The "alt-country marketing peg -- a respectable classification in rock music just a few short years ago -- has dulled to a whimper of late, and that's on a good day. Early stalwarts who helped define the genre -- Joe Henry, the Jayhawks, the Bottle Rockets -- have either wisely evolved, are dead or deserve to be shot (in precisely that order)."
-- Jason Clampet, Philadelphia Weekly, April 21
STONE BY STONE, BRICK BY BRICK: When the Spencer Building fell a few weeks back, the reaction from the public was considerably muted compared with the outcry at other times in the recent past, when more celebrated locales were reduced to sad stacks of ash, metal and rock. Take the Arena, with its large chorus of demolition critics. Or the possible "slave house" on Lemp Avenue, which attracted a small yet hardcore band of supporters before it was torn asunder.
The Spencer didn't have a champion. It was located on the northeast corner of Taylor and Delmar, just north of the Central West End, though the neighborhoods have sharp and distinct boundaries. Just to the south of the Spencer Building, at Olive and Taylor, the fortresslike Lister Building was being demolished by a brick company on the same day, a dozen-plus workers attacking the wealth of bricks in back with every form of machinery, even as the front of the structure stood intact.
At the Spencer, the crew was headed by A.G. "Tony" Mack. Fewer than half-a-dozen workers were tearing at the guts of the site, which included the Spencer and a neighboring convenience store. Even as letters painted onto the window still advertised the "New Club Caravan," the roof was coming off, exposing the apartments above.
Mack's workers hooked a couple of stringing cables to a 20-ton bulldozer, which he handled himself. As he put the giant machine in reverse, a big chunk of the side wall came crashing down, the metal ropes slicing through the structure with an awesome force. As the debris flew, a school bus pulled to a stop, heading west on Delmar. Only a handful of kids remained inside, and they stood and pressed against the windows and cheered the action.
Nearby, an interested observer took it all in. He didn't want his name used in the newspaper. So, for the purposes of these scribblings, let's call him "the Salvager." Moving from location to location, the Salvager buys pieces of buildings. Needless to say, dozens are falling around town, and no one knows their locations better than he. His off-the-cuff histories of buildings, churches and neighborhoods rival those of George Wendel, the St. Louis University prof and urban guru, and his job gives him an interesting perspective on the complexity of the issues at play.
"There's lots of four-family flats coming down," he says. "It's the end of a lot of these old buildings. I hate to see it." The Salvager is a pragmatist, though, and an expert on where to find the best bits that he purchases from demolition crews. He says there's a handful of active people like him, and he knows most of them.
It's not a job for someone without patience. The Salvager often stands at a site for hours, waiting for a portion of the building to be collapsed. At the Spencer, he was mostly interested in six ornamental stone corner pieces. In this case, too, he would wait for hours, though, he says, "It's not a bad day for this. You don't want to be out here when it's 90 degrees.
"You have to buy from these guys a lot," he adds. "If you don't give them a call and buy something every three weeks or so, they lose your number."
So he stands and waits. The pieces he secures, he winds up turning around and selling for use in gardens or other outdoor projects. If that seems a sad end to these beautiful touches, consider the alternative. While the Spencer was falling, the Salvager looked at what he figured were up to eight columns of limestone. "Those are from Indiana," he says. "Bedford, Ind. I'm not interested in those. It would take a ton of money to ship them." The fate of these expertly cut stones? Both he and one of the demolitionists say: "Landfill."
The Salvager knows his stuff. He can tell you exactly how the stairwells were cut, how the walls were lined, what pieces were add-ons. He's watched many of these small demolition jobs come and go. He says that he came to St. Louis "just when they were finishing ripping down the Mill Creek development. They've just been taking truckloads of brick out of this city. You go to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles -- you see any houses made of used brick, and you know that it's St. Louis brick."
He suggests that masonry unions for years kept developers from incorporating used brick in St. Louis construction projects. Asked whether this town does, in fact, lead the nation in brick exporting, he says, "No question. No question about it." Mack, too, says most of the brick from demolished buildings goes out of town, some of it into the county.
The Salvager remembers a time when Union Station was up for sale for $360,000 and wonders aloud what he would've done had he been able to scare up the cash. Luckily, that site turned out OK. It's not always so. He's now eyeing an abandoned North Side church full of architectural gems. Though he'd definitely take parts of it, were the church to be demolished, he'd rather see it stay up. He's had debates with people about exactly that. And he's arguing for preservation.
As for Mack, he says he doesn't get sentimental about the buildings; they're "just a job." He says of the Spencer, "This one was out of commission for five, 10 years. There used to be a car wash next door. For me, myself, I'd rather see new stuff being built than these old buildings. A lot of them are unsafe. Termites have gotten in, eaten up the wood."
Around what used to be the Spencer Building sits a forlorn group of abandoned storefronts, in what was once a lively, smallish business district: Walker's Superette, Otis Food Shop, West End Pest Control and an intriguingly named Chinese takeout place, the New New Inn. They've joined the New Club Caravan in dead-business heaven. Whether they'll join the Spencer Building as landfill, well, chances are good. Or bad. Depends how you look at it.
If these buildings are knocked down, a small group of folks will know before anyone else whether there's any value in all the rubble. In this case, there's not much. The Salvager's already eyed the other buildings around the block, and he says most of the treasure's long gone. His bets are usually solid.
IT'S CALLED PRESCIENCE: In his incredibly detailed history of St. Louis, the classic Catfish and Crystal, author and then-columnist for the Post Ernest Kirschten wrote of generations of St. Louis development, from the time people hopped off boats to start a village, through the population boom at the turn of the century, and on through the pivotal events of the 1950s. (The book was originally published in 1960, but a 1965 revision is also floating around.)
It's both amusing and illuminating to read through some of Kirschten's predictions. For example, he figured that the construction of the Plaza Square development would ensure a steady crowd of theater patrons for Kiel Opera House. It wouldn't quite turn out that way, of course.
Sometimes, though, he'd capture lightning in a bottle. Though his scenario is true of more cities than just St. Louis, check out these lines: "Suburbs mushroomed into a problem for cities with the coming of the automobile. Indeed, by simultaneously choking and dispersing our cities, the motorcar may be doing greater harm than it is credited by spreading its billboard-lined highways across a once charming countryside. It is rushing us into a motel culture, whose chief characteristics may be deadly speed and vapid rootlessness. For cities, it carries the threat of an ever increasing exodus of householders, with business and industry following in their wake."
At many other points the text reflects what would now be considered (at best) rather clumsy language: "Maybe the St. Louis Negroes do best of all after dark -- at least as soon as the weather turns warm, which is about May Day. They pour out onto the sidewalks or sit on front porches and enjoy themselves with hardly any props at all. The youngsters wait eagerly for the ice-cream man. Then comes the watermelon man, and the pig-meat man. Delicacies at the curb."
Though dated, seldom is a page turned without some tasty nugget about the history of Our Town appearing. Scour the dusty shelves of your local used-book dealer. Remember, it's called Catfish and Crystal, just like the restaurant that used to be downtown. Like a lot of things, it's gone now.
THE HIT PARADE TOP SEVEN: Ours is a brand-conscious society, so in the spirit of Charles Brennan's most delicious barbecue sauce, we offer the Top Seven potential, personal tie-ins for Our Town's radio elite:
7. Jeff Gordon's Pork Rinds
6. Vic Porcelli's Guidebook to Really Bad Blues
5. Mike Claiborne's Pigs-in-a-Blanket
4. Frank O. Pinion's Styling Mousse
3. Guy Phillips' Rent-a-Clown
2. Donnie Fandango's Ritalin
1. Skip Erwin's Earplugs
E-mail tips, quips and those little monkeys you hang in martinis to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.