Lights Out

Despite the efforts of rehabber Patrick Schneider, the notion of a Gaslight Square revival seems to be running short on both time and money

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."

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