. Many proposals were offered, but the Opera House was never considered for any of them — twenty locations studied, with two preferred sites: the city-owned Municipal Courts building and the federal building on Market Street. [29]

Why was Kiel missing from the list? According to Bornstein, the Opera House was not suitable for conversion to a museum — even though the city had spent $75,000 on a study that concluded otherwise. Additionally, the group was not sure if it would keep the entire Municipal building or tear parts down — and it would completely replace the federal building with a new structure. [30] Arguably, this was an incomprehensible plan. A building that a study said could be used as a museum is passed over, in order to select one that supposedly can be converted more favorably into such, while plans are developed for the construction of a completely new building on the site of another were it to be selected. Why? Would it not be easier and more economical to use a building already standing which, according to the Urban Land Institute’s study, could support such a project? Again, it was the same situation as the Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe episode: a study confirmed uses for the Opera House, plans for such use were already being realized at other locations, and the irrelevance of the Opera House was therefore validated through those very proposals.

The effort to save the Opera House, however, was nonetheless daunted, as other attempts to save the historic building still existed. Similar to Steve Schankman, real estate investor Samuel Glasser offered to purchase the Opera House for use as a performing arts center. Owner of Downtown Properties, a well-respected real estate company, Glasser offered one million dollars for the purchase and stated the building could be renovated for twenty-five million more. However, St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon was concerned that the purchase price was too low. He therefore turned the offer over to Comptroller Green for consideration, who stated “…she did not take the offer seriously because of the amount.” [31]

The amount was too low? In 1998, the Kiel panel, in consensus with the Urban Land Institute, proposed the renovation as well as other projects “…be funded by a $25 million trust fund of city and private money.” [32] Additionally, Glasser pointed out that the Opera House, under the terms of purchase by the Kiel Partners, was “…an asset producing a dollar a year and doing the public no good.” [33] Too low? According to the purchase agreement, the city had made, at the time, eight dollars from the Opera House since 1991; with Downtown Properties’  one million dollar offer, the city stood to make considerably more in the purchase alone. Inconceivably, Comptroller Green maintained that she was open to suggestions and would “…consider further information from Glasser or other would-be developers.” [34] How many suggestions and how much information, from how many developers, did Green need?

Mayor Harmon himself even tried his hand at a proposal. At the time, the University of Missouri-St. Louis was in the process of constructing a new cultural arts center. Harmon, however, did not want the University to follow through on those plans, and instead divert some of those funds to help renovate the Opera House. He proposed that the University and the city join in the project, reasoning that it could cost ten million dollars — far less than the arts center�s price tag of almost fifty million dollars — to convert the Opera House into a 1,600-1,800-seat theater, which both could share. [35] However, University Chancellor Blanche Touhill convinced the mayor otherwise, and assured him that the campus center would not compete with a reopened Opera House due to divergent utilizations. [36] Again, this was not a truthful statement. By all accounts, the new arts center would “…fill a void in the marketplace that has been felt even more acutely by area arts groups since the Kiel Opera House was put out of commission.” [37] Harmon felt that the University was putting itself first over the interests of the region, citing that both Washington University and St. Louis University seemed to have a greater commitment to a renovated Opera House. Whether an accurate assessment or not, Harmon decided not to press the issue and dropped his proposal. [38]

What more was needed to revitalize the Opera House? Comptroller Green said she was willing to take ideas. Steve Schankman had offered twice, along with many others. Meanwhile, the Kiel for Performing Arts Inc., another locally based group, had put forth their own revitalization plan. Working with Palm Capital Investors, a Florida-based company, and the local Glennon Company, headed by Glen Jamboretz [39], they became the number one advocate for the revitalization of the Opera House, raising awareness and, more importantly, the money to address its plight. The group also represented the human side of the fight, as the grandfather of the group’s president and executive officer, Ed Golterman, helped design and construct the Opera House. Therefore, his interests are beyond economics — it is more a matter of heritage and preservation. In 1929, Guy Golterman traveled Europe studying the best of their opera houses and implemented their styles in the design of the Kiel. Also, Ed’s mother, an opera singer, sang at the venue on several occasions, while his father, Ed Golterman, worked for several years there. [40]

Golterman has offered several ideas to the city and potential developers over the years. He has stated that the Opera House could be renovated for thirty million dollars [41], but felt all proposals had fallen on deaf ears. He has even stated that the Opera House does not have to be restricted to opera-oriented use, just as long as the building and its architecture are saved. As far as he is concerned, any event could take place in it, as long as it takes place in a renovated Kiel Opera House — even insisting that “Opera House” does not have to be in the name. He has felt that the name itself has given a preconceived idea of what could take place there. For him, as long as the building is saved intact, it can be called whatever is appropriate and acceptable. [42]

Golterman is not the only one with memories of the Kiel Opera House. Many in St. Louis have a certain memory of the luxury and beauty of the once-thriving building. For them, a sense of faith has been hard to maintain when that faith has been strained by study after study on what could be done, with nothing actually being done. As Greg Freeman stated in 1998, “what we could use a lot more of is a can-do spirit on the part of those involved.” [43] According to many, St. Louis has been missing this can-do attitude since the 19th century, when Chicago jumped past the city in prosperity by having one. Accordingly, the only thing St. Louis has seemingly been able to do is agree to study and delay without actually realizing anything. [44]

That was until February 2003, when developer Don Breckinridge set out a plan to revitalize the Opera House as a center for theater, music and other forms of entertainment. Breckenridge is not new to this sort of effort: just down the street from the Kiel is the Edison Brothers warehouse, now operating as a Sheraton Hotel, that his company restored. Current Mayor Francis Slay, Comptroller Green, and many others enthusiastically endorsed the plan, which would cost close to thirty million dollars and include a 1,200-1,500 car garage. [45] Therein lies the current problem — the location for the garage, seen as an integral component to any restoration plans of the Opera House.

In 2006, the L. Douglas Abrams Federal Building, situated next to the Opera House, will be vacated and sold by the government. Breckenridge’s plan calls for turning that location into the proposed parking garage. However, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 requires that any surplus federal property be made available to assist the homeless, and the Reverend Larry Rice, who has been an advocate for the homeless in St. Louis for decades, is requesting that the Abrams building become such a shelter. [46] In January 2004, Rice submitted to the federal government a plan to turn the Abrams building into a 1,000-person shelter [47], asking that it be leased for a dollar a year. In his proposal, he has cited overcrowded conditions at his current New Life Evangelistic shelter location, saying the new building would alleviate the problem. [48]

Without being callous towards the plight of the homeless, many city officials have opposed a shelter in the heart of downtown St. Louis. They stress that one shelter cannot address the many problems faced by impoverished St. Louisans, citing the economic advantage of a redevelopment downtown. [49] The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees and reviews homeless programs, rejected Rice’s application for the building in April 2004; he appealed the decision later in the year. [50] Meanwhile, Breckenridge has turned his focus towards renovating the vacant Municipal Building, across the street from the Opera House, into a hotel as part of the overall redevelopment plan of the area. [51] All he can do is wait for a decision from Rice’s appeal, confident that construction on the Opera House and adjoining buildings can commence before the end of 2005. [52]

For 60 years, the Kiel Opera House thrived as a jewel of the city, and served as a physical testament to the impact of Mayor Henry W. Kiel. Plenty of lip service has been paid towards the renovation of it through the years, the only result being study after study on what to do. Many factors have contributed to the downfall of revitalization efforts, a list that includes city government and the unfulfilled promises of developers. A host of investors and development groups have offered their services and ideas over the years, but so far, no such plans have come to fruition. As a result, the possibility exists that this architectural masterpiece will be lost forever. Such shortsightedness has found St. Louis on the also-ran list, instead of among the elite cities of the United States.

Endnotes

1. Elliot Liebson, “A City’s Buildings Shape Its Character,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 14 November 1999, sec. B; Jeff Daniel, “Rebuilding,” 15 August 1999. [Back]

2. The Kiel Center Partners, a part of Civic Progress and comprised of local businesses, formed to build a new arena for the St. Louis Blues and address other revitalization efforts in the city. [Back]

3. “Sverdrup Corp. Gets Contract To Manage Kiel Center Project,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 June 1991, sec. A. [Back]

4. Fred Lindecke, “Lockout Cost Cash for Kid Upgrade,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11 February 1995, sec. B. [Back]

5. Thorn Gross, “Alderman Calls For Inquiry Into Delays At Opera House,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 October 1995, sec. B. [Back]

6. Gross, “Alderman Calls For Inquiry Into Delays At Opera House.” [Back]

7.Lindecke, “Lockout Cost Cash for Kiel Upgrade.” [Back]

8. The Kiel Center Partners changed their name to Clark Enterprises in 1996. [Back]

9. Fred Lindecke, “Green Opts For Renewed Talks About Opera House,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 February 1997, sec. D. [Back]

10. Charlene Prost, “City Comptroller Weighs Plans for Renovation of Opera House,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 June 1998, sec. B. [Back]

11. Downtown Now! newsletter, “June 2 Workshop Draws Diverse Crowd of 300+ Eager To Share Their Ideas,” July 1998, (15 November 1999). [Back]

12. Margie Manning, “Green Says Study Aimed At Making Opera House Sing,” St. Louis Business Journal, 24 February 1997, (4 November 1999). [Back]

13. Lindecke, “Green Opts For Renewed Talks About Opera House.” [Back]

14. Lindecke, “Green Opts For Renewed Talks About Opera House.” [Back]

15. Prost, “City Comptroller Weighs Plans for Renovation of Opera House.” [Back]

16. Lindecke, “Green Opts For Renewed Talks About Opera House.” [Back]

17. “Hard Rock Me, Amadeus,” n.d. (4 December 1999). [Back]

18. Fred Faust, “Planet Hollywood Signs Lease for Laclede’s Landing,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 May 1997; “Downtowners Laud Planet Hollywood,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 25 October 1997. [Back]

19. Mark Schlinkmann, �Kiel Panelists Take No Stand On Proposals For Future Use,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 30 July 1998, sec. B. [Back]

20. Greg Freeman, “Memories of Opera House Are Too Precious To Lose,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 22 February 1998, sec. B. [Back]

21. H. Russell Carter, �St. Louis Needs A Renovated Opera House,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 February 1999, sec. B. [Back]

22. Schlinkmann, “Kiel Panelists Take No Stand On Proposals For Future Use.” [Back]

23. Lindecke, “Green Opts For Renewed Talks About Opera House.” [Back]

24. Prost, “City Comptroller Weighs Plans for Renovation of Opera House.” [Back]

25. Carter, “St. Louis Needs A Renovated Opera House.” [Back]

26. Prost, “City Comptroller Weighs Plans for Renovation of Opera House.” [Back]

27. Schlinkmann, “Kiel Panelists Take No Stand On Proposals For Future Use.” [Back]

28. Prost, “City Comptroller Weighs Plans for Renovation of Opera House.” [Back]

29. Charlene Prost, “Smithsonian Settle On Museum Theme; Two St. Louis Sites,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 November 1999. [Back]

30. Prost, “Smithsonian Settle On Museum Theme; Two St. Louis Sites.” [Back]

31. Mark Schlinkmann, “Officials Skeptical Of Offer For Kiel Opera House,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 26 June 1999, sec. OT. [Back]

32. Schlinkmann, “Kiel Panelists Take No Stand On Proposals For Future Use.” [Back]

33. Schlinkmann, “Officials Skeptical Of Offer For Kiel Opera House.” [Back]

34. Schlinkmann, “Officials Skeptical Of Offer For Kiel Opera House.” [Back]

35. Jo Mannies, “Mayor Asks UMSL To Help Renovate Kiel Opera House,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 January 1998, sec. B. [Back]

36. Mark Schlinkmann, “Harmon Drops Idea For Opera House,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 January 1998, sec. C. [Back]

37. Linda Tucci, “$49 Million Complex: UM-St. Louis Arts Center Draws Nearer,” 17 March 1997 (4 November 1999). [Back]

38. Schlinkmann, “Harmon Drops Idea For Opera House.” [Back]

39. Schlinkmann, “Officials Skeptical Of Offer For Kiel Opera House”; Greg Freeman, “Keep An Open Mind On Rehab, Rebirth of Kiel Opera House,” 4 November 1999. [Back]

40. Greg Freeman, “Supporter of Kid Opera Grew Up With It,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 June 1998, sec. B. [Back]

41. Freeman, “Keep An Open Mind On Rehab, Rebirth of Kiel Opera House.” [Back]

42. Freeman, “Supporter of Kiel Opera Grew Up With It.” [Back]

43. Greg Freeman, “Memories of Opera House Are Too Precious To Lose.” [Back]

44. Carter, “St. Louis Needs A Renovated Opera House.” [Back]

45. Charlene Prost, “Developer Has Plan To Reopen Kiel Opera House; Theater Would Host Local Groups, Broadway Plays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 February 2003, sec. B; Charlene Prost, “Breckinridge Is Ready To Announce Choice of Kiel Opera House Management Firm; Facility Would Reopen After $30 Million Facelift,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 May 2003, sec. A. [Back]

46. Marianna Riley, �Rice�s Ambitious Plans For Homeless Shelter Faces Review Today/Critics Say They Support Cause, Not Its Location,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 February 2004, sec. B. [Back]

47. Charlene Prost, �Opera House Keeps Eye Out For Final Act,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 May 2004, sec. E. [Back]

48. Marianna Riley, �Rice Defends Need For New Shelter To Federal Government,� St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 April, 2004, sec. B. [Back]

49. Riley, “Rice�s Ambitious Plans For Homeless Shelter Faces Review Today.” [Back]

50. Marianna Riley, “Rice May Get New Chance To Acquire Federal Building,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 November 2004, sec. B. [Back]

51. Charlene Prost, “Breckenridge Puts Federal Building Issue On Back Burner, Turns His Attention East,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 July 2004, sec. C. [Back]

52. David Nicklaus, “Breckenridge Waits Patiently As Kiel Drama Plays Out,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 September 2004, sec. B. [Back]

2 replies on “Personal Politics: Revitalization of the Kiel Opera House”

Turning kiel opera house into a garage, a museum of any kind-general grant (Schoemehl) or blues/jazz (Green) would have been criminal and probably finished off Downtown. But since 1998 it has been part of my proposals-to devote one of the four large theater-auditoriums to honor an art form presented so well in the opera house for so long. it belongs in the opera house not in a former department store. As an anchor tenant it helps bring back our civic center and makes the muni courts building that more attractive an investment. Also those who control the opera house should activate the pepsi theater as a theater and house
several performing companies for more -energy and critical mass and business.
Has grand center blocked both? of course. Has it blocked parking? Of course. Does that violate federal law? of course.

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