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St. Louis County Urbanism

The Shady Oak Theater and the Big Box

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Lynn Josse.

Wreckers started taking down the shuttered one-screen Shady Oak Theater at 7630 Forsyth Boulevard. While not dazzling, the Colonial Revival building was a handsome building. Built in 1933 and designed by architects Frederick Dunn and Campbell Alden Scott, the theater was a reminder of the genteel character that Clayton once possessed. The theater’s small scale was once part and parcel of the residential suburb’s architectural character, but in the past twenty years was an antidote to the giantism and automobile storage worship that has befell Clayton.

On November 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story on the demolition that quoted Thomas Stern, president of Solon Gershman, the company that is wrecking the theater for surface parking. According to Stern, “[n]ow if you don’t have 16 screens it doesn’t make sense to run a movie theater. It has more value to us now for parking in the intermediate term.”

In light of current economic circumstances, Stern’s first statement is as baffling as it is illuminating. Even at the height of our recent credit glut, theater operators in the region’s urban core had backed away from the super-sized multi-plex in favor of theaters of six screens or less. A one-screen move house is perfect for an urban area like downtown Clayton, where a residential population lies within an easy walk and land for a larger theater would be difficult to assemble.

With credit slow, I doubt that even the most exurban reaches of the St. Louis area will see a new 16-screen theater in the next few years. However, smaller movie houses with less overhead and closer to dense populations (especially wealthy populations like in Clayton) should do well. Stern’s comment suggests an uncritical embrace of large scale development — the attitude that has eroded Clayton’s charm, killed off the Shady Oak and damaged our economy. While there are signs that attitude has lost much of its momentum, there is also the possibility that the economic crisis has only momentarily slowed down the pace of the big box culture. Let’s hope that the big box is headed for the destruction that it has wrought on urban areas.

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