Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

Gone too is the three-martini lunch order. In its place, a handful of noon-hour patrons wield plastic silverware on split-frank chili dogs served atop Styrofoam plates, with the occasional pint of Guinness or snort of Jack-on-the-rocks. The jukebox is all Karen Carpenter, all the time. Behind the bar, a robotic pair of Kris Kringle dolls gyrates nonstop near the ancient manual cash register. A small TV set above the till is tuned to CNN.

One Guinness belongs to downtown lawyer Emmett McAuliffe, a native St. Louisan who hosts a late-night jazz program on KMOX radio. "When I went to school, it was like something was wrong with you if you didn't have a drink at lunch," notes McAuliffe, using the side of his index finger to daub the stout mustache from his upper lip.

Down the street a swarm of patrons waits out the noon rush in the burger-assembly line at Dooley's, Ltd., a 36-year-old establishment at the base of the Chemical Building. Dooley's resembles a British pirate ship, outside and in. Hard oak down to every last beam, the restaurant-bar is the once and future dream of 65-year-old Alex Dooley, a former Playboy Club manager who's been in the biz since his formative years in south city.

While Famous-Barr is now a shadow of its former 
self, it remains "the most important cultural institution 
downtown," says lawyer and radio host Emmett 
Jennifer Silverberg
While Famous-Barr is now a shadow of its former self, it remains "the most important cultural institution downtown," says lawyer and radio host Emmett McAuliffe.
Longtime restaurateur Alex Dooley says urban 
boosters are "finally putting their money where their 
mouths are" in Lost Downtown.
Jennifer Silverberg
Longtime restaurateur Alex Dooley says urban boosters are "finally putting their money where their mouths are" in Lost Downtown.

"I kept walking by and saying, 'That'd be a good place to open a restaurant,'" the gray-bearded Dooley recounts. "We built it like a Cadillac. We probably put way too much money into it, but there's nothing I regret."

Like Bussone, Dooley no longer stays open until the wee hours and depends on a substantial lunch and ballgame patronage to pay the bills. Today's noontime clip is neither zenith nor nadir for Dooley, whose 30-year-old son, Sean, now co-helms the operation.

"When we first opened, downtown was really thriving," Dooley says. "You'd get knocked off the street at Eighth and Olive. Then there was a great exodus to the county around 1974. People felt like downtown was going nowhere. We've come so close to closing so many times."

Rock bottom, he says, came when MetroLink construction in the early 1990s obstructed his front entry from passersby. "I went home and told my family I was going to have to close up," Dooley recalls. "Bi-State's solution was to have high school kids paint the plywood on the construction scaffolds. I said, 'You've got to be kidding!' No help, no money, no nothing.

"People who have worked downtown for years still don't know who we are," he goes on. "But this is the first time since 1974 that I've been really positive, and not until a year ago. There's been a lot of hype, but no hammers being hit to a wall. Olive from Eighth to Twelfth used to be a war zone. Now I see people putting their money where their mouths are."

Scrimping by nine floors up, James Mercer applies smudged chamois to wingtip. Mercer considers his shoeshine business to be "out of sight, out of mind" -- a bear market he intends to ride out. "It's got to be convenient, in that there's got to be enough service in enough locations, which there isn't right now," he says of the ideal re-nascence. "But you'll always have a solid core of people who'll continue a good tradition."

Adds Mercer: "Downtown St. Louis is trying to make up his mind. It's either gonna strive for perfection like New York City or fall into a permanent state of disrepair like Tulsa."

Retail Therapy

"Famous-Barr is the most important cultural institution downtown," Emmett McAuliffe proclaims as he wanders back to work from Bussone's. "You take the last department store out of downtown, then you'd really have a hole."

You won't get any argument from the Downtown Partnership's Jim Cloar.

"It provides a lot of things you don't find anywhere else downtown anymore," Cloar says of Famous, the last of three major downtown department stores in operation; the others were Dillard's (Stix, Baer & Fuller at the time) and Scruggs-Vandevoort-Barney. "A lot of downtowns don't have a department store anymore. I don't think people appreciate it like they should."

Professors Hurley and Gerteis say it goes back to the interstate highways, which freed retailers from having to locate downtown. "It's the doughnut effect," Gerteis asserts. "A lot of the energy has moved out. You want to find the busiest part of town, get on [Interstate] 270."

The downtown Famous may no longer enjoy flagship-store status, but the Railway Exchange Building's anchor tenant still conducts a respectable amount of trade with downtown workers in need of a little retail therapy to break up the day's monotony. More important, the department store gives downtown's ego a touch of old-world class. The bouquet of first-floor perfume is as strong as ever, the smiling shoe salesmen's suits as expertly pressed. On the second floor, the booths at Papa Fabarre's still teem with grandmothers and their progeny, and the French onion soup continues to flow in a cozy environment that exudes brass-rail stateliness and red-bowed kitsch in equal measure.

"The attendants wore white gloves at Vandevoort," Gerteis reminisces, then comes back to earth: "Department stores nationwide are struggling. It's basically a concept of the 1880s to the 1920s. People want more specialty now."

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