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That character was built on the back of the automobile. With the rise of the car in the early 1900s, the industry found its St. Louis home along this stretch of midtown. From the 1920s through the 1950s, the city's dealerships, repair shops and parts companies were centered in the Locust Business District, and the buildings still show it. In 2005 the National Register of Historic Places recognized a two-and-a-half-block stretch as the Locust Street Automotive District, a designation that has made Hendricks and other property owners eligible to receive tax credits for rehabbing their buildings. (Hendricks declined the credit, because it would have limited his ability to add his modernist touches.)
Jassen Johnson, who had begun investing before tax credits were on the table he and his partners are grateful for them now half-jokingly describes the architectural style as "early automotive." As evidence he points to the eccentric detail work that adorns many of the edifices, from tires in terra cotta to turtles stamped into bricks. (One building Johnson is working on features bricks with decorative tension springs stamped into them; when completed, the space will house a sushi bar, a second restaurant yet to be determined and, on the top floor, an expansion of the Toky Branding + Design firm. Toky's flagship location, an anchor of the neighborhood, is located across the street from the Dinks Parrish Laundry building.)
Most of the original buildings were showrooms, but as cars started breaking down, companies realized they needed supplies nearby, so parts shops opened up. When urban sprawl pushed the dealerships westward, the parts shops remained, though they too eventually pulled up stakes, leaving much of Locust abandoned. One old remnant, the Locomobile Company of Missouri Building, at 3029 Locust, was transformed in the 1950s into Premier Studios, a combination television soundstage and recording facility. The narration and studio segments of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, a 1960s nature show featuring Saint Louis Zoo icon Marlin Perkins, were recorded at Premier. Miles Davis laid down tracks there, as did Ike and Tina Turner.
When Carter Hendricks opened his shop in the late 1980s, the area was, in his words, "a Wild West neighborhood with a lot of problems."
"It was pretty sad," adds Jeff Williams, who owns Zane O. Williams Signs & Displays on Locust. His company bought the six-story building in 1992, and he has hired Johnson to redevelop it into apartments and retail space. (He plans to relocate his company a few blocks north.) "I'd come in on a Sunday morning, and there'd always been a couple of small boys sitting across the street," Williams recalls. "There'd be these dirty old men parked in front of my building." Williams learned from police that the boys, some as young as twelve, were prostitutes.
"There was considerable deterioration, a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings on Locust and Washington. We had a lot of vandalism going on," confirms Alderwoman Marlene Davis, whose 19th Ward includes the Locust Business District. Davis deems the area's renaissance "a pioneering effort."
Like Johnson, Hendricks and Williams, Erich Kollinger is a Locust frontiersman. Five years ago Kollinger bought the old Cadillac dealership at 3222 Locust, which he has transformed into some of the most luxurious apartments in the city, high-end, high-design lofts that sport polished concrete floors and raw brick interiors. The highlight, the fourth-floor penthouse, is a 10,000-square-foot modernist paradise that wouldn't look out of place in Architectural Digest, furnished with a Frank Gehry-designed chair, a simple, elegant Mies Van Der Rohe coffee table and an Antonio Citterio sofa. The kitchen features a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Kollinger himself is the current tenant, but if you're looking to rent, the asking price is $9,000 a month.
Kollinger's penthouse perch commands a 360-degree panorama. To the east, downtown; to the south, the arena rises; to the west, Saint Louis University glimmers at dusk. The view of Locust to the north is less picturesque; it looks down upon the roof of one of SLU's decaying properties. Kollinger has heard rumors that the building will soon be demolished.
That would be fine with him. The hole in its roof is twice as big as it was the last time he looked.
The Dinks Parrish Laundry is a peculiar and beautiful structure. Located on Olive at Compton Avenue, the two-story, 49,000-square-foot building was erected in 1891 and named for Dinks Lucien Parrish, who commissioned respected St. Louis architect William M. Levy to design a home for his laundry business.
Sitting in his office on the second floor, Jassen Johnson recounts how he became smitten with this building while studying architecture at the University of Illinois. Part of the curriculum involved the East St. Louis Action Research Project, an interdisciplinary program that demystified the processes behind resuscitating struggling neighborhoods. Working on the east side was an eye-opening experience for a farm boy from Watseka, about 60 miles north of the U of I's home in Champaign-Urbana.
"It's so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days," Johnson jokes of his hometown. His father raised corn and soybeans, but Johnson's fate was sealed at age eight, when he saw his first architectural masterpiece: "My uncle took me up to Chicago on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour," he says, "and I just fell in love."