Michael and Dan go to St. Louis

Daniel Emberley, May 2003

Michael had an assignment teaching for the IRS in St. Louis. As usual, we had a great time exploring a new city. He was working Monday-Wednesday, so on those days, most of the sightseeing was by Dan alone. We had a car through Sunday, but did a lot of touring on foot and via MetroLink, their light rail/subway system. Feel free to skim, keep, or trash.

But first ...

An Open Letter to the People of St. Louis

The committee has rendered its judgement. You, the citizens of St. Louis, have failed at all attempts to create a city; in fact, you have done an excellent job at destroying the city you inherited. Never in our experience have we seen an urban failure of such magnitude. It would appear that at every critical juncture since the 1920's the city has faced options, looked to urban planners, and chosen the most disastrous course. In the 1920's you widened your downtown streets to 6- and 7-lane expanses. In the 1930's you leveled your riverfront downtown, removed all structures built prior to 1850, and gutted any chance to compete with towns like New Orleans or even Vicksburg. You then let that land lie fallow, as parking lots, for thirty years. In the 1950's boom you rammed redundant federal highways through your neighborhoods, locating them so closely together that just as an area starts to recover some urbanity, the decay of the next interchange begins. In the 1960's, you continued the destruction, ripping out neighborhoods to create vast public housing projects. You finally put a park over the area that had once been downtown, building an arch that looks best from a car on an expressway fleeing the city. In the 1970's you ripped down the housing projects as crime-infested ghettos. By the 1980's, when everyone else in America was discovering their downtowns, you had so thoroughly gutted yours that there was nothing left to bring a center back to, as the abandoned St. Louis Center mall demonstrates. As America moved to an information/service economy, you gripped your heavy industries with claws of management and union intransigence, whining about foreigners stealing your jobs as you refused to retool, educate yourselves, or move forward. 

In the 1990's boom, you invested in a one-line subway from the airport to downtown and into Illinois. You built this so cheaply that trains cross streets at grade, blowing locomotive whistles to warn commuters that the rail gates have descended. You pay ticket agents to walk the cars checking for valid fare rather than install a technology as simple as tokens. Subway rights of way follow those same disheartening expressways, so when a transit rider exits a station, they must walk for 10 minutes over highway, train tracks, and parking lots before coming to a single building.

All of these failures build on an infrastructure that is paranoid and faulty. St. Louis invented the "private street" (aka, gated community) in the 1850's, and proudly built miles of streets with ornamental gates and substantial, beautiful homes. Once open to the public and functional, you now lock those gates, so only the privileged get to see the beauty or even drive down the road. The average citizen is channeled onto highways around the neighborhoods, with glimpses through the wrought iron of the affluence they are locked away from. There is little or no retail, either downtown or in the neighborhoods. We could not find a single drug store downtown - who would have thought we would miss CVS?  Where services (dry cleaners, ATM machines, restaurants) exist, they are locked inside private buildings, and not advertised on the street. Your neighborhood strips are so meager that when you get four restaurants in a row, you publicize that as an urban center, and if one of those restaurants serves egg rolls, it is a tourist attraction.

It is time to stop. Stop taking federal and state money to put band aids over your mistakes. Stop locking your views into the safety and security of your own house/car/office, and look at the city you have destroyed. 

We see two recommendations for your future:

A. Resettlement: Request the state to restore St. Louis City to St. Louis County. The city seceded from the county in the 1890's, a foolish and possibly irremediable error. Prevent construction of any new construction in the county/city unless it abuts either a MetroLink station or another block that has a going concern (house, office, business) on it. With the savings, build the MetroLink line to Clayton, seemingly the only part of the city with a retail district (interestingly, just across the city line in the county). That might help fill the gaps in your landscape, put the parking on the outside of neighborhoods instead of in the middle, and encourage people to walk and see what they have. You should not need to build new sewer, water, electric, schools, or other utilities for decades as you re-settle your existing streets, so turn the money saved into maintenance and upgrade.


B. Re-education: Throw in your cards and admit your failure. In exchange for giving up all state and federal subsidies, each resident of St. Louis will be granted $2000 provided they move within 12 months to another city, a real city, where you can learn what it means to be a citizen and your obligations to making civilized life exist. What is left of St. Louis will be allowed to implode and shrink to the few port/rail facilities still required at this juncture.

That's not a joke. The city of St. Louis did not appear dangerous: it is past danger. It is empty. As I walked the downtown and neighborhoods, I think I saw ten other pedestrians in three days. In the middle of rush hour, Michael and I could walk across those seven lane boulevards downtown against the lights and never stop a car. It's a ghost town. Next to housing projects, in elite Victorian neighborhoods, alongside dead industrial zones, there are only parked cars, moving cars, and boarded up store fronts. If you choose to visit St. Louis, plan on spending two days, tops, and rent a car. If you are a student of urban planning, walk, and learn the lessons the citizens have so foolishly provided.

That diatribe ended, here's what we saw, did, and recommend.

Friday, 4/25

We got great views from the plane of the Commodore Perry Memorial in Lake Erie and Ford's River Rouge Plant outside Detroit. Arriving in St. Louis, we rented a car and, in a presciently brilliant move, began our visit to St. Louis by abandoning it. Crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge over the Mississippi we made a quick look left to where the Missouri River joins it, then headed northeast through the Illinois suburbs.

Our first stop was Edwardsville, home of Southern Illinois University.  This looks like a campus that some local power boondoggled out of the Illinois legislature in the 1950's. They have an acceptable but dull concrete and brick campus with fairly nice landscaping. The big draw is the collection of Louis Sullivan ornament which has been left to the university. All around campus, but especially in the library and in Founders' Hall, bits of architectural remnants are installed. Sullivan was the great exponent of American Art Nouveau, designer of Carson, Pirie Scott and the Auditorium Building in Chicago, and the Wainright, perhaps the first modern office building, in St. Louis. Frank Lloyd Wright studied with him, and was strongly influenced by Sullivan's floral ornamental style in his early work and "form follows functions" precepts throughout his life. You wouldn't think that a bunch of 1880's terra cotta panels, windows, and elevator cages stuck in 1960's concrete would make sense, but they work together brilliantly. It was also the day of the art department's annual sale of work from the glass and ceramic studios, so we stocked up on decent unique pottery and glass.

The drive to Springfield, state capital of Illinois, is less than two hours from St. Louis (closer than it is to Chicago). Unbeknownst to us, we had been following the trail of old Route 66. In Springfield, we stopped at the historically retro Cozy Corner, birthplace of the corn dog. This is a very nice look at how road food looked and tasted before franchise chains were invented. Very fun, great corn dogs, and chock-full of Route 66 memorabilia. We took an orientation drive around downtown, found ourselves a Super 8 with Home and Garden Channel on the TV, and crashed.

Saturday, 4/26

Springfield surprised us with how much there was to do, how easy it was to get around by car and foot, and the over-all pleasantness. We kicked off with the Lincoln Home. This is maintained by the National Park Service in a four-block area restored to how the neighborhood looked in 1850. The home itself is in a more luxurious early Victorian style than one generally credits to Lincoln. Auxiliary buildings and other homes on the site are used to interpret the Lincoln period in Springfield and historic preservation. Very nicely done.

A short walk away is the Dana Thomas House. Susan Lawrence Dana was the daughter of one of Illinois' power brokers, and a major player herself. In 1904 she hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a city home where she could pursue the lavish entertaining required of a political hostess. Wright built her the largest building of his career to that date, an expanse that goes on for many rooms and floors, all in his terrific pre-career-crisis Prairie Style. Outside of the Guggenheim, it may be the largest Wright structure we have ever been in. After Ms Dana's death the home was obtained by the local Thomas Publishing Company, which used it respectfully as an office for another 40 years. The State of Illinois received the house from Thomas. The result is a Wright building with few owners, excellent provenance, and most of the original furnishings intact. We took notes for the decoration of our upcoming living room.

We broke for lunch at our guide's recommendation, Cafe Brio. This was a nice Mexican-themed, gay and family friendly restaurant with great salads. Downtown is wonderfully walkable, with a healthy retail area housing great card and used book stores all a short distance from the sites and government buildings.

After lunch we toured the Illinois State Capitol, an 1870's High Victorian pile at least as grand as the Colorado State Capitol of the same period. The Illinois State Museum has great presentations on the history of the state, including an engrossing exhibit where visitors are presented aspects of the life of an Illinoisan (a Pullman Factory worker, an 1830's pioneer, a 1920's farmer) and asked to make choices about how to live that life. Very well curated and totally involving, right up to the most cool reproductions of a 1970's living room and 1980's teen's bedroom. The kid's "please touch" room does a fantastic job of involving kids and adults: I got to play with identifying furniture-quality woods.

We checked out an antiques mall, Sangamon Antiques, where they had good quality 1950's stuff at reasonable prices, then hit the highway back to St. Louis.  Arriving in time for dinner, we found a Vietnamese restaurant in "Grand South Grand", a neighborhood billed as Asian in the tour guides, but looking more funky-gay to us.  We took an evening drive around Compton Park and Compton Heights, a neighborhood of 1890's to 1910's middle class mansions. 

It took us a while to figure out the lawn signs reading "No Gates for Compton Heights".  St. Louis is famous for its invention of the "private street".  This is a type of development where a private developer installed streets, utilities, park areas, and decorative gates, and dictated the quality of houses and type of residents via restrictive covenants.  Over time, the street infrastructure was usually taken over by the city, but the private association would strongly influence home construction, changes, and property sales.  On the positive side, this led to the development of beautiful streets and neighborhoods with well placed and constructed houses on shared landscapes.  On the negative, the associations led to whites-only, income-biased housing.  The  gates were generally opened to the public during times of peace and affluence.  Since the economic implosion and crime fears following World War II, most of these have been closed and locked, with auto (and in some cases, pedestrian) access only to residents.  This turning-in of the city onto itself has prevented the growth of strong communities in St. Louis.   

We headed back across the Mississippi and found a Fairfield Inn for the night in suburban Collinsville.

Sunday, 4/27

We drove back to the city, starting at Forest Park.  This was set up as a public park after the Civil War.  Extending from the mid-center of the city to its western boundary, the Park is larger than New York's Central Park, and espoused similar hopes of recreation for urban health.  In 1904, the St. Louis World's Fair was held here (think Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis"), so it holds claims to the birth of the hot dog and the ice cream cone.  The Park also holds the Art Museum, Zoo, History Museum, Science Museum, a conservatory, and viewing pavilions, but is so large that it easily houses those while retaining its woodland setting. 

North and east of Forest Park is the greatest concentration of private streets in the city.  We parked the car and walked a bit, admiring the housing stock while being frustrated by the cul de sacs that the gates force on the city plan.  Most of these streets allow pedestrian entrance through only one or two gates, so negotiating them is a bit of a maze. 

For lunch we went to the Union Station food court.  St. Louis Union Station is a great Richardsonian pile, one of the largest train stations in the U.S.  It went through a rehab about 15 years back; the old terminal is now a luxury hotel, with a shopping mall inserted into the train sheds behind.  Nicely preserved public spaces in the hotel.  Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum is everywhere in St. Louis; they are the architects who designed the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.  They handled transformation of Union Station, including insertion of a boating lake into the massive space where the trains once loaded.  While the MetroLink, the St. Louis subway, stops here, regular trains no longer do.  Instead, using the same right-of-way, Amtrak passengers board from a concrete platform in the middle of an amenity-free zone amidst rail switching yards two blocks away.  Didn't make any sense to us, but we'd begun to realize how un-urbane St. Louis is by this point.

We returned the car to the airport, and caught the MetroLink back into town.  This is a new, only ten years old, system, which is one of the highlights of St. Louis.  It travels old train rights-of-way from the airport through western suburbs, along the edge of Forest Park, through a highway/railway wasteland, and into downtown.  It crosses downtown in its only below-ground segment using tunnels built in the 1880's to carry freight trains to the Eads Bridge.  Crossing the Eads, it runs through East St. Louis, soon to connect to a second airport in Illinois.  I already complained about the distance of most stations from anywhere; on the fun side, it was cool to hear the train whistle as gates came down to let the subway cross major streets.   

We got off at Arch/LaClede's, just on the Missouri side of the Mississippi.  The station is actually in the Eads Bridge, one of my must-see sites.  The Eads was the first major bridge crossing of the Mississippi River, built after the Civil War.  It allowed St. Louis to compete with Chicago, Minneapolis, and other railroard towns to the north.  Mr. Eads was with the Army Corps of Engineers, and had never built a bridge before.  What he knew was the Mississippi, from years of working salvage operations, and he combined his river knowledge with contemporary truss construction to build a gorgeous, functional, double-decker expanse that vaults the river in low arches.  I hadn't expected to see the bridge still in operation, much less carrying a subway across the old railroad lower deck.

To the north of the bridge is the only remaining segment of pre-1880's St. Louis, LaClede's Landing.  This was a warehouse district and part of the old downtown along the Mississippi, and has been Rouse-Companied into a cobblestone paved festival marketplace.  Other cities (Savannah, New Orleans) do it better, but it is pleasant.  The river views are sensational. 

What happened to the rest of the historic downtown?  In the 1930's St. Louis razed it.  Incredibly, acres of downtown were leveled and turned into a parking lot.  In the 1960's the Gateway Arch was built on the land, and the base turned into an over-scaled grassy mall.  The Arch itself is beautiful, both from up close and as a signature on the city's landscape.  The loss of the historic city at its base, however, is tragic.  We took the tram to the top, admired the view, and descended to the Museum of the Westward Expansion.  This is a 1970's insertion to try to relate the Arch to what it is supposed to commemorate, President Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory and the settlement of the American frontier.  Sadly, the exhibit hall is lame, with a poorly laid out series of dioramas and pavilions covering the topic in no specific order.  A National Park ranger led a tour on the topic of cowboys; that seemed a better educational use than just the exhibits straight, but overall it was a sad attempt at a history museum.  Besides, last time I checked, Independence and Kansas City, on the other side of the state, were the actual jumping off point for most pioneers. 

Interestingly, the lame history museum is one of three.  The second is in the Old Courthouse, the building you see framed in photos of the Arch.  It is a historic landmark well worth saving, where the Dred Scott case was heard that helped push the country into the Civil War.  The old courtrooms have been converted into galleries showing the history of St. Louis.  Again, these seem to have been unrevised and undusted since first installed in the late 1970's, and do nothing to analyze the urban problems we were to discover in the city.  The central dome is lovely, but the lonely Park Service guard seemed grateful that anyone had decided to enter her turf.   

We walked a bit around downtown, in pursuit of Louis Sullivan's Wainright Building.  This landmark has been grafted to a lame 1960's brick Federal Building.  Think about the  New Executive Office Buildings, on Lafayette Park in D.C.  Sort of like that, with the historic building serving as focus for a taller, uglier, denser office structure.  Unfortunate, and sadly disrespectful. 

We checked into our hotel, the Omni Majestic, downtown.  This is part of the National Trust's Historic Hotels of America program, meaning it has been a significant restoration of a national architectural treasure.  Even here, St. Louis disappointed us.  While a very nice Omni, the main street entrance has been closed, the public spaces turned into generic "gentlemen's club" leather style, and the main entrance moved to a modern stuccoed facade on the parking lot.

We had dinner at Hannegan's in LaClede's Landing.  Food was okay, decor was supposed to emulate that of the U.S. Senate.  Apparently Mr. Hannegan was a machine politician in the early part of the 20th Century, and the theme was supposed to tie in to his heyday.  Having been to the Senate, we didn't see the connection, but maybe it works for alfalfa farmers from Missouri.

Monday, 4/28

Ever see those ads for SBC on public television?  Turns out it stands for Southwestern Bell Company.  Its headquarters fills three blocks of downtown St. Louis, including a fabulous 1930's stepped Deco gem linked to two 1980's towers by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum.  We checked out their lobby for a place for breakfast, and came up cold.  Then we tried the grassy mall to its west, running from the river west to Union Station.  Also nothing.  It seems most service type outlets, like restaurants and drug stores, are inside buildings, not advertised on the street, and often only accessible to tenants and residents.  An entire downtown that does not face the street.  Incredible.  Finally found a decent greasy spoon next to the Wainright Building (when in doubt, track where Federal employees congregate, they're cheap <smile>).  I walked Michael to his office in a recently renovated 1930's building, and walked Tucker Boulevard west.  This runs over a mile of highway and rail right of way, over Interstates 64/40, the MetroLink, freight tracks, and Purina Foods parking lots.  A bit of a pedestrian-inhibiting separation, that.  Once there, you hit a tricky and nasty stretch along abandoned housing projects.  Then, the street is blocked by a row of Jersey barriers, and on the flip side, just like Dorothy entering Oz, you find .... 

Lafayette Square and Park.  This was one of the first St. Louis neighborhoods to be renovated, back in the 1960's.  It is still one of the best preserved stretches of 1850's Victorian residences in the country. Great houses, on terrific landscapes.  The retail, unfortunately, was dead dead dead: restaurants and shops seem to have been there recently, but all were out of business.  This was my first experience ever of a city where I could not buy a Diet Coke, or even a piece of gum, in an urban neighborhood.  Just as soon as the density of the Park started getting cool, it ran into empty lots again as it approached Interstate 44.  Yes, St. Louis built two major elevated highways on parallel routes through some of its most historic neighborhoods just a 20 minute walk apart.  So, just as soon as an area starts to recover from the highway noise and blight, it hits the degradation of another. 

Across I-44 is Russell Boulevard and Compton Heights, and I got to walk through the neighborhood we had driven through Saturday night.  The houses are big, on large lots, solid, and great examples of vernacular and high-style American residential architecture.  Reservoir Park holds the reservoir, obviously, and one of several fanciful water towers in the city.  Some of these look like Norman castles, or giant Corinthian columns, or Richardsonian lookouts.  Very cool.  I crossed over to a neighborhood called Shaw.  This had been laid out by Henry Shaw, founder and designer of the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  The main east-west road through Shaw is Flora Place, a private street which once led to the Garden's pedestrian entrance.  This being St. Louis, of course, that gate was locked, and you have to walk 1/3 of the way around the Gardens to enter through the parking lot.  The Missouri Botanical Gardens are worth the trip.  It houses Japanese, Chinese, and Victorian landscapes, a geodesic dome housing a rainforest, and extensive plots demonstrating garden options for typical American homes.  Tres cool.  I got to Shaw's original Victorian maze just as buckets of rain started coming down.  I waited the storm out in a folly overlooking the maze and flowers, just lovely. 

Kings highway Boulevard sounded like a road that would be beautiful: it runs from the Gardens to Forest Park.  Unfortunately, it is a nowhere throughway, allowing normal people to drive around all those gated streets to a hospital center and more highways.  East of Forest Park is the Central West End.  This is talked up to be the urbane center of all those Victorian neighborhoods, but it came down to three restaurants, a bar, and an ice cream parlor five minutes from the MetroLink station.  Disappointing. 

The New Cathedral is not so new, it replaced the Spanish/French Old Cathedral in the 1880s.  Most of the interior is finished in mosaics from the 1890's to 1920's.  Very well done, one of the largest collections of mosaic art in the world.  They have a black-and-gold Secessionist style chapel that is breathtaking, and a crypt museum telling about how it was all done.  The Cathedral is the center of a Catholic administrative center surrounded by bad Catholic architecture from the 1950's.  

I caught MetroLink over to East Riverfront, the first stop in Illinois, just for the experience of riding on the Eads Bridge, then rode back to St. Louis Center.  The Center is a large urban shopping mall built in the 1970's.  Most of the spaces were vacant, and those that were open sold wigs and t-shirts.  The mall connects to downtown's last department store, Famous Barr.  This is sort of a treat, with four restaurants, seven floors, and Deco escalators.  It looks like it was last renovated in the 1950's, astounding for an urban department store.   

Caught up with Michael for dinner in the Union Station Landry's.  The plus for this is that it's on the lakeside under the old train shed.  The downside is that all Landry's seafood places seem to be alike, and the service was ignorantly slow.  We should have gone to Hooters.

Tuesday, 4/29

We'd heard rumors that Washington Boulevard downtown still had 1880's warehouses.  Indeed it does, they held clothing and leather factories that survived into the 1970's, so escaped demolition.  The result is one of the few stretches of downtown that actually look and act like a city.  Many of these are being turned into warehouse loft residences, and others are dance clubs.  Nothing was open in the A.M., but to find any stretch of St. Louis where there were going concerns at all was a surprise.  

I caught MetroLink to Forest Park.  Experiencing the Park this time as a pedestrian, rather than from a car, I noticed how much of it had been torn down.  Large tracts had been denuded of trees, and were dirt fields awaiting grass or any kind of planting.  Shade was hard to come by on the paths.  The Jewel Box is a giant glass conservatory.  It was built with interesting flat roofs and vertical glass walls to fight the killer hail they get.  Passed the Municipal Theater and walked through the World's Fair Pavilion.  This latter is not actually from the 1904 Fair.  Turns out that the Fair made beaucoup dollars, and the profits went into restoring the Park, building the History Museum, and constructing this viewing stand over the landscape.  Quite lovely, some photo panels told the history of the Pavilion from construction, through decay, use as a bandstand for 1960's rock concerts, to present renovation and restoration. 

The St. Louis Art Museum was the only permanent construction from the World's Fair.  It houses a good but not spectacular collection.  I'd say not as good as Boston, better than Worcester, and if you've seen the National Gallery or Art Institute of Chicago, feel free to skip it.  They have excellent collections of Asian and Oceanic art, decent period rooms from East Coast cities, and reconstructions of possible European period rooms from parts.  It was nice to see contemporary and modern art incorporated into the permanent collection. 

Leaving Forest Park, I MetroLinked back to Grand Street.  St. Louis University has two tourist draws on campus.  The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art is better than I expected, with Catholic art from the last fifty years installed in a former Jesuit residence.  Since each priest required his own chapel for daily obligations, the many side chapels provide terrific space to contemplate the work of highlighted artists, and the former nave is a good central gallery.  The Cupples House is an 1870's German mansion.  Very heavy decor, but well preserved.  Since it is so sparsely attended, you pretty much get free run of the house, allowing you to get up close and personal with the wood carving, stained glass, public rooms, and family and servant quarters.

North of the University, Grand Avenue turns into Grand Center.  This is the former theater district, with several 1920's movie palaces that have been converted for the Symphony and other performing groups.  Sadly, almost no restaurants, and no retail.  The Pulitzer Foundation has just erected the first Tadao Ando building in the U.S. just around the corner.  It is smaller than it looked in the architecture magazines, a great concrete pile that did not seem to welcome visitors.  Appropriate, since the building only opens to the public for a few hours on Wednesday and Saturday.  Odd to have so recently built such a public amenity only to restrict access. 

Joined Michael back in Forest Park at the Missouri History Museum.  This should really be called the St. Louis History Museum, since there is no notice of any other part of the state.  The first floor has goofy old displays, but the second has a new exhibit that does an excellent job of explaining St. Louis.  What pleased me most was the way they present issues about the city, compare it to other cities, and ask what decisions were right and which wrong.  This was the only example of self-reflection we saw in our entire stay. 

There is supposed to be a good restaurant at the Museum, but, true to form, it was closed for a private function.  We had previously scouted the neighborhood for food and found only a sub shop and possibly closed Chinese restaurant, so headed back to Union Station via MetroLink for the Route 66 Brewery.  St. Louis seems to be proud of their Route 66 heritage, but honestly, the places in Springfield show it better.

Wednesday, 4/30

Without any fears that I had missed anything, I boarded MetroLink to the airport and home.  While it's always fun to discover a new city, we see no reason to return to St. Louis.  If you are going to be there, by all means, see it, but don't plan on spending too much time.  They have not made it worth your effort.


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