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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.