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As dealers moved west, where acreage was abundant, they stored their cars on surface lots, not on roofs. Perhaps fittingly, the efficiency with which the dealerships sold their product on Locust created the very circumstances that led to the district's demise. Reliable cars meant carefree commutes, and a demand for the convenience of nearby maintenance. When the last of the dealerships deserted Locust in the 1960s, the area faced obsolescence. Tucked away in a vestigial neighborhood, the buildings languished. To the east, a dead downtown offered little hope for expansion. To the west, Grand Boulevard managed to maintain a semblance of sparkle thanks to the newly revitalized Powell Hall and the symphony. The major bright spot and engine of development was Saint Louis University, which was quietly transforming itself from a well-defined little campus to a midtown power broker and majority landowner.
In 2002, at about the same time Johnson embarked on his buying jag, SLU began assembling real estate for a new basketball arena at the Locust Business District's western edge, ending up with sixteen properties in a three-block radius. But one stubborn holdout refused to sell, so the university headed south of Olive. Construction on the new Chaifetz Arena, to be located at the eastern edge of campus, is set for completion next March.
SLU still owns all that Locust District land, though a wide stretch that extends from the rising new arena north to Powell Hall. As the neighborhood revives, developers, residents and businesses have been left to guess what the university has in store for its holdings. All the while, the school officials have kept virtually mum.
SLU did speak recently, however, via the wrecking ball, which it deployed to flatten two buildings. One, a former Oldsmobile dealership, was nearly identical to a complex a block east that an architecture firm called Vessel is transforming into new office space. Vessel HQ's former twin is now a surface parking lot, one of nine such expanses that form a de facto barrier between the Locust Business District and Grand Center. A second property, a single-story storage building, came down at the same time for another parking lot.
The demolitions upset many neighbors, who fear they're a portent. And they might well have been precisely that. Early this month SLU revealed its intention to demolish a third building, a livery stable next door to the flattened storage building that dates back to 1885. That structure, located at 3401 Locust, had long been coveted by Jassen Johnson, who was drawn by its size and proximity to Grand Center. He'd been negotiating to buy it in 2003 when the university swooped in and snatched it out from under him.
Today, as Johnson leaves Clarion Marketing, the rain comes down hard. Unconcerned, the 28-year-old entrepreneur looks to the sky, then begins a quick, steady jog, his loafers dodging puddles as he scurries back to his office.
Last year Carter Hendricks' auto-repair shop at 3336 Washington Boulevard was extensively damaged when an Alfa Romeo caught fire in the garage. As the blaze spread, Hendricks attempted to push the vehicle outside, but the brakes locked. Forced to abandon the building, he realized his dog, James, was stranded inside.
Now he points to the spot where he found his companion. "There was a wall of fire right there," says Hendricks, a sturdy man whose head is crowned by a thick helmet of salt-and-pepper hair. "And I had to walk through it to get to James."
Hendricks retrieved the dog, and he's got the scars to prove it, having suffered third-degree burns on his left arm, shoulder and neck. "It looked like a fucking pork tenderloin," he says of his arm. The building's second floor was gutted and the façade destroyed.
It's owner's tenacity was by no means out of character.
In 2005, having declined Saint Louis University's offers, Hendricks watched as the university gradually devoured his neighborhood, concerned that he might end up in a legal fight over eminent domain. But SLU abandoned its effort when another property owner, Jon Pyzyk, refused to sell the Drake Plaza, an 87-unit apartment complex located at 3307 Olive.
Today Hendricks' shop is virtually an island, surrounded by SLU-owned real estate. He says he and university president Lawrence Biondi have resolved their differences. (It didn't hurt that the school didn't need his property any more.) "I look at the positive side," Hendricks says, taking care not to topple a delicate balance. "I look forward to their transforming their land into a theater district."
And, he adds, "I like Father Biondi."
Hendricks specializes in Italian sports cars. His daughter Anna's middle name is Aurelia, after a certain Lancia model ("We had to tell her grandmother that it meant 'fair hair' in Italian," he confides). The storage room at the back of his garage is crammed with old Italian parts. In the middle of the mess sits the shell of Hendricks' own 1955 Lancia Aurelia, which he intends to rebuild, once he clears through the customer waiting list, which he estimates to be four years deep.
Hendricks embodies the spirit of the Locust district. He's connected to the car industry that birthed it. He's a passionate advocate of the district and committed to reimagining it for the 21st century. Rather than simply return his property to its former state, he and his wife, architect Lynn Grossman, opted to rebuild in what he describes as a "modern European vernacular" a phrase that sounds funny coming out of the mouth of a grease monkey but starts to make sense the more you talk to him. He's a cultured fellow who quotes Shakespeare, likes a good bottle ("at least") of Scotch and has strong opinions. "We decided to discard what was no longer relevant, while at the same time respecting the character of the neighborhood," he says.