Baron Rothschild

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

He works through lunch, but his assistant, Deborah Fenton, makes an almond-bark run. "We just go down to Bissinger's with a $5 bill and say, 'Pete needs chocolate,'" she shrugs, used to an office that's "like living in a sitcom" -- with all the characters larger than life.

"Nobody in town has as many partners as Pete," says Stephen Trampe, president of Owen Development. At last count, Rothschild had 26. He and Trampe originally planned to redevelop the Continental Building, on Olive Street near Grand Boulevard, together. Now Rothschild's out of it, for reasons neither will discuss. Asked whether he trusts Rothschild, Trampe stammers, "That's too simple -- the question is much more complex than that. I mean, I don't want -- I mean, he's a friend of mine, it's very -- it depends on your perspective, and what you are doing, and when, and how.

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.

"People always want to tell you stories about Pete, and sometimes you don't even know what to say," he adds. "There aren't that many people in town who have two or three reputations."

Rothschild's steadiest partner is Larry Cherry: shorter, slower, fleshier, prone to summaries like "High finish. Pete likes high finish." He started in the women's-shoe business and switched to real estate; five years ago he "partnered up" with Rothschild to help with property management. "I kept getting calls from my connections," says Cherry, "so three years ago, Pete said, 'All right, let's put you out there on the street; let's make some serious money.'

"We could both pull the trigger on a $1 million building faster than deciding what we want for lunch," finishes Cherry. "But Pete's tough to keep up with. He plays Monopoly for real."

They're finishing up renovations on about 150 condo conversions in the central corridor, including 72 rundown apartments north of Olive that Rothschild had the wits to buy just before Washington University secured the Loop with a massive building acquisition around Delmar and Olive boulevards. He's now going upscale with the renovations, playing at the tide's edge.

He's also eager to be part of the Grand Center action, despite a few scotched deals and a recent $1 million lawsuit by St. Louis University. Filed last August, the suit accused Rothschild of defrauding the university by misrepresenting his property on the northeast corner of Grand and Lindell. The university signed a contract, believing that all leases would expire the next month when, in fact, Bullfeathers Pub had a long-term lease, was in breach of contract for failing to pay rent and had been cited for serving alcohol to minors.

Rothschild says Bullfeathers' status was never an issue in his mind because the redevelopment plan he worked out for SLU assumed that Bullfeathers would remain. "What I told them was that Vito's Pizza didn't have a lease," he explains, jaw clenched. "They mistook that and thought for some reason there were no commercial leases." University insiders can't decide whether to believe him; in any event, he settled the lawsuit to their satisfaction, selling Bullfeathers a building he owns in Dogtown.

His portfolio gets him out of scrapes -- but it also wins resentment. "It's easy to not like someone who's everywhere," remarks Karen Duffy of Duff's Restaurant, one of Rothschild's longest-leasing tenants. "It frightens people to have one person with that much power. It feels a little ... undemocratic. Herbie [Balaban] was the king of Euclid, and Pete's sort of come into that role."

Except that Herbie's reputation was golden, and it gleams with even greater luster since his death last year. Compared with him, and with Joe Edwards, Rothschild lacks a grand vision -- and the focus to see it through.

"Nobody has a reputation better than Joe Edwards'," remarks Trampe. "He will make personal sacrifices for the sake of the deal; it's never about money. Joe's always had a vision, not of what Joe wants to be but of what Joe wants the community to be."

Rothschild's drive spirals out from his own ego. Yet he has plenty of ideas about what the Central West End, Soulard, Grand Center and downtown St. Louis should be. He talks with passion about the need to end racism and improve schools; he sketches a retail-and-restaurant streetscape lively enough to lure St. Louis University students to Grand Center. He's on the boards of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, the Central West End Association, the Ninth District Police Business Association and Northside Team Ministries. Last year he turned a gone-to-seed Lindell mansion into a Symphony Showplace fundraiser and developed the first environmentally conscious house built on spec in St. Louis. He's putting one of his employees through college. Compared with the average real-estate developer, he's Mother Teresa.

Except for that reputation.

Euclid Avenue, 1981. Donna Emmenegger, a skinny, pretty 22-year-old waitress, finishes her shift at the Flamingo Café and decides to walk down to Rothschild's Antiques. She remembers shopping there in high school, when the owner had hair down to the middle of his back and looked like Peter Max fused with Frank Zappa. A truck pulls up alongside her. "We're going that way," calls a guy in the passenger seat. "You want a lift?" She declines. The truck inches alongside, the guy still calling out compliments. Then it zooms ahead.

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