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Lighting the Way

SLM picks its first St. Louis Luminaries

Photographs by Whitney Curtis, Wesley Law, Jonathan Pollack, and Dilip Vishwanat; Illustrations by Monica Hellstrom

(page 1 of 10)

In high school, it’s easy: You pick a brain as valedictorian, a populist as class president, a schmoozer for student government, and a cute couple as homecoming king and queen. But when you grow up, the honors grow vague: visionaries, leaders, geniuses, entrepreneurs, hot people, cool people, people of the year…

We’re about to add to the confusion.

When we looked around the St. Louis landscape, there were plenty of candidates for the aforementioned categories. But the quality we wanted to recognize was warmer than vision, nobler than coolness. It had to do with light; with people whose ideas glow so brightly, they illuminate a path for the rest of us.

They’re Luminaries.

And in the shortest, darkest month of the year, we’re awfully glad they’re here.


HE FOUND HIS THRILL
Joe Edwards
Developer, Civic Leader, Consummate Host

In 1972, when Joe Edwards opened Blueberry Hill on Delmar Boulevard, he wanted it to be a bar and restaurant where everybody felt comfortable. He stocked it with his beloved pop-culture memorabilia, so first dates would have something to talk about, and he booted anybody who was rude or threatening. “We almost went out of business three times in the first two years,” he admits, “because I banned two-thirds of the customers.” The outlaw motorcycle gangs finally gave up, and Edwards began the slow process of reclaiming the Loop.

In 1972, when Joe Edwards opened Blueberry Hill on Delmar Boulevard, he wanted it to be a bar and restaurant where everybody felt comfortable. He stocked it with his beloved pop-culture memorabilia, so first dates would have something to talk about, and he booted anybody who was rude or threatening. “We almost went out of business three times in the first two years,” he admits, “because I banned two-thirds of the customers.” The outlaw motorcycle gangs finally gave up, and Edwards began the slow process of reclaiming the Loop.

Along the way, intrigued by all the cool St. Louisans he knew nothing about, he considered creating a hall of fame museum—but decided instead to make it a Walk of Fame, so it would be accessible to everybody, 24 hours a day, at no cost.

In 1994, he picked up his newspaper and saw a photo of the Tivoli Theatre box office with a handwritten note: “Closed forever.” “That just pierced my heart,” he says. “I could not imagine that building being torn down.” He started a renovation so elaborate, it took him years to break even. But the Tivoli reopened with a parade that convinced St. Louis the Loop was back to stay.

Three years later, he was worrying about the east side of Skinker Boulevard. Other business owners suggested banners and flowerpots, but Edwards says he “knew it would take something big to get people to go across Skinker, ‘risk it,’ in their mind.” So he built the Pageant, a concert venue the right size to lure all the touring musicians who kept bypassing St. Louis. He made the hall wider, rather than deeper, to bring everybody closer to the performers, and he spent a fortune to avoid using columns that might block somebody’s view.

Next door, he created a martini-lounge bowling alley called Pin-Up Bowl. Inclusive as ever, he commissioned Asian, Hispanic, and African-American pinups, a little revisionist nostalgia that, once again, made everybody feel welcome.

Most recently, he took the biggest risk of all, building the Moonrise Hotel. No chain would do; “it had to be something Loopish.” He wanted it luxurious but casual, even in its fine dining, to put everyone at ease. And he put a giant moon on top of the building, half ivory with mountains and craters and half silver and black, “so even in the daytime, everybody could see the moon go through its phases.”

Now Blueberry Hill is about four times its original size, and people are continually telling him they fell in love there. Teachers bring kids to the Walk of Fame to do rubbings of the stars that inspire them. Pollstar named the Pageant one of the top 10 concert nightclubs in America. On Delmar, the city-county divide that paralyzes everyone else has dissolved. And when the American Planning Association started recognizing, every year, 10 Great Streets in America, Delmar made the first list.

What do Edwards’ old pals at John Burroughs School think of his accomplishments? “I think they, as am I, are surprised at the magnitude of what I’ve gotten involved in,” he says. “But I don’t know that they would have been surprised at the direction—music and cocktails!” Growing up, he hung around with kids from about 12 different schools—“It allowed us to get into different types of trouble!”—and he watched, puzzled, when prejudice started building walls between his friends.
Now people fly in from the coasts to try to figure out Edwards’ secret: How do you create a street that’s so inclusive (all ages, races, classes) and so collaborative? “To have people from all economic strata interacting is as healthy as it can be,” he remarks. “You hear the trials and tribulations of everybody that way.”
Outsiders don’t realize that the heart of the formula is Edwards himself. If the Loop needs something and nobody’s stepping up, Edwards just does it himself. And if a building needs saving, he buys it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a typical businessman,” he concedes. “That’s why certain things get done in the Loop that might not get done anywhere else.”

There’s an innocence about the guy, a child’s belief in the possibility of joy. That and the absence of greed make him an unusual—and brilliant—developer, keenly aware of what makes people happy, deft in getting them to cooperate, smart about urban planning. Washington University, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri–
St. Louis have all awarded him honorary degrees, and the city of St. Louis has proclaimed not one but four Joe Edwards days. (He takes such honors humbly: When he was selected to carry the Olympic torch, he ran the entire way, huffing and puffing by the end, because it “just didn’t seem right” to stroll along.)

Edwards’ newest project is a fixed-track, vintage trolley that will run through the Loop to DeBaliviere and across to Forest Park. He’s projecting ridership at just under half a million people a year, both visitors and residents.

Everybody’s welcome.  -J.C.


Conversation Starter
In Army basic training, Edwards kept his shaving gear in a metal Superman lunchbox. Drove his company commander crazy.

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