Baron Rothschild

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

"He'll give you the shirt off his back if you're his friend," attests one of them. "If not, he'll take the shirt off your back."

In meetings, Rothschild comes across as nonchalant, as laconic as Hawkeye Pierce, as magnetic as Johnny Depp. Then he pulls out the contract, customized to his advantage. And people feel betrayed.

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.

"I think sometimes we confuse him being a good negotiator with getting screwed," remarks one commercial tenant.

"I really like the guy," says another, "but he's an incredible sonofabitch in business. The smallest deal, you'd think it was the World Trade Center. He has a need to win by making up rules only he understands."

Rothschild's old friend and partner Bob Wood has the same reputation of ruthlessness. "You almost have to maintain that," he insists, "because the field's so competitive. In this business, unless somebody loses, you don't win."

Yet even Wood is more easygoing, less driven by the minutiae of every deal. Rothschild is intense and personal about everything. Probe his business relationships and you'll find a tangle of loyalties, grudges, even a little selective naïveté. "With someone I like who needs something more than I do, I can be a pushover," he shrugs. "When I'm in a situation where toughness is called for -- I can be that person. But for the most part, I've found that negotiations are a lot easier when you realize that both sides have to come out feeling they have won."

Veterans of his deals say you're more likely to emerge bloodied and bowed. "You feel exasperated, worn down, bullied," says one. "But you're in this trap, because he's got all the good stuff."

Some say he's built an empire. Others say he's scattered and sloppy, can't keep proper watch over the buildings he can't help buying.

His most painful example: the "ancient beast of a boiler system" at the Golden Dynasty restaurant on Grand and Lindell. Intending to redevelop the building, Rothschild appeased the beast. But on an icy Monday in January 1999, it gave up the ghost -- just in time for Bill McClellan to arrive and write a column about the shivering, beleaguered Chinese immigrant family that ran the place. Rothschild was so crushed, he took McClellan out for a beer afterward and tried to explain. "When you invest a lot of yourself, you have a picture of the person you want to be," he says now, "and you try to live your life in hope of becoming that person. When a different picture of you comes to light in an unfair way, it hurts your feelings."

This is the paradox of Pete Rothschild: brash and vulnerable, calculating and impulsive, tough and contrite. "What I really want, what I crave, is making people happy," he blurts. "I make many decisions in life based on that. It's fine to be perceived as powerful, but I'd much rather have somebody like me." If he's crossed, his revenge is vicious, but his closest friends have stuck with him for decades, and even his harshest critics admit they can't help liking him. Enthusiastic as a 20-year-old, Rothschild refuses to gather the cloak of authority around himself. He expends vast amounts of energy to create intimacy and win approval.

Yet he's chosen "the most hated profession that anybody could have.

"Nobody likes their landlord," he says matter-of-factly. "Joe [Edwards] is my hero, because he figured out it's a lot easier to be loved selling someone a beer and hamburger than being a landlord. Every single day I sit there and think, 'Damn, I wish I had decided to sell a great burger or open up a great museum.' There's 25,000 things that can go wrong with an apartment or building, and somebody's always going to be unhappy."

He knows this. He knows what people want of him and what they end up thinking about him. But he can't resist the deals. He bought the Sunshine Inn building on Euclid in 1998 and immediately raised the beloved restaurant's rent impossibly high, forcing the end of 25 idealistic years and scattering dreams and granola in the street. Once again, he'd messed with the expectations: He'd come in like Herbie Balaban, the hope of the funky, liberal, communitarian Central West End, then dealt as coldly as a Clayton commercial developer.

Rothschild enters his McPherson office the back way, running up the outside wooden stairs. People look up as he walks in, checking his mood. He makes jokes, but they're abrupt ones. In his office, rolls of blueprints lean askew in the corner, rocked by a sea of granite samples. There's a stained-glass window, a Dionysian bronze, an oversize martini glass, an overflowing ceramic Champagne bottle, an oversize coffee mug that reads, "I'm not greedy but I like a lot."

Asked what sort of pleasures end up disappointing him, Rothschild looks baffled: "The hot-fudge sundae has never failed to taste good to me." Leigh Leonard, director of property management for the past two years, teases, "Pete loves everything in mass quantities: more people, more buildings, more food, more wine, more stuff. If we could just own everything, life would be much easier!"

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