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Wednesday, September 7, 2011 / 9:07 AM

Urban Exploration Month, Vol. 1: Visiting the Ghost of Retail's Past at The Stone Center in South City

Urban Exploration Month, Vol. 1: Visiting the Ghost of Retail's Past at The Stone Center in South City

Residents of any area know the way to shave five, or 10 minutes off of a commute, subconsciously taking shortcuts that save stopping at an extra traffic light, or that avoid the risk of active speed traps. Live in a community long enough and driving becomes automatic, your car moving to the unthinking lefts and rights transmitted from distracted brain to engaged hand-and-foot. For residents of South St. Louis, Brannon’s one of the cut-throughs that save you those all-important minutes, a mini-highway between neighborhoods like The Hill, Kingshighway Hills, and Southampton, giving you the ultimate power of stoplight avoidance.

Between two of the busiest intersecting streets along Brannon—Arsenal on the north and Fyler on the south—sits The Stone Center, abandoned for over a decade, but still maintaining the feel of what was once there. As the name would indicate, The Stone Center was a retailer of stones, rocks, and other ornamental minerals, and there’s no doubt that many a backyard patio and basement wet bar in South City have The Stone Center’s wares as part of their construction. But what was once a thriving business is no longer even visible to most, despite sitting in the wide-open; it’s part of the flotsam and jetsam littering our towns and neighborhoods with reminders of a retail-specific past. For most, you don’t shop at a Stone Center, these days, not when there’s a Home Depot just a couple blocks away on South Kingshighway.

Whatever the manner of The Stone Center’s closing, the business left its bones for inspection. This past Friday afternoon, under an unforgiving, late-summer sun, the various displays and out buildings of The Stone Center were as open to the public as one could hope. Without a "no trespassing" sign anywhere in sight, it was child’s play to step around a low, car-stopping metal chain to do a bit of exploration, on a brushy, rambling plot that’s in the absolute heart of South City.

Inside, what was quickly apparent was this: As built-from-scratch suburban and exurban business centers have proliferated, these types of old spaces are becoming antiquated. The Stone Center shared a large, yet landlocked and hilly plot of land with multiple other warehouses and industrial neighbors, some of which seem to still be in operation, as others only hint at life. While some urban exploration areas take you well outside the run of human activity, this one’s close to family-friendly activity; only a few dozen yards away, the whistles from a youth soccer complex can be heard plainly. Corner bars sit a long block away and a group of homes can be found across the street. This spot’s in a real neighborhood.

These days, little takes place on the actual grounds of The Stone Center. Young graffiti types are probably the most active presence there, spraying walls with permanent marks of their temporary visits; they’ve shown admirable restraint, really, in not tagging the cool, old stone displays that line the driveway. Hares, meanwhile, dart from behind sun-burned bushes and overgrown weed-trees and provide the tiniest moments of action. Sitting, languidly under the hot sun, are the most surprising elements on-site, like earth movers, plows, mini-trucks and other industrial vehicles sitting in various states of both usefulness and decay. Though, again, with a mixed-use facility like this, without defined borders, some of the gear might be located on an actual, live property, while other pieces have no doubt been left to rot for good.

And it appears that The Stone Center’s gonna be there for a bit, too. The “why is that?” game is always a good one for the urban explorer to play. It’s likely that no major crimes have taken place on-site, a sure-fire way to ignite local neighborhood organizations and the media. It’s possible that the local alderman’s simply asleep at the switch, or the property owners have expressed just enough interest in moving the space into active use that governmental agencies are placated. Or the site’s simply trapped in the hard-to-explain vortex of city, bank, or other lending agency ownership, with no plan for what’s next and no motivation to clean sweep what’s currently there.

We’ll leave that kind of detective work to other, smarter, civic types. We’ll just enjoy the walks, traipsing this month through all kinds of interesting, abandoned, and unloved places. And we’ll ratchet up the intrigue from week-to-week. As noted above, this spot’s simple to access and easy-peasy to enjoy; admittedly, the workers of the nearby SLPD super-station might have something to say about unguarded tours, but it’s still a nice entry-level piece of UE. Next week, we’ll bring a bit more in the way of excitement.

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