Inn & Out

Decadence and desperation rendezvous at St. Louis' no-tell motels

In its later years, the motel's reputation exceeded its practicality as a draw. "There were the affluent having a liaison, salesmen getting lucky, poker games," says Graham. "I know people who rented Coral Court rooms for parties, scavenger hunts -- people had fun there."

But the interstate system had swept across America, rendering the Coral Court more of an island than a way station.

"Back in the Grapes of Wrath days, when people started going West, they were overnight stopping places for people who were just passing through," Muriel Lange says of motels such as the Coral Court. Lange has worked at La Casa Grande, on Watson Road not far from the site of the Coral Court, since 1982. "When I first came here, we were having people come from out of state, and they were coming up and staying for a week or two. I haven't had that type of rental in a few years."

Bob Reuter
Bob Reuter

To survive the change in climate, La Casa Grande now rents its rooms monthly. Other low-rent motels -- the Grand, the Flamingo, the Ebony, the Gil Hess and the Guest Host -- have taken a page out of the Coral Court's old book, aiming at an almost exclusively local clientele.

Enter the three-hour tour.

Tommy Tucker takes a live-and-let-live stance when it comes to the Grand Motel down the street.

"I let 'em mind their own business," says Tucker, owner of Tucker's, Ltd., a clothing emporium on the corner of St. Louis Avenue and North Grand, and former president of the North Grand Business and Merchants Association. "If people didn't support it, they wouldn't be there. It's the same with me, even though I operate a totally different business. Being close to the center of what's going on in the neighborhood -- which is not a whole lot, as of yet -- I'd know if something was going on. That'd be something the neighborhood council would address."

Jeff-Vander-Lou activist Columbus Edwards, president of the ten-year-old Whole New Area Neighborhood Association, isn't quite so charitable. "The neighborhood would be a lot better without them," he says of the Grand and the Flamingo. "The area needs businesses, but we'd like to have businesses that are compatible with the needs of the residents. [The Flamingo] has been an eyesore for a while down here. People come, have a good time, stay a while and leave. You have a lot of undesirable drug trafficking going through the place. It's a situation that's been going on for quite a while."

Alderwoman Peggy Ryan, whose Fourth Ward includes the Gil Hess, is a bit more blunt.

"I wish they'd close it up and tear it down," Ryan says. "It's a haven for drugs, prostitution, whatever else you want to call it. I've called building inspectors on several occasions. I definitely want it shut down. They've just been allowed to operate willy-nilly for so long, with no oversight."

In Ryan's estimation, the downfall of the Gil Hess began about fifteen years ago. "It had to do with an overall change in the neighborhood," she says. "With the older generation dying out and leaving homes to their children, those are the people who have allowed [drugs, etc.] to come into the neighborhood. The police come, arrest somebody -- next thing you know they're back out on the streets. People in these places now are renters who don't care."

Suresh Patel, owner and manager of the Gil Hess, does not agree. Although his English is rudimentary at best, he vehemently denies that his patrons are engaged in illicit activities.

What, then, are they doing?

"Anything," the motelkeeper replies.

Taking naps?

"Yeah -- three hours."

At around midnight on a quiet Wednesday in the neighborhood formerly known as Gaslight Square, Lieutenant Kegel pilots his squad car past a pair of boarded-up buildings on the 4100 block of Washington Avenue. These structures used to be motels that catered to a sketchy set, Kegel says, and when they were open for business, Delmar, a block to the north, was a bustling stroll for ladies of the night.

While Kegel's mates in blue made arrests aplenty around the two motels, it wasn't until the city's Department of Public Safety slapped the properties with scores of code violations that they went out of business. And when the motels shut down, Kegel says, the action on Delmar waned.

Within the past month, the Department of Public Safety's building division has conducted thorough structural inspections of the Gil Hess, Grand and Flamingo motels. No violations were documented at the Flamingo, while the infractions cited at the Gil Hess and Grand were minor, such as chipped paint and broken smoke detectors.

Of course, Kegel says, shutting down a budget motel here and there doesn't put an end to illicit transactions in the city at large. To illustrate his point, Kegel wheels his cruiser north, to a mysterious riverfront establishment on Bulwer and Prairie called the Mansion Motel.

"There used to be a lot of truck drivers there -- that was the whole intent for it," Kegel says. "Then it just got notorious. You'd see well-to-do white guys pulling off. You'd know what they were doing down there."

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