Downtown real estate speculator David Jump goes for the jugular when he smells blood. Who the hell is this guy?

Who is David Jump? Few people are willing to answer that question, and none of them are David Jump.

"He's a prince," says one acquaintance.

"He's a strange bird," says another.

Because of Jump, says developer Kevin McGowan 
(above), Washington Avenue is on the comeback trail.
Ryan Hudson
Because of Jump, says developer Kevin McGowan (above), Washington Avenue is on the comeback trail.
Because of Jump, says developer Kevin McGowan 
(above), Washington Avenue is on the comeback trail.
Ryan Hudson
Because of Jump, says developer Kevin McGowan (above), Washington Avenue is on the comeback trail.

Mississippi River men know Jump as a barge- and towboat-owner, Illinois farmers know him as the proprietor of a grain-milling concern, and railroad men know of his boxcar business. Commodities traders know Jump's the majority owner of the Merchants Exchange of St. Louis, dealing in barge futures.

Gamblers unlucky enough to be in the Admiral Casino (now the President) on April 4, 1998, know David Jump as owner of the Anne Holly, the towboat that rammed the Eads Bridge and lost its load, causing a barge to strike the floating riverboat. Nudged from its mooring, the Admiral nearly went on a Mississippi ghost ride.

And downtown developers know him for his many buildings along Washington Avenue. In that small, insular community, people have strong feelings about the man. To those Jump has helped, he's a misunderstood savior. But to those he's ignored or profited from, he is Dave Jump, the speculator -- a word they spit out as if someone possessed with The Golden Hunch must be evil.

Utter his name at downtown cocktail parties, and everyone offers an opinion: Jump's a civic roadblock, deliberately holding up progress. He sits on his properties and waits to make a killing. And yet, he's shined a light on a district that others were ignoring.

What many probably don't know, though, is that Jump saved the City Museum. Without him, Bob Cassilly's museum would have gone under four years ago. Today, as the main investor in a project with no long-range plan, Jump holds the purse strings for Cassilly's whims. He is the co-owner of both the building and the museum.

Now, six years after buying his first downtown property, David Jump is selling. In the past two years, he's unloaded four of his downtown properties. Another is under contract, and the most prominent, the Lesser-Goldman Building at 1201-1219 Washington, is rumored to be close to a sale.

Could this be the end of David Jump's stranglehold on Washington Avenue?

Jump won't answer, but what else is new? Stumble across his name in print, you'll inevitably see a variation on this theme: "David Jump did not return phone calls." Read it again here: Even after much badgering, Jump refused to be interviewed for this article.

"He's incredibly elusive," confirms one downtown developer who asked not to be named in this story. "He doesn't like publicity and keeps an incredibly low profile. When you're standing there, and you're looking at somebody in blue jeans that are too short and a T-shirt that maybe could have been a size larger, and you're told that he could write a check for $100 million, you're like, 'OK.'

"He just doesn't fit the bill. He's not opulent, and he's not flashy. He's under the radar, which makes him very smart. When you're high-profile, you're easy to shoot at."

Between the Eads Bridge to the east and 20th Street to the west, Washington Avenue is a glory to behold. Created to house a once-thriving fashion district, the street has a rococo flair. Buildings are concrete, brick and pine; century-old warehouses resemble a row of antique filing cabinets.

"You don't see these ornamentally striking façades in other warehouse districts," says Jump's business partner, Sam Glasser, pointing out the window of his New City Realty office on Washington. "These buildings are gems."

Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, the buildings were nearly empty. While other urban areas across the nation reinvented themselves as loft districts, downtown St. Louis languished.

"In 1999, I took Dave on a walk down Washington Avenue," recalls developer Kevin McGowan. "And within a matter of six months, we had bought four of the larger properties on the street."

McGowan and his brothers were new to the city, moving in from Houston with the sole purpose of transforming warehouses into lofts. They thought they'd found a kindred spirit in Jump, who had deep pockets as a result of the success of his American Milling Company, a multifaceted Illinois-based firm that makes its money in grain, towboats, barges, railcars and property. No one is certain exactly how much Jump's worth, though all agree he's a millionaire many times over.

"For all I know, he's worth $100 billion," jokes Glasser.

Glasser learned the loft business in the 1970s in his native New York City. When he became convinced of Washington Avenue's potential, he and Jump began buying buildings together. "We bought a building a month for eight or nine months," he says. Nearly two years later, the shopping spree complete, Jump and his partners owned twelve downtown buildings in an eight-block radius, having spent more than $16.5 million for over 1 million square feet of premium space.

The McGowans were eager to turn their holdings into lofts and assumed Jump would join them. It took the brothers a year to realize that Jump had no desire to participate in the renaissance. Kevin McGowan explains, "Dave looked at it from a different point of view, which was, 'This is an opportunity to perhaps make some money as properties appreciate.'"

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