Baron Rothschild

He can turn bricks into gold, junk into antiques, disasters into opportunities. But Pete Rothschild just can't transform his reputation.

Rothschild began with flats in the Central West End, bohemian student housing that didn't need much TLC, the occasional warehouse or hotel. Then he started buying bars and never stopped. Bars meant fun, and they had a practical appeal, too -- with gay bars, he could venture into areas still too rough for other clientele -- and all his tenants wanted to own Cheers, so they poured their own dreams and liquid assets into the properties.

With a changing cast of partners, Rothschild opened a succession of companies, among them Saloon Keepers for the bars; Bacchus Investments; Money Tree Investments; Land Shark Investments, a Belushi rip-off; and Rainbow's End. He had separate partnerships for each big project or section of town, and three serious anchors: Rothschild Development, Rothschild Management Group and Rothschild Realty.

He had a knack for buying cheap in areas about to take off, for stripping the cool stuff from historic buildings and getting the assessments lowered. In 1986, when federal tax breaks dried up, huge development projects had run aground; the city turned to Rothschild to salvage the wrecks. He bought up blocks of residential property that had been abandoned by developers and described himself as "lucky enough not to have ever been smart enough to figure out how to lose money for a living."

Jennifer Silverberg
Pete Rothschild at the Smile Building in Soulard. He waited years to redevelop it, infuriating the neighbors.
Jennifer Silverberg
Pete Rothschild at the Smile Building in Soulard. He waited years to redevelop it, infuriating the neighbors.

In the Central West End, he continued to buy any good deal, high end or low. Beloved restaurateur Herbie Balaban, 20 years his senior, was his model: Both men loved the quaint mysteries of old brick; both loved urbanity, conversation, good food and wine, fine fabrics and antiques. They teamed up to persuade neighboring businesses to ante up for community projects and safety measures, and, as one business owner recalls, "They were quite a road show."

But Rothschild didn't stay in the Central West End. He developed in Soulard, bought condos in Normandy and commercial buildings in Midtown, fanned out into the inner-ring suburbs, bought a few mansions in Ladue and a share in the Seven Gables Hotel in downtown Clayton. Amassed rental and rehab buildings all over the metropolitan area. Overextended himself. "We grew pretty fast," he says, "so we made mistakes." He runs his fingers through hair that's short now but still flows in thick, rebellious waves. "I'd see an opportunity to buy something, and they'd say, 'If you want this, you have to close next Thursday.' When you don't have enough staff and you've taken on another 200 units to manage -- we were scrambling for a while."

Rothschild Management Group now employs 16 people to lease, manage and maintain about 1,000 rental units -- roughly triple the staff it had just two years ago. Rothschild Development's rehabs keep seven full-time contracting crews busy. The shape-shifting of a few hundred properties occupies four bookkeepers. Rothschild is finishing up a spate of condo conversions, costing out a possible townhome complex in Soulard, planning a complex of staggered residential towers with rooftop penthouses overlooking the Cardinals' proposed Ballpark Village downtown. He's also juggling plans for the Z Club, the Smile Building in Soulard, a theater in the old firehouse in Grand Center and the LaSalle Building, next to Metropolitan Square.

In the Central West End, Rothschild plays landlord to Duff's, Kopperman's, Llewelyn's, the Coffee Cartel, the Wildflower, Chez Leon, the Vintage Room, and the Euclid building that once held the Sunshine Inn. For two decades, he bought steadily throughout the neighborhood -- but what he wanted most was to own all four corners of his signature intersection, Euclid and McPherson. He started with the Rothschild's Antiques building, then added two more corners (Left Bank Books and Zoë's Pan-Asian). All that was missing was the northwest corner, the Balaban's building. Then, last year, it went up for auction, but Rothschild was outbid by $150,000 by Keith Barket and his partner, who offered $950,000. "We were on it," says Barket. "The seller kept shopping us. We had it under contract. But then Herb passed away, which delayed the closing. And then they came back to us and raised the price."

Last July, for a cool million, Rothschild got his fourth corner, buying it from the estate of his role model.

Acapulco, late '80s. Beach sand caught in their sandals, Pete and his future wife walk hand in hand through the marketplace. A Mexican silver charm gleams in the hot sun, catching Donna's eye. She's not used to pesos yet, can't figure out how much the guy's asking. Pete steps forward and begins bartering.

Fifteen intense, haranguing, flattering minutes later, the deal draws to a close. Both men smile, and the coins and charm pass each other in midair. "How much money did you save?" whispers Donna as they step away. Pete does a quick mental calculation: "I think about 3 cents."

For six-and-a-half years, Rothschild tried to buy the Smile Building at Ninth and Allen streets, an 1872 German Turnverein (meeting hall/gymnasium) converted to a soda factory. When the owner was asking half-a-million, Rothschild offered $200,000. No dice. The building sat empty, rotted, returned to the city like a dying animal to its lair. Mercantile Bank stepped ahead of Rothschild, but when they finally put it up for auction three years later, they got no bids. Rothschild finally got it -- now with a hole the size of a swimming pool in the ceiling -- for $1,500. Then he let it sit for six years, waiting for the right deal.

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