Patrick Schneider says that he comes down to Gaslight Square almost every day, taking a look at what remains of the one-time entertainment capital of the city.
Over the last decade-plus, he's done little things to touch up what's left of the district. A painter, rehabber and property owner by trade, he once secured some donated paint and applied it to the fronts of the seven abandoned buildings on the south side of the 4200 block of Olive. With the aid of the occasional volunteer, he's swept up trash and done light tuckpointing. He helped secure a marker on the corner of Olive and Boyle, donated by Classic Monument Co., that reads, simply and accurately: "An American Historical Landmark, In Recognition of the Artistic and Entertainment Legends Who Performed in Gaslight Square."
Once Schneider even helped a University of Illinois architecture student who was researching his thesis project. The student drew up some impressive plans to restore the two sides of the block as it was before, with a mix of city-style buildings containing both commercial and residential space. The two figured it would take $8 million-$9 million to complete the project. Schneider quickly pulls the plans out of the back of his car, which is filled with magazine and newspaper articles detailing the good old days, along with T-shirts he sells to supplement the money that comes out of his pocket to promote the ideas of his Gaslight Square Historical Preservation Society.
These days, it seems Schneider's outnumbered in feeling that his high-minded vision of the block is feasible.
"I'm afraid greed plays a big part in all of this," he says. "It's more for the almighty dollar than the heritage of the people of this city. When I'm gone and laid to rest, I'd like to have something from my era for future generations to remember and to take inspiration from."
The buildings that remain are relatively few. Most of the area's landmarks have fallen to the wrecking ball during the past three decades, though one lengthy stretch is still up. These seven connected buildings -- including the space that once housed the legendary Crystal Palace -- dominate the block, their facades beginning to crumble and the backs of the buildings in complete disrepair.
Schneider goes back and forth as to whether those structures are the most important part of his work. He says they "are rehabbable," though at a goodly cost. But the history of what they represent, that's what consumes him.
Asked what keeps him motivated -- despite periods of official and benign neglect of the district -- he says, "The name: Gaslight Square. And what it means. The buildings don't mean anything. The buildings are there, a part of the original Gaslight Square. But the name itself should be there forever. It should never be lost. There's such fond memories for people around the world; to wipe it off the map completely would be awful. It would be a sin."
In February 1959, a tornado raced through Midtown, tearing into chunks of the central city, including buildings near Olive and Boyle. With the aid of insurance money, antique dealers and tavern proprietors began moving into the area, a business/residential zone alternately called, over the years, Greenwich Corners and Secondhand Row. The winds, then, proved a windfall, giving the impetus to the new, improved Gaslight Square.
By the early '60s, things began to cook again. In his 1965 revision of Catfish and Crystal (a stunningly detailed look at the history of the city up to that point), author Ernest Kirschten wrote that the blocks had a lively past even before the "golden" era: "In the good old days before the war, the section formed the last red-light district in the city. But before the first war it really reeked with culture, and color, too.... There were private schools, dancing classes, and smart shops to serve the big houses on Westminster Place, a block south of Olive, and the other 'West End private places.'"
Most writings on Gaslight note that it grew in a unique geographical spot. The stately homes of the current "Central" West End were nearby, as was the strip of movie palaces at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Delmar Boulevard. St. Louis University and the New Cathedral were nearby. The visitors to the Chase-Park Plaza were shuttled to and from Gaslight Square by a pair of trolleys called dinkies.
In the early to mid-'60s, the area was, in fact, nationally renowned. Barbra Streisand had a residency gig. The Smothers Brothers cut their first album there. The list of those who made appearances in the area is an all-star group: Jackie Mason, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis. Locals made their living playing the watering holes there, or simply buying sites themselves, Marty Bronson, Frank Moskus, Dick Gregory, Danny O'Day and Bob Kuban among them. The district was mentioned in publications like Time and Life.
Not just a nighttime zone, Gaslight Square had residents, too. Ballplayers such as Don Blasingame and Joe Cunningham lived there year-round, as did artists like Ernest Trova; regular visitors to the Adams Hotel included Satchel Paige and Duke Ellington. Apartments were located above many of the bars and shops, keeping the district busy in the day, and bus lines crisscrossed the area.
By the late '60s, though, things had turned. Crime in the surrounding neighborhoods kept some visitors away. Go-go bars signaled the end of the salad days for others. By 1972, O'Connell's Pub had moved, a defining moment. From there on out, things slowed considerably, with once thriving locations turning into grass lots. (Despite the high dollars wanted by owners, according to Schneider: "The rents were so high, outrageous! Just like on Washington Avenue now.") By 1990, Lou Bonds had passed away. That proved the end of his Prestige Lounge, the last nightclub clinging to life in the Square.
"It ended up -- before it closed -- as a series of sleazy places, with prostitutes around," says Ald. Terry Kennedy (D-18th), who grew up in the area, at Enright and Whittier. "The neighborhood would never like to see it that way again."
A little is left. The longtime Selkirk's space serves as a props warehouse for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Dr. Joseph Erondu has taken over another building for his dental practice and purchased a nearby structure that now houses a storefront church. And he's interested in more. Erondu says that the city, which controls the rest of the block, wants him to take on the entirety of that street, including the Crystal Palace building and its neighbors. He just wants to buy an empty lot directly to the west of his practice.
"I want to put up a professional building," he says. "They want me to buy the whole block. I just want the lot. That's all I can afford to develop right now."
As the sole business owner on the 4200 block of Olive, Erondu is aware of the history, but he, too, feels the end is closing in on the nearby buildings.
"If I'm to buy those buildings," he says, "I'd demolish them and build from scratch."
The problem with those properties started long before Erondu decided to relocate his new practice in the area, where, he says, "I've never had problems."
After a group called A.A. Importing left the premises, a flurry of deals took place, with the McCormack Baron development group eventually claiming the historic buildings. According to Richard Baron, the group's president, "When we actually had the properties, they had long since gone into disuse. We took it from a private owner, as I remember it, who was trying to donate them. We had been trying to do more in Westminster during the period of time they were abandoned."
Baron says that St. Louis University was concerned about crime spreading in their direction; they wanted a mixed-use buffer to the west. McCormack Baron developed the shopping center now anchored by a Schnucks and a Blockbuster Music, just south of Gaslight Square, on Lindell, providing part of that buffer. The company then built a considerable amount of suburban-style housing in the neighborhood. In fact, the backs of the Gaslight Square buildings look directly into the backyards of dozens of new McCormack Baron homes, with a handful of older structures mixed in.
"There was a terrible amount of crime, drugs and prostitution in the area," Baron says. "We were approached in the early '80s to put together a redevelopment plan for the entire area. I would expect, before we are done, (the 4200 block of Olive) would be a housing program. It would clean up all the other empty holes from Sarah to Boyle on both sides of the street. We'd work with existing businesses there to ultimately put up some common signage. It would clean up the whole feeling of the area, with streetlights and trees."
He also mentions, somewhat tangentially, the idea of a museum or some form of new commemoration of what came before.
Schneider, though, sees some problems with that line of thinking. During the period of McCormack Baron control, he says, no effort was made to board up the buildings. With each rain, they fell into further disrepair. Even now, with the buildings held by the city of St. Louis, he says little has been done to preserve the structures or protect people. A hole in the back fence allows easy access, even as the rotting floors of the complex are gradually caving in.
As Schneider speaks, a flock of pigeons takes off from a perch in the exposed interior of one of the sites. When the startled flock moves en masse, debris -- wood, brick, metal -- comes crashing down through the floorboards and into the abandoned building's basement.
"Isn't that a shame?" Schneider asks, shaking his head.
To illustrate how bad the conditions have gotten inside those grand old buildings, you just have to look inside the Crystal Palace. The fence in back is peeled away in spots, so access is easy. Floorboards have rotted through or have been punctured by falling bricks. Glass is scattered, and bits of ceiling hang dangerously. In one building, a pile of beautiful marble sits. Urban raiders (some of whom recently stole gargoyle heads from the church next door) aren't even daring enough to gain access to this treasure.
"I harped and harped at McCormack Baron to board them up before they got so bad," Schneider says. "My gosh, someone could fall in there -- a dog, a cat, a kid, a homeless person. They would tell me it was boarded up a couple times, but I never saw a board, ever. Things are hanging off now, ready to crash down on somebody."
Adds Kennedy, "As time goes on it becomes a greater issue about safety -- and jeopardizing the property value of the development to the south."
At this point, the future of the land isn't officially spoken for, though the signs are on the wall. On one hand, the St. Louis Development Corp., a city agency, says no plans are on the board for demolition, construction or sale. Baron adds that his company would have development rights over any new plan that might come into play.
Kennedy says Schneider's ideas for a restoration aren't totally out the window, but money must be raised first -- and, for that matter, raised quickly.
"I never would douse hope," he says. "Like I said, I grew up in the neighborhood. I never would douse hope. Is it probable? Probably not. Is it possible? If people really have it in their hearts, then something is possible."
Schneider's still got that hope.
In fact, when he looks at the 4200 block of Olive, he thinks about the trolley tracks, which still sit underneath the street, and whether they could be dug up and reused. He thinks about the new suburban-style development nearby and how shops might cater to the residents of the area. He wonders aloud what kind of club or museum the Crystal Palace could become, if miracle money fell from the sky.
"Preservation has a lot to do with money," he says. "But for the poor people in the neighborhood, they need to feel some hope, that something can be brought back. The Chase was thought of as an eyesore, but they brought that back. Preservation has a lot to do with keeping a neighborhood glued together."
If you head down to the corner of Olive and Boyle, you may well run into Patrick Schneider. He'll preach the good gospel of Gaslight Square to you.
And it starts like so: "You've got to have respect for something.