Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
St. Louis is a city with a past, and whenever one of our buildings crumbles or gets imploded, bits of our shared history wind up in private living rooms and gardens all over town. Turn-of-the-19th-century transoms and signs hang as art; carved doors become dining tables; terra-cotta gargoyles squat in gardens. Original purposes get muddled and reinvented. And once-commonplace objects are cherished, because they tell part of a far larger story.
Around 1990, when Doug Rothberg was a salesman for Waste Management, the maintenance director for Sterling Properties called looking for a Dumpster. Sterling had just bought the old Coronado Hotel on Lindell, and the plan was to clean it out and turn it into some kind of you-store-it facility. “Come take a look at this bar,” the maintenance director told Rothberg, who was planning on building one. “I’m going to throw it away if you don’t want it.”
Rothberg still had to think twice: The surface of the 40-foot bar was scratched like a mad cat’s door, and there was “at least an inch of dust and grime on top. But we pulled it out, stripped it, and refinished it, and it turned out absolutely beautiful. Some things we left in, like cigarette burns—we figured that just added to the patina! And I got brass rails that were used around the periphery of the ballroom and used them as foot rails.”
The bar—a dark, rare South American wormwood—was from the beloved Coal Hole, a space that narrowed and widened in such a way that as you walked in, you felt like you were looking down a mine shaft toward the crowd gathered near the limestone fireplace.
“The actual bar was made, ironically enough, during Prohibition,” Rothberg says. “And it’s said the Coronado was the first hotel west of the Mississippi to have air conditioning, and both Queen Mary of England and Harry S. Truman stayed there. I’m not sure about Queen Mary, but I can just imagine Harry Truman coming down and having a drink at the bar!”
Jim May owns Purple Cow Antiques, but there’s one possession he’ll never sell. He and his wife, Jana Craig, have the original St. Louis Chamber of Commerce sign hanging in the great room of their Kirkwood house. “I got it for five bucks in, I think, 1975,” May says. “It’s about 8 feet wide and should have needed three men to carry it, but I carried it down 10 flights all by myself—pure adrenaline! It had been the transom for the Chamber of Commerce in the late 1880s, and it was reverse-painted in gold leaf on glass, and in perfect condition.” May and Craig used a skylight from the old Alexian Brothers Hospital as the copper roof of their screened-in porch, and in the garden, the terra-cotta head of Bacchus, god of food and wine, came from the old Belcher Bath House.
Larry Giles, founder of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation, personally removed and tenderly dismantled four columns from a Greek Revival temple of commerce in the old Washington Avenue garment district. He now has them grouped in his backyard, where they stand 28 feet high, two of them entirely covered in ivy, and act as a visual barrier between the yard and the foundation’s warehouse. They’re made of algonite, a cement mixed with crushed marble and Missouri granite that looks just like limestone. “There was a company here in St. Louis, the Algonite Stone Manufacturing Company,” Giles explains. “They went out of business after the Great Depression.” Their columns still stand.
Tim Tucker, developer and community builder, calls himself “an ant at the picnic” and insists that City Museum founder Bob Cassilly and curator Bruce Gerrie find the real treasures. But Tucker does eat on a table crafted from a Cupples Station warehouse cart and throws his change on a shelf resting on a cast-iron panel from the old juvenile detention center, and he did make his vanity out of maple blocks that were used to mold plywood at the Herkert & Meisel Trunk Company. “I had a transom piece from a building designed by Theodore Link,” he says, “but I traded it to Bruce Gerrie for two 20-foot limestone columns that came off a Baptist church that burned down in East St. Louis. And the shoe sign off the International Shoe Building is in my closet above my shoes!
“All these things have souls. They really do,” he continues. “It’s the stories behind them. When the Statler Hotel burned, the building had been exposed for 15 years before we renovated it. I walked across the Garden Room ceiling, on a 2-inch-wide piece of steel, two stories up, to get these 50-pound plaster cornucopias…”
The best, though, was procuring the terra-cotta dog heads from the Marquette Building. “That was a fun night—I got arrested,” says Tucker. “We had the demo and salvage rights, but we’d turned them over to Spirtas. Spirtas didn’t care about any of the stuff; he just wanted to do the demolition. So a big group of us met at the fence late at night and went over. Somebody yelled, ‘Hey, Tucker, the police are here.’ I’m pulling this stuff out and handing it up to a friend, who’s passing it up to somebody else. Finally I climb up, and everybody’s handcuffed, and the lights are flashing. One guy was a stockbroker at A.G. Edwards. There was a historian for the Landmarks Association. I run the International Building Company and had just started City Museum with Bob Cassilly. Not the crowd they were used to.
“Anyway, they called Arnold Spirtas, and he said, ‘Let them go.’ The police dropped us off on Washington Avenue. And we went back and got the stuff. Two weeks later, I walk into my office, and there’s a huge piece of terra cotta sitting in my chair, with a sign that reads, ‘To Terrible Tim Terra Cotta Tucker.’ It was from one of the bike cops.”
One of that night’s treasures was a fluted terra-cotta column with acanthus leaves at the bottom, now safely displayed in Lynn Josse’s dining room. She was the historic preservationist Tucker mentioned, and she now lives with Michael Allen, also a preservation consultant. They combed through rubble at the foot of the McKinley Bridge and found ornate buff terra cotta in the fill used to stabilize the riverbank. They gleaned a rack of votive candles from Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, a light-up “Jersey Farm Ice Cream” metal display board, the “Intensive Care Area” sign from the old City Hospital, a door handle from the now-demolished Century Building, part of the Rossino’s sign, and a framed map of the St. Louis streetcar system that was recovered from the streetcar offices. Outside in the garden, brick pavers came from the East St. Louis stockyards, and a piece of terra cotta from the old Crunden Library edges the compost pile. The couple also has terra cotta from the Pevely Dairy building that collapsed, iron from the
fire escape of the Old North turnverein…
From 1915 until 1976, cast-stone lion heads gazed down from the pediment of the Lion House at the zoo. After that cruelly elegant edifice was demolished, Joseph Losos, who’d worked on the campaign to build Big Cat Country, wound up with two of the old stone lions. So when he and his wife, Carol, had a house built, they asked the contractor to embed the lion heads in the wall, on either side of the entrance to Joseph’s library. “It would be interesting to know where the rest of them are,” Carol remarks. “They were around the whole building.”
Max and Shara Storm—whose doorbell plays “Meet Me in St. Louis”—live in the middle of the St. Louis World’s Fair, surrounded by ruby flash glass, tea sets from Ceylon, watches bedecked with Missouri mules, porcelain vases, pastel lithographs, walking sticks, and gargoyles. But their favorite treasure is a quilt made by a young woman who honeymooned at the fair. She bought red penny squares, took them home, and embroidered them as she learned the wifely arts. Max, both a discerning collector and a sentimentalist, keeps the couple’s sepia wedding portrait next to the cheery red-and-white quilt.
In the front parlor of their Tower Grove house, Christian Saller has what his wife, Rene, describes as “a weird syringe-type metal tool that looks a bit like a cake-decorating tool” but was actually used to treat syphilis. It belonged to his great-great-grandfather, Dr. Max C. Starkloff, St. Louis health commissioner in 1895.
“He was rumored to be an advocate of legalizing and regulating prostitution to improve public health and limit the spread of venereal disease,” Christian explains. “There are colorful stories of him holding forth in embarrassing detail about the appalling sex practices of the ‘soiled doves’ of St. Louis. The syringe was inserted—ow!—into affected organs, to allow excruciating and direct administration of whatever ghastly mercury–cobalt–fermented sauerkraut compound was used 100-plus years ago to allay the ravages of VD.” It now rests on an antique writing desk alongside the volume St. Louis: Child of the River, Parent of the West. And no one ever guesses what it is.
In 2002, when artist Scott Lowenbaum was finishing college at Washington University, he bought an entire estate: the contents of an old Victorian house in Soulard. “I bought it through the lawyer, and I had to clean it out. I found a shoe box labeled ‘World’s Fair Decorations,’ and inside were these really interesting fragments of much larger carved floral swags, plus a few figures. Somebody had painted and gilded them after the fair; in images, these were always white, and the paint looks like early 1920s to me.
“I have a lot of 18th-century fragments I got in Italy, and these look 18th-century, too, because they’re so beat up!” he chuckles. When he moved to New York, he “had to have something from St. Louis” in his new apartment, so he took the plaster fragments. “I have about eight of them tucked in random places, and they peek out at me, and I remember where I came from.”
Lowenbaum has other treasures found in St. Louis—like a drawing he bought at an Ivey-Selkirk auction. “It’s an N surrounded by a wreath,” he says. “I took it to a friend in Paris, and it turned out to be a ‘cartoon,’ an original drawing for the upholstery on one of Napoleon’s chairs. When you look closely, you see that it’s been pricked, so the design could be transferred. And I paid $100 for it! It’s just remarkable what shows up in St. Louis.”
Ron Elz—better known as KMOX-AM radio personality Johnny Rabbitt—has all sorts of St. Louis history in his home, including two Art Deco glass floor lamps from the upstairs ladies’ lounge at the old Ambassador Theatre; a framed picture of Lou “Wheels” Morgan, cyclist extraordinaire, from the old Grimm Costume Shop; an old metal sign from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat; and two gold eagles that were flagpole finials at the St. Louis Star-Times building.
Developer and antique-store owner Pete Rothschild and artist Bill Christman happened to drive by Union Station “when they were hauling a bunch of stuff out and loading it in some beat-up trucks. It was mostly mattresses, but we decided to stop and take a look around just in case,” he recalls. “Bill bought the stationmaster’s roll-top desk, and I bought a sign about 5 feet wide by 3 feet tall that says ‘European Hotel. Rates $1.00 a day.’ Beautiful oak frame, and all reverse-painted on glass in maroon, blue, and gold leaf. I found it up in the attic and bought it for $5, since it was so covered with black grime that you couldn’t even see what it was.”
John Quinn of University City has a wood carving, probably Chinese, of birds in flight. The gold leaf has worn away, and the copper in the corners is burnished by time. Six feet wide and about 2 ½ feet tall, it rests against his bedroom wall on brackets. But it once helped frame a magnificent doorway at the Chase Park Plaza. “A friend had a shop in the Chase,” Quinn explains, “and it was hanging on the wall in his shop for years. They finally told him he could get rid of it, so he gave it to me.”
Richard Danyluck went to Washington University School of Dentistry, and when the school was renovated in the early 1970s, he nabbed a wood bench where people used to sit, no doubt nervously, to wait for their appointments. Then, when Broadway Pharmacy closed, he and his wife, Sharon, nabbed a huge oak pharmacy cabinet. Stained dark, it was 8 feet high and 8 feet wide, with glass doors of various sizes on the front. No more apothecary jars glowing with potions, though: Sharon has filled the shelves with books, teapots, and china.
“When it comes to a doomed building, I can—and do—photograph it extensively,” says architectural writer and photographer Toby Weiss. “I’ll look at the sad slideshow of its final days, and remember when. But to own a piece of it means they couldn’t demolish every remnant; some got out alive.” Bits of the old Northland and River Roads shopping centers, for example—signs, ceramic tiles, clocks—give her house and garden the feel of a midcentury futurist’s fantasy.
“Those surviving pieces are molecular proof of place,” she says, “and even when my modern-day ruins serve as flower-bed borders or objets d’art, they retain their integrity—above and beyond the dismay of architectural heritage squandered.”