A Whole New Ballgame

Riverfront Times uncovers secret plan for Ballpark Village cultural landmark.

"He designs buildings that stand out — vividly and audaciously," RFT architecture critic Robert Duffy wrote in a 2005 Smithsonian magazine feature about Gehry. "They are ardent in their expressiveness, rich in symbolism, assertive and individual. They can appear to be, and sometimes are, confrontational." (For Duffy's assessment of Ballpark Village's new direction, see the accompanying sidebar.)

All in all, not an obvious choice to conceive a baseball-centric development. And in point of fact, Gehry couldn't care less about the sport. In one spirited e-mail joust with DeWitt, the architect freely admits he's not enamored of the American Pastime. "Not even close," he writes. "It's such a silly sport, don't you think? I appreciate its linear nature and lack of time constraints. But I much prefer watching ice hockey."

Gehry and DeWitt do, however, agree on one thing: It's about the fans.

Play Ball(park)!: Frank Gehry, world-renowned architect.
Play Ball(park)!: Frank Gehry, world-renowned architect.
Emily Rauh Pulitzer, philanthropist extraordinaire.
Emily Rauh Pulitzer, philanthropist extraordinaire.

"Watch how the little red people exit the stadium and wend their way around the site," Gehry urges DeWitt — "the site" being the fenced-in crater he has been retained to fill. "That's more interesting to me than any game. I see The Village as an extension of these patterns, a more refined version, where baseball fans can find sustenance in a more sophisticated atmosphere.

"Baseball is fine for the so-called boys of summer," Gehry's e-mail concludes, "but what St. Louis needs is something for the men — and women — of fall, winter and spring."

Mike Shannon, meanwhile, has bigger things to worry about than the "goddam opera."

September was an up-and-down month for the former Cards third baseman and longtime radio play-by-play man, what with his team nearly blowing a six-and-a-half-game lead in the season's waning weeks. Shannon's also got a steakhouse to run, and when he got wind of the new Ballpark Village concept, he was livid.

"It's a knuckleball, thrown by a knucklehead," begins one e-mail missive from an incensed Shannon to DeWitt. Shannon proceeds to remind the Cardinals honcho that his decision to relocate his restaurant to its current address was predicated largely on Ballpark Village as originally proposed: ten acres of mixed-use development with 300,000 square feet of office space and 1,200 condos, plus 360,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space.

"Where's Geery's ESPN Zone?" Shannon fumes. "Alls that's left from the first plan is the goddam Bowling Hall of Fame. Where's the Border's [sic] bookstore and the grocery store? And this Elkin guy, I never heard of. Who did he play for?

"I dont get your thinking here, boss. It's a no-brainer: You put a baseball stadium here, and then you put all that other stuff across the street."

Of course, "that other stuff" costs money. Specifically, $650 million, according to the St. Louis Cardinals LLC and its development partner, Baltimore-based Cordish Company. The deal that gave rise to the new Busch only required the ballclub to sink $60 million into the site of the demolished Busch. And $60 million, as Bill DeWitt recently explained to the Post-Dispatch, won't buy downtown much of a Village at all. For an additional $590 million in taxpayer-subsidized capital, DeWitt said, the Cardinals and Cordish could transform the south end of downtown.

Enter Emily Pulitzer and Frank Gehry.

"She told me it's her 'love letter to the city,'" DeWitt responds to Shannon's eruption. "Think of it in terms of a [baseball] trade: Do we want to bank on a minor leaguer who may go all Rick Ankiel on us — i.e., the city — or do we want to line up a blockbuster multiplayer trade?"

When Shannon continues to demur, DeWitt tells him, "Swallow it like a man."

The thread ends with Shannon's curt reply:

"I'm not fuckin' hungry."

Undeterred, Pulitzer and Frank Gehry have been sketching out an ambitious construction schedule. If Ballpark Village comes in on time — and Gehry is well known for adhering to deadlines — the doors will open in June 2009, just in time for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2009 season.

"This is something that never in a million years did I think was possible," an exuberant Charles MacKay, Opera Theatre's general director, informs Pulitzer in one of the e-mails. (Indeed, when the invitation to relocate downtown arrived, MacKay was working feverishly to complete a $4.5 million rehearsal hall near Opera Theatre's current performance space, the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster Groves campus of Webster University. The opera company does not intend to abandon the newly constructed space.) "Ballpark Village is going to transform Opera Theatre in ways we can hardly imagine. It will allow us to improve our administrative, artistic and educational facilities, attract the finest artists and continue to balance the budget."

According to an e-mail to Pulitzer and Gehry from Opera Theatre communications director Maggie Stearns, the company is "leaning toward inaugurating our wonderful new home with a performance of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer."

That controversial 1991 work recounts the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists, who killed passenger Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish retiree who was celebrating his wedding anniversary on a cruise with his wife.

Engineer Larry Stubbs spent much of last month in the basement of Kiel Opera House, wearing a hard hat.

According to his e-mails to Gehry, the founder and president of Long Lake, Minnesota-based Stubbs Building & House Movers has "never seen anything like Kiel's support system.

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