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A Whole New Ballgame

Riverfront Times uncovers secret plan for Ballpark Village cultural landmark.


Spoiler Alert! The sharp stick of satire titled "A Whole New Ballgame" appears to have poked more than the sensitive underbelly of St. Louis' collective cultural inferiority complex.

An attorney who represents one of the famous people whose name the story features prominently called today to inform us that as far as it concerns their client, the piece is "entirely false" and has "no basis in truth whatsoever."

Whaddaya know? The principals of a company known and admired the world over (and their general counsel!) are reading li'l ol' Riverfront Times!

They did have a smidgen of constructive criticism to offer. In legal circles, the term is retraction.

The story below is a work of satire. You know, like Jonathan Swift -- only instead of cooking up children we put Emily Pulitzer, Frank Gehry, the St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Shannon and Stanley Elkin in the pot, and stirred. The entre that emerged lampoons the posturing of Cardinals ownership and city muckamucks around Ballpark Village (a.k.a. The Crater Formerly Known As Busch Stadium). It was inspired by a kernel of truth: namely, that last month the Cardinals reminded the city that the ballclub had only agreed to commit $60 million to redevelop the now-vacant site, and that it takes a few hundred million more to build a Village. From there we pretty much made it up, from Pulitzer's machinations to Gehry's illustrations to Shannon's protestations.

We trust you get the idea.

Erstwhile media magnate Emily Rauh Pulitzer has entered into an agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals to develop the downtown site known as Ballpark Village, Riverfront Times has learned.

The ten-acre plot, bounded by Walnut Street, Clark Avenue, Eighth Street and Broadway, was formerly occupied by the old Busch Stadium.

World-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry has signed on to design the project. Estimated price tag: $765 million.

Pulitzer, who last year divested her 49 percent share in Pulitzer Inc. when the company was sold to Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, will bankroll the venture.

Gehry is a Canadian-born architect with a taste for stainless steel whose high-profile commissions include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the Frederick R. Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis; and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

None of the principals in the proposed deal returned phone calls, but negotiations and other details regarding the plan are elaborated upon in a series of e-mails obtained by Riverfront Times in which Pulitzer, Cardinals president Mark Lamping and vice president of business development Bill DeWitt III, architect Gehry and longtime Redbirds broadcaster Mike Shannon discuss the project.

Riverfront Times was also afforded access to a password-protected Web site,, which the Pulitzer team appears to be constructing in order to showcase the nascent plan.

On paper, a marriage between the St. Louis Cardinals and Emily Pulitzer would appear to be an extreme example of the dictum that opposites attract: Though Pulitzer Inc. owned a minority stake in the Cardinals — part of the package purchased by Lee — Emily Pulitzer's considerable philanthropic interests typically reside at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum from mass-market entertainment and professional sports. But the e-mail exchanges and Web site content provide a window into a deal that, if and when it transpires, will utterly transform downtown St. Louis.

According to the e-mails, the plan was hatched in late summer, when Emily Pulitzer approached the St. Louis Cardinals organization with an offer: She would provide the funds to build Ballpark Village in exchange for the right to hire the architect, approve the plans and assemble a roster of tenants.

Mindful of the inevitable clash with taxpayers over financing for the project, the Cardinals provisionally accepted Pulitzer's offer, with the stipulation that the team's ownership group would be equal partners in concept and design.

Lawyers for the team have also insisted on an "out" clause, in the event the Cardinals manage to acquire public funding from local government sources.

In the meantime, however, Pulitzer's team has amassed a breathtaking array of Ballpark Village inhabitants, including:

· The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, both of which will move downtown from Webster University;

· The International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, whose site across the street from Old Busch will be demolished, then swallowed into "The Village," as Gehry refers to the project;

· The Stanley Elkin Archives, currently housed within Washington University's Special Collections.

A Richard Serra sculpture garden is also part of the Gehry/Pulitzer vision — the centerpiece being the artist's controversial Twain, which currently resides a few blocks to the northwest, in the Gateway Mall.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the plan calls for Kiel Opera House, shuttered since 1991, to be unhitched from its Market Street foundation, towed one-half mile east and re-anchored across the street from Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood.

Frank Gehry has achieved a level of fame seldom seen in the world of architecture. Winner of the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989, the 77-year-old Toronto-born architect's best-known work is the stunning, effervescent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His fanciful design for the Experience Music Project in Seattle was a lightning rod, equally loved and loathed. Closer to home, in 2004 he created the stainless-steel Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. He recently completed a $100 million, ten-story glass tower that will serve as the Manhattan headquarters for media mogul Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp.

"He designs buildings that stand out — vividly and audaciously," RFT architecture critic Robert Duffy wrote in a 2005 Smithsonian magazine feature about Gehry. "They are ardent in their expressiveness, rich in symbolism, assertive and individual. They can appear to be, and sometimes are, confrontational." (For Duffy's assessment of Ballpark Village's new direction, see the accompanying sidebar.)

All in all, not an obvious choice to conceive a baseball-centric development. And in point of fact, Gehry couldn't care less about the sport. In one spirited e-mail joust with DeWitt, the architect freely admits he's not enamored of the American Pastime. "Not even close," he writes. "It's such a silly sport, don't you think? I appreciate its linear nature and lack of time constraints. But I much prefer watching ice hockey."

Gehry and DeWitt do, however, agree on one thing: It's about the fans.

"Watch how the little red people exit the stadium and wend their way around the site," Gehry urges DeWitt — "the site" being the fenced-in crater he has been retained to fill. "That's more interesting to me than any game. I see The Village as an extension of these patterns, a more refined version, where baseball fans can find sustenance in a more sophisticated atmosphere.

"Baseball is fine for the so-called boys of summer," Gehry's e-mail concludes, "but what St. Louis needs is something for the men — and women — of fall, winter and spring."

Mike Shannon, meanwhile, has bigger things to worry about than the "goddam opera."

September was an up-and-down month for the former Cards third baseman and longtime radio play-by-play man, what with his team nearly blowing a six-and-a-half-game lead in the season's waning weeks. Shannon's also got a steakhouse to run, and when he got wind of the new Ballpark Village concept, he was livid.

"It's a knuckleball, thrown by a knucklehead," begins one e-mail missive from an incensed Shannon to DeWitt. Shannon proceeds to remind the Cardinals honcho that his decision to relocate his restaurant to its current address was predicated largely on Ballpark Village as originally proposed: ten acres of mixed-use development with 300,000 square feet of office space and 1,200 condos, plus 360,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space.

"Where's Geery's ESPN Zone?" Shannon fumes. "Alls that's left from the first plan is the goddam Bowling Hall of Fame. Where's the Border's [sic] bookstore and the grocery store? And this Elkin guy, I never heard of. Who did he play for?

"I dont get your thinking here, boss. It's a no-brainer: You put a baseball stadium here, and then you put all that other stuff across the street."

Of course, "that other stuff" costs money. Specifically, $650 million, according to the St. Louis Cardinals LLC and its development partner, Baltimore-based Cordish Company. The deal that gave rise to the new Busch only required the ballclub to sink $60 million into the site of the demolished Busch. And $60 million, as Bill DeWitt recently explained to the Post-Dispatch, won't buy downtown much of a Village at all. For an additional $590 million in taxpayer-subsidized capital, DeWitt said, the Cardinals and Cordish could transform the south end of downtown.

Enter Emily Pulitzer and Frank Gehry.

"She told me it's her 'love letter to the city,'" DeWitt responds to Shannon's eruption. "Think of it in terms of a [baseball] trade: Do we want to bank on a minor leaguer who may go all Rick Ankiel on us — i.e., the city — or do we want to line up a blockbuster multiplayer trade?"

When Shannon continues to demur, DeWitt tells him, "Swallow it like a man."

The thread ends with Shannon's curt reply:

"I'm not fuckin' hungry."

Undeterred, Pulitzer and Frank Gehry have been sketching out an ambitious construction schedule. If Ballpark Village comes in on time — and Gehry is well known for adhering to deadlines — the doors will open in June 2009, just in time for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2009 season.

"This is something that never in a million years did I think was possible," an exuberant Charles MacKay, Opera Theatre's general director, informs Pulitzer in one of the e-mails. (Indeed, when the invitation to relocate downtown arrived, MacKay was working feverishly to complete a $4.5 million rehearsal hall near Opera Theatre's current performance space, the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster Groves campus of Webster University. The opera company does not intend to abandon the newly constructed space.) "Ballpark Village is going to transform Opera Theatre in ways we can hardly imagine. It will allow us to improve our administrative, artistic and educational facilities, attract the finest artists and continue to balance the budget."

According to an e-mail to Pulitzer and Gehry from Opera Theatre communications director Maggie Stearns, the company is "leaning toward inaugurating our wonderful new home with a performance of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer."

That controversial 1991 work recounts the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists, who killed passenger Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish retiree who was celebrating his wedding anniversary on a cruise with his wife.

Engineer Larry Stubbs spent much of last month in the basement of Kiel Opera House, wearing a hard hat.

According to his e-mails to Gehry, the founder and president of Long Lake, Minnesota-based Stubbs Building & House Movers has "never seen anything like Kiel's support system.

"Never in a million years would I have guessed what lay beneath this structure," he writes. "It's almost like [architects Louis] LaBeaume and [Eugene] Klein knew it would someday be moved!"

Stubbs, who serves on the board of the International Association of Structural Movers, brings more-than-adequate experience to this job. In 1999 he and his team moved Minneapolis' 2,900-ton Shubert Theater off the site of a planned entertainment complex in the city's center. He recently submitted a proposal to relocate Ernö Goldfinger's London masterpiece, the eleven-story Carradale House, a half-mile north — and up a 4 percent incline — to a new site overlooking the city. And next year Stubbs and company are slated to hoist Mies van der Rohe's masterful Farnsworth House, move it 55 miles on a jumbo flatbed truck and set it down gently on the outskirts of Chicago.

The company's motto: "If you want it moved, we will come."

One of Stubbs' e-mails alludes to having led Gehry and Emily Pulitzer on a tour of the long-vacant Kiel.

"Hope you got the pix you needed," Stubbs writes, apparently concerned about Gehry's malfunctioning digital camera.

(That wasn't the only bump the entourage evidently encountered beneath the opera house: Stubbs inquires about "Mrs. P's slacks & blouse," apologizing for "that dang accordion lift" and offering to "knock off the dry-cleaning [from the final invoice].")

Most of Stubbs' communiqués address the structure of the opera house and his plans for relocating it. He describes a web of thick steel cables that will support Kiel's ground floor, "analagous to a tennis racquet or snowshoe." These will facilitate the use of hydraulic jacks to lift the structure from its foundation, thread it onto I-beams, ease it onto a set of 85 hydraulic dollies and roll it down Market Street.

"Really," Stubbs writes, "the only tricky part will be that right turn down by the steakhouse."

When Pulitzer writes to thank him for his efforts, Stubbs replies with modesty: "Pleasure is all mine. [Kiel is p]erhaps the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It will be a shining beacon for downtown."

He closes by assuring Ballpark Village's benefactor that the Kiel move is "definitely a go." Writes Stubbs: "It's the same as moving a doublewide, but on a larger scale. Hell, while we're at it we may just toss 'Twain' on the pile on the way. No extra charge!"

I don't see the point of moving all that paperwork downtown," Eddy Bale, curator of the Stanley Elkin Archives, grouses in an e-mail addressed to Emily Pulitzer.

The archive, which was created to house the prodigious papers of the late novelist and Parkview resident, is housed at Washington University. "Why would we want Cardinals fans getting their greasy hot dog fingerprints all over Stanley's work?"

In response Pulitzer called for backup — in the form of novelist, critic and former Elkin neighbor and colleague William H. Gass. Correspondence among the three reveals Pulitzer's hope to bring Gass' papers under Ballpark Village's aegis, as well as those of fellow U. City literary lions Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn and Donald Finkel and Constance Urdang. (In the interest of full disclosure, Finkel and Urdang are the parents of Riverfront Times editor Tom Finkel.)

For the time being, however, Mike Shannon is proving a harder sell.

"At least give me a Cabo Wabo Cantina — something," Shannon writes in an e-mail dated October 12, the day the Cardinals commenced the 2006 National League Championship Series in New York against the Mets.

Shannon's e-mail points out that Gehry's predilection for steel surfaces does not merely clash aesthetically with the "masterpiece that is the new Busch" — there are functional concerns as well.

"Did you people ever consider the hitting background?" Shannon asks rhetorically. "Here you got an open stadium and your saying you want to put a MIRROR right out in center field?!!

"Look, I'm a straight shooter. Bottom line: I spent a couple million fully expecting that I would be neighbors with an ESPN Zone. I was told: 'red brick' and 'classic, conservatively Victorian buildings.' Whatever the hell that means. Like the look of Old St. Louis. You know. Musial. Dizzy Dean. Gibby. A 'Ballpark Village' should be someplace you can play stickball in, not watch men prancing around in tight pants at the Opera.

"I will have an opera house between me and my Cardinals," Shannon concludes. "Think about it: A goddam opera house. I was promised an ESPN Zone, and I get this?"

Upon being forwarded Shannon's e-mail by Pulitzer, Gehry fired back.

"An ESPN Zone is for drunks in the gutter," the architect writes. "Not for a New St. Louis."

The new Busch Stadium, Gehry adds, "is not architecture. It is mimicry. It is safe, and cloying, and an insult to St. Louis."

That e-mail thread, the most recent in the cache obtained by the Riverfront Times, ends with this from Frank Gehry:

"This project is literally in the shadow of the Arch — one of the great public sculptures IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Why would anyone want such VULGARITY in such proximity to PERFECTION?"

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