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.
There are only two reasons to build skyscrapers: land is scarce so you build upward (which was certainly true of congested downtown East St. Louis in the 1930’s), or you build a building tall as a trophy. The Spivey Building is absolutely Mr. Spivey’s and the city’s most visible trophy building.
It is hard to believe, but East St. Louis was once the 86th largest city in America and one of the most important cities in Illinois. In 1920, it had a population of almost 75,000 people. Tax revenue exceeded expenses. It was never a “suburb” of St. Louis as current academics now claim, but was a city in its own right, with a complete infrastructure and economy of its own. Its future seemed limitless and its population was projected to reach 250,000, which would have maintained its position as the second largest city in the state. No one ever called it a “suburb of St. Louis”; it was known as the “Pittsburgh of the West”, a true industrial powerhouse.
It was also a major government, retail, and office center. The 1914 City Directory lists over 1000 businesses, hardly the wretched economy described by modern academics. The Spivey Building was always part of the dream of an incredibly bright future for the city.
Downtown East St. Louis
The Spivey Building (1929) is located downtown and was apparently built as part of a $4,000,000 plan to “give the city a skyline”. The Murphy Building and Majestic Theatre (1928) and the Broadview Hotel (1928) were also built around this time.
All the streetcars, and later the buses, converged on the downtown streets, but East St. Louis developed other retail and business centers as residents began to drive automobiles. The “uptown” shopping center was a few blocks away and there were a lot of businesses thriving along both St. Clair Ave. and State St. Much of the gambling and vice and entertainment was located near downtown, but most of those areas were demolished and paved over by interstate highways in the 1960’s.
Collinsville Avenue was the city’s main business hub and it pretty much had everything. There was The First National Bank, Union National Bank, Southern Illinois National Bank, Illini Federal Savings and Loan, Walgreens, Woolworth’s, Kresge, Union Clothing, Lurie’s, Peerless Furniture, Stanley’s Clothing (always with a wedding dress in the window), Al’s Clothing, Seidel’s, B&P Office Supply (where the Catholic school kids bought their textbooks), and a large assortment of jewelry and other stores.
Upstairs at the Spivey Building (and at the First National Bank and Murphy Building), there were offices for doctors, dentists, lawyers, and other businesses. The Majestic Theatre opened a year before the Spivey Building and had a capacity of 1743 patrons. Several other theatres were located downtown showcasing all sorts of movies and live entertainment. The organ from the Majestic Theatre is still in use as the lobby organ at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis (third floor south lobby). (See story and pictures of the organ at http://www.sltos.org/fox_lobby.htm).
The main bus routes all converged downtown so that you could transfer buses to anywhere in the city or continue on to downtown St. Louis. The Broadview Hotel, a seven story luxury hotel costing $1.25 million to build, was nearby with 250 rooms and a penthouse ballroom with panoramic views. Walgreens and Woolworth’s had their lunch counters and there once was a Thompson’s cafeteria and a restaurant in the Murphy Building, plus a Hodge’s Chili Parlor, a Chinese restaurant, and many others places to eat and to socialize.
A few blocks away was another retail center known as “uptown” where the stores had parking lots in an area that was less congested. There was a large Sears store, another Kresge dime store (later Jupiter), a large Kroger supermarket, the Uptown Pharmacy, Western Auto, National Auto, Southern Illinois National Bank (It moved from Collinsville Ave.), a gourmet food shop, the public library, One Hour Martinizing cleaners, and many smaller stores and businesses.
Both State Street and St. Clair Ave. also had all sorts of businesses, restaurants, stores, offices, wholesalers, car dealerships, etc. located along their length. State Street also had the large Shop City Shopping Center with an A&P Supermarket, W.T. Grant and other stores, a bowling alley, a medical office building, and a drive-in movie theatre all located across the street from the modern East St. Louis Senior High School.
Almost 100 fraternal and civic organizations were located in the city and many built lavish buildings (Knights of Columbus, Elks Club, Shriners, etc.). East St. Louis was very prosperous with many mansions and fine neighborhoods and was a center of government and retail operations until the urban riots of the mid 1960’s. After that, people and investment capital began to move to safer places.
I remember my parents talking about the Spivey Building even when I was a youngster. My mother bragged that it was 13 stories tall. (Current news reports say that it is twelve stories, but I think they are wrong.) She and my father knew many people who worked in the building, but I was too young to have any reason to go there. Our own family doctor was located on State Street and our dentist was on the fourth floor of the First National Bank Building a block away from the Spivey. I’m told that there was a bowling alley in the basement but I don’t recall ever seeing it. My dad often bowled at the Knights of Columbus (which had manual pin-setters) but I usually went with other teen-agers to the modern fully automated Shop City Bowl on State Street.
Throughout the years, my brothers and I took turns being paperboys for the Journal so we had to go to the Journal Building next door to the Spivey every Saturday to pay for our newspapers. When our parents drove us downtown, they parked at the rear of the Journal building and we went into a cashier’s room just inside the loading docks to pay for our newspapers. When I traveled downtown alone by bus to pay for my papers, I would enter through the front of the Spivey Building and cross the lobby to get to the Journal’s cashier room.
The Spivey was never an overly extravagant building and I remember the lobby as being nice but somewhat dark. There was a cigarette/news stand to the right of the front entrance and the elevators were to the rear. I would take a right turn just before reaching the elevators in order to enter the Journal Building.
There are some interesting aspects to my memories. I was only twelve years old when I was taking the bus downtown by myself to pay for my newspapers. That certainly refutes the current view that East St. Louis was always lawless and crime infested. My brothers and I would ride the bus downtown all the time. We particularly liked the Saturday children’s matinee at the Majestic Theatre: a double feature plus cartoons that often had an intermission show with door prizes. It only cost 25 cents (I think the bus was a dime) and we were perfectly safe. (The Majestic closed in 1960.)
(In the television series Leave it to Beaver there is an episode where Beaver disobeys his parents by going to a movie and wins a bicycle as a door prize. He then has to hide the bicycle from his parents so they won’t know that he went to the movie. That day at the movies depicted in the television show is exactly what it was like to go to the Majestic Theatre in the late 1950’s. Coincidentally, there is another episode of “Beaver” where June Cleaver mentions that she is “from East St. Louis”.)
Another thing I remember is that there was always a man standing near the elevators when I passed through the Spivey Building lobby. It occurred to me that he would have been an elevator starter meaning that the elevators in this building required elevator operators. I’ve confirmed this with my brother. He knew one of the elevator operators who worked there. Does anyone even remember that elevators once had operators who had to try to get the elevator to stop level with the floor so that passengers did not have to step up or step down in order to get in or out of the elevator car?
A third curiosity is the cigarette stand in the lobby. In her youth, my mother worked at Walgreens across the street and her job was to work the cigar stand. Walgreens and Woolworth’s had lunch counters and there was a lot of socializing during lunchtime among the businessmen downtown. My mom’s job was to be pleasant to the businessmen who came into Walgreens to buy cigarettes and cigars. As a result, she knew everyone downtown. She used to sell them cigars and all the businessmen smoked in those days. I also understand that cigar stores became true social centers when the taverns closed during Prohibition.
Spivey Building Features
As I thought about the architecture of the Spivey Building, I’ve come to realize that its main distinction is its height. Its lobby was not particularly grand. It had manual elevators. It wasn’t air conditioned. It doesn’t really sit well on its site. (Spivey probably presumed that other buildings would be built around it, but they never were.) It really is a fairly utilitarian building, the perfect building for East St. Louis’ no nonsense business community.
Some have compared the architecture to the work of Louis Sullivan and such comparisons seem apt. Sullivan was a world famous Chicago architect who believed that a building should reveal its structure and its use without an excess of superfluous ornamentation. He allowed his buildings to reveal their nature and was not fond of glossy “layer cake” structures like the nearby Murphy Building. One of Sullivan’s greatest buildings is the landmark Wainwright Building in St. Louis and I think he might have liked the design of the Spivey.
However, what worries me is that current photos show an iron fire escape attached to the rear. The floors are relatively small so I guess the architect didn’t want to waste space on two interior stairwells. But how do you rehab a thirteen story building without appropriate fire stairs? Can you really allow a thirteen story exterior fire escape in a building this tall?
Even worse, the East St. Louis police and fire departments lack equipment and manpower. How would they even fight a fire in a high rise? Do they have the equipment and expertise?
Plans for the Spivey Building
The recent plans for the Spivey Building reportedly are to spend $6.2 million ($4 million of it from the city and state, not including federal tax credits) to convert the building into “high end” office space. The building now sits, desolate and decrepit, in a downtown area where all the store buildings I remember from my youth remain, but they are unused and abandoned.
These stores are really bad buildings. I remember that the Woolworth’s and Kresge stores were antiques 40 years ago. They had creaky wooden floors, no air conditioning, bad lighting and no amenities except for ceiling fans. The bank buildings were more substantial, but it is unlikely that any of the downtown buildings have any value. Most of them are boarded up and unused. The Majestic Theatre and Murphy Building were gorgeous, but they are in such a state of decay that it is unlikely that they can be saved. I understand that the Murphy Building is starting to collapse and that the Majestic Theatre was stripped of its interior fixtures and ornaments decades ago. The current owner bought the 60,000 sq. foot Spivey Building for a mere $75,000
There simply is no longer any substantial commerce or street activity in the area of the Spivey Building downtown. When I visited it last December, I freely walked down the center of what had once been busy streets and, in the thirty minutes during which I was taking photographs, I saw only one car drive by. Downtown East St. Louis is a ghost town, or a city out of the Twilight Zone, untouched by modernity. There is no reason for a high rise “high end” office building to exist in such a place. So what is the plan? What possible use can this building, abandoned for twenty years, have now?
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Philip H. Cohn, whose family is reported to have been one of East St. Louis’s biggest absentee landlords for decades (They owned 523 parcels in 1990 according to the Post Dispatch), hopes to rent the office space to social welfare agencies that will enjoy an upscale health club and a new restaurant. He plans to use certain federal, state, and city tax subsidies to help finance the renovation. It is primarily taxpayers who will pay for this renovation so this is a welfare project, not an economically viable investment.
(Mr. Cohn is currently awaiting sentencing after having reportedly pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering in connection with a land deal for the school system, and to improper removal of asbestos from the Spivey Building. His wife pleaded guilty to bank fraud. The state and city money for the Spivey Building rehab has not materialized. The businesses and social agencies thought to be interested have not formalized any letters of intent to rent space. Mr. Cohn still hopes to sell the building so that its rehab can be completed as planned. Meanwhile, the city has issued a demolition order because of falling bricks but has stayed the demolition pending a new plan for the building.)
The prospect that this building would generate additional investment and revitalize downtown East St. Louis is virtually nil. As Gertrude Stein said about the suburbs: “There’s no ‘there’ there.” There is nothing in downtown to save. There’s no reason to go there. The clients of social agencies do not have the kind of disposable incomes that might spark a downtown retail renaissance when they visit a revived Spivey Building.
Imagine that: Mr. Spivey built his building in the center of commerce in a spirit of optimism in the belief that East St. Louis would grow to be a city of 250,000 people. Now, his building may be renovated with tax subsidies to be a center for social agencies in an abandoned city of 31,000 people where nearly a third of the families live in poverty and the median household income is only $21,324. What kind of a trophy building is that? What kind of a symbol is that? It only perpetuates the myth that East St. Louis was always a city of helpless victims, even though it never was.
I understand now why the city issued a demolition permit for this building. I understand now why the city has allowed one building after another to decay and disappear. Buildings are important symbols, and the symbols of prosperity and hope need to disappear so that the city can perpetuate its myth of helplessness and victimization. The city is simply addicted to state and Federal money and can’t let anything contradict the idea of its helplessness.
To claim the Spivey Building as a trophy and symbol of the welfare state is a blasphemy that disrespects both the history and the future of East St. Louis. To spend tax dollars in the belief that a building will generate new development and wealth downtown is folly. Why not just build a new skyscraper for social agencies in a cornfield somewhere? It makes as much sense.
Until there is once again a political environment and business climate that fosters and encourages real economic investment and wealth creation in East St. Louis, the renovation of the Spivey is just another taxpayer subsidized project doomed to failure.
Instead of trying to live in the shadow of Mr. Spivey’s long forgotten dream, it may be better for the current residents of the city to use those tax dollars to build a new symbol for East St. Louis, a building that reflects who they are now and who they want to be tomorrow. Maybe it is time to forget the past and start thinking about building a new future. Maybe it’s time to start dreaming again.
Thomas Petraitas is author of Growing Up Lithuanian in East St. Louis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.