The contribution and influence of African-American artists to the St. Louis sound and the universal music scene is undeniable. From Scott Joplin to Chuck Berry and countless others, St. Louisans have helped define what ragtime, jazz, the blues and rock 'n' roll are today. Scattered around the city, the ballrooms, clubs and theaters where these musicians cut their teeth still stand, but many are now in danger of disappearing forever.
The last sixty years have been hard on the historic neighborhoods and places important to the African-American experience in St. Louis. Starting with the demolition of the Mill Creek neighborhood in Midtown after World War II, the destruction of historic African-American communities continues with the recent demise of the Hadley Township neighborhood in Richmond Heights. And just recently, one of the few survivors of the wholesale clearance of Mill Creek, the Castle Ballroom, has seen a partial collapse; the specter of demolition now hangs over it.
Besides the Castle Ballroom, other buildings critical to St. Louis' African-American musical heritage still stand in various states of preservation, providing us with a window into where the people of these long lost neighborhoods socialized, danced and watched music history happen. Here are a few:
The Palladium (Plantation Club), 3618 Enright Avenue
Grand Center's role as the fulcrum of the performing arts in St. Louis goes back at least a century, and the Palladium played a key part. While the building shows the wear and tear of disuse over the last sixty or so years since the club closed in 1947, the club remains structurally sound and could easily rejoin its neighbors as a performing arts venue. (The rebirth of the nearby Sun Theater shows that anything is possible with the right people taking a risk to save a St. Louis treasure.) Back in the day, a concertgoer could see the likes of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra or Eddie Johnson's Crackerjacks. Sitting next to the Midtown branch of Sweetie Pie's on what should be prime real estate, the Palladium needs our help to find its role in the new Grand Center.
See Also: Pokey LaFarge: Keeping the Palladium Alive
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Club Imperial, Corner of Goodfellow and W. Florissant Avenues
Located at the very northern reaches of the city at an oddly shaped intersection, the Club Imperial featured numerous famous acts over the years, including the Bob Kuban Orchestra and even Ike and Tina Turner. George Edick, the owner, simultaneously brought in top notch local acts while breaking down racial barriers in the 1970s. When the club closed, the upstairs ballroom became a banqueting hall. The building remains in good condition, and the first floor still hosts a series of shops facing the busy intersection.
Cosmopolitan Club, East St. Louis
Our last "club" should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when we neglect our musical heritage. The Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis helped launch Chuck Berry's career (see his touching visit to the club prior to demolition from Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll), but now stands as a vacant lot. I've often found it frustrating that St. Louis doesn't give Chuck Berry enough credit for his role in the birth of rock 'n' roll, and certainly the Cosmopolitan Club deserved preservation, if only to show the rich cultural heritage of our region.
And yes, preservation of these buildings will cost money, but it is money well spent. Cities around the world, from Salzburg, Austria and its Mozart House, or Bonn, Germany and its Beethoven House, have shown that preserving the built environment where the great works of our shared musical heritage began is good economic policy. It is time for St. Louis to reap the financial and cultural rewards of promoting our critical and undervalued role in the creation of modern music. In fact, it is well overdue.
Special thanks to Andrew Weil, director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, and Lindsey Derrington for providing information about these venues.
Chris Naffziger writes about architecture at St. Louis Patina. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org