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Gaslight Square in 1963

Spring can really hang you up the most

This is what a peak looks like. This is Gaslight Square, soon after Laclede Gas swapped in gaslights for streetlights, a year after a TIME reporter visited the city and wrote a florid article about a “three-block oasis of nostalgic frivolity,” where “some 50 gaudily atmospheric taverns, cabarets, restaurants, and antique shops are packed together in fine, fin-de-siècle jumble.” It’s a year before the murder of a respectable married lady at her own address, 4254 Gaslight; a year before the waterfall of newspaper stories about beatings, rapes, muggings, murders…always occurring at the Square, even when they didn’t. The Square was Lady Frankenstein, where spiffy bohemians like the Mutrux brothers dressed up Victorian buildings with frippery scavenged from other, torn-down Victorian buildings. They hung multiple chandeliers from one ceiling, installed gingerbread on interior walls, strung up beaded curtains made from billiard balls. And then they cemented it together with ghosts: There was jazz, but more so, Dixieland and ragtime. (Trebor Tichenor still gets sad eyes when he talks about the demolition of Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café; he was playing rags in the Square when he heard the news.) Yet this weird tumbling together of past and present head-shocked us into the future. In Gaslight, the color line washed away; beatnik girls with pixie cuts padded the street in flats, and poets set up typewriters on corners. It was New York and New Orleans all at once, but it wasn’t, because it was ours. And then, Gaslight died. It happened for a lot of reasons—changes in American culture, racism, attempts to control it or make a quick buck off it—but ultimately, perhaps it was that St. Louis didn’t believe it deserved something so wild and beautiful.

Photograph by George McCue, courtesy of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri–St. Louis

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