Baron Rothschild

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

It's the tarps spread for years over that building, the debris flying off the roof, that make people call Rothschild a speculator, a breed he swears he loathes. He's been known to profit by flipping a property, but he's just as apt to lose money by holding it because he's in love with the possibilities. He took on the Westwood condo conversions in Clayton after Barket turned them down because the profit margin looked too slim.

Rothschild's not a true speculator; neither is he a true developer, building from scratch. He's a dealmaker, a stitcher of silk purses. He forms alliances, but he operates on his own, far outside the closed Clayton loop of big real-estate transactions. He doesn't make plans; he reacts to opportunities. And he's impossible to predict.

When he bought a loft building on Washington Avenue, he says, he talked to the Community Development Agency and, assured of their support, went away to put the project together. By the time he returned, CDA had a new director, Joan Kelly Horn, and she wasn't about to help. "We ended up selling and making half-a-million, but I didn't want half-a-million," he says, still frustrated. "I was excited about the project."

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.

Enthusiasm works on him like a drug, and when decisions lose him money, he solves the losses by buying more. "I hear he's stretched out pretty good," murmurs Barket. Donna's sick of people thinking they're "rolling"; she says that for all his shrewd barter, Pete's just as likely to make a lousy business decision out of loyalty or impulse. "He always manages to land on his feet, but if we ever stop, it may catch up with us. It's that old lyric: 'The pleasure's not the taking, it's the loving of the game.'"

If the game brings profit, the more the better.

Meeting a young partner, Shawn Carroll, at one of the condos they're rehabbing, Rothschild goes to the threshold of the narrow bathroom and pretends he's falling in. Then he flips the Lucite towel ring up and down and pronounces it "cheesy." He knows when to splurge up front, adding the slate kitchen floor or marble Jacuzzi that will make the difference at closing. Buyers of his rehabs praise his exquisite taste, his boldness in chopping up an old house and making it new inside. They complain about pesky practical details -- the missing cold-air return, the garage door his crew never returned to fix.

Rothschild doesn't always respond to code requirements as quickly as the city would like. He does know the fastest ways around the rules, though, and through the corridors of power. He's influential with politicians, police officers, everybody he's ever done a favor for, everybody who hopes to make a deal with him someday. One of his real-estate partners is St. Louis excise commissioner Robert Kraiberg -- a convenient friendship, snaps one Soulard resident, for one of the city's largest bar landlords.

Soulard residents can be bitter about Rothschild. In the late '80s, after the federal tax credits dried up, several watched open-mouthed while Rothschild walked away with deal after deal on properties they'd have loved to see individually owned but were never given a chance to bid on. In 1994, Dave and Carolyn Frisch of Carbondale, Ill., did get to bid $11,000 at a delinquent-tax auction and happily turned over earnest money for "a really neat old building" in Soulard. Two days later, they were told the city had rejected their bid and signed a firm contract with Rothschild for $14,000.

He sold the building back to them for $15,000. He also sold back condos on West Pine Boulevard after infuriating their denizens by buying them dirt cheap at a tax sale because the owners had neglected to pay taxes on their parking lot. He says he wouldn't have sold if the judge hadn't required fair warning to the owners. He's regularly blamed for letting the fabulous old Argyle Apartments at Euclid Avenue and Lindell Boulevard disintegrate, then selling them off at a handsome profit so the city could replace them with a garage. But he says he bought into that deal only three years before the sale and that the apartments were already a shambles.

He seizes opportunity and pays for it afterward, losing the currency of public goodwill.

Mr. R., now 99, speaking by phone: "He was a regular boy; he did everything that the kids did. Sometimes we liked him, sometimes we didn't. But eventually he recognized his obligations and became a very, very thoughtful, fine son. And he was always industrious."

Mrs. R., 93: "Tell how when he was young, he cut grass."

Mr. R.: "Yes, and he had an ice-cream route. He's an excellent salesman. I told him early in life, the better things are all available, but there is a common denominator, and that is money."

Mr. R.: "What kind of boy was he? He wanted his way all the time; he fought for everything he wanted. You know, he's an adopted boy."

Mrs. R.: "What do you want to say that for?" Her voice softens: "He wants to be recognized; that's been driving him."

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