When filmmaker Geoff Story bought his circa-1863 Federal-style home in LaSalle Park in 2002, neighbors shared the folklore of previous owner Barbara Clark, who left the cavernous residence nearly a decade earlier and moved to Vero Beach, Florida. "The main thing they talked about were the lavish parties," Story recalls. Clark and her late husband Don Hall owned the magazine St. Louis Home, which they sold to Pulitzer for nearly $1 million in 1991. The couple, also known for their matching Peugeot sports cars, regularly hosted opulent events for over 100 guests in the house and side gardens. It was said that nobody turned down an invitation.
LaSalle Park, like Soulard and Lafayette Square, is part of the broader area once known as Frenchtown. It was also part of Soulard until the mid-1950s when construction on I-55 began. The interstate was completed in 1962 and is now the neighborhood's southeast boundary.
Story's then-partner Lance Frutiger introduced him to the neighborhood of historic Victorian- and Federal-style row houses on a winter evening just as the snow began to fall, and he fell in love. A friend of theirs in the neighborhood told them about an available house in the 900 block of Morrison Avenue.
"The owners didn't have it listed on the open market because they wanted to first offer it to someone in the neighborhood," Story says when recalling the frigid night they first saw the house with its grand iron gate, 10 ½-foot ceilings, thick millwork and six fireplaces. He remembered the residence feeling dark and spooky. "They were Canadian Mennonites and didn't believe in wasting electricity, so we're touring this, what feels at the time to be an enormous old house, and they're turning lights on and off as they show us each room."
The property became Story's passion. "I was obsessed with finding the secrets of the house." And there was no shortage of secrets to uncover. Story found newspaper records of numerous deaths at the home, including of a family who appeared to have been wiped out by the Spanish flu. One death was of a heartbroken grandmother after her daughter and grandchild were murdered by her son-in-law at their Compton Hill mansion — a murder that made national headlines. Story even located and visited the graves of former residents. (While Story says he doesn't believe in ghosts, he did note that after visiting one grave, his home stereo turned itself on at 10 p.m. two nights in a row.) He welcomed former residents to visit, including one who lived there as a child in the 1920s, and a renowned Iranian professor who rented a room while studying white poverty in the 1960s.
Finding people and solving mysteries is what Story does. After acquiring footage of a gay pool party from the 1940s, Story and his director of research, Beth Prusaczyk, were able to identify many of the people filmed, track down many of their friends and relatives, and even find the party's location for his documentary Gay Home Movie. But despite all his successes in locating people from the film and from the house, one mystery eluded him: Barbara Clark. And then she emailed.
The '70s came in like a wrecking ball
In 1976 Barbara Clark was earning union wages as a UPS driver and was living in Soulard with her boyfriend, Larry Giles, who would later found the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois. The city's historic structures were being demolished with wild abandon in the name of urban renewal, and the two were part of a community of architectural salvagers who worked to save things like stained glass, mantles, marble and ironwork from condemned properties.
"Demolition was effectively graft," Clark begins as we visit in the elegant sun-drenched living room of her circa-1883 Elsah, Illinois, home overlooking the Mississippi. "Buddies of politicians would get the contract."
In the '60s and '70s Soulard was gritty and poor, largely home to rural whites (some, according to Clark, kept pigs in their basements) drawn by the cheap rent, and Clark said it was losing 100 buildings a summer for a time. Still, it was faring better than LaSalle Park. When a wide swath of urban fabric was bulldozed to clear a path for Interstate 55, cutting the area off from the rest of Soulard, LaSalle Park decayed like a severed limb. This was of concern to the executives of Ralston Purina since their headquarters sit at the district's northern edge, and city leaders feared the Fortune 500 company might leave.
Former Ralston attorney Fred Perabo, who was a central figure in LaSalle Park's redevelopment, says those fears were somewhat founded. "When I came aboard in 1967, I heard stories about moving the headquarters to St. Louis County, but Donald Danforth Sr., who was chairman of the board, and Donald Danforth Jr., who was an executive, wouldn't let that happen."
One hundred and thirty-six acres of the area were declared blighted in 1969, and the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority began the buyout process. All residents, who were largely low-income whites, were forced to sell. Ralston Purina created a subsidiary called LaSalle Park Redevelopment Corporation to redevelop the site.
In the early 1970s, Carolyn Hewes Toft, who would go on to lead the Landmarks Association from 1976 to 2008, was a preservation planner for the city. Toft understood that federal law had changed, prohibiting the kind of wholesale clearing done to neighborhoods like Mill Creek and Kosciusko. She pulled out all the stops to persuade Seventh Ward Alderman Ray Leisure to stop the demolition and preserve the area instead, and she went to battle with the city's head of land clearance, Charlie Ferris.
"The Seventh Ward was known for colorful political figures," Toft said during a recent phone call. While Toft did not touch on this, Leisure's cousins were infamously involved in mob-war-related car bombings — including one where the bomb was planted in LaSalle Park.
By 1976 the buyout had already been completed and the final residents were set to vacate, but due to the efforts spearheaded by the tenacious Toft, followed by buy-in from Ralston Purina, the remaining historic area would be restored rather than demolished. A chain-link fence was erected around the historic neighborhood's perimeter, with a guard controlling a single access point. New streets, alleys, brick sidewalks, landscaping and historic-style lighting would be installed for a new crop of residents with the means to restore the properties, or build on vacant lots. Ralston set about fully rehabbing five homes on the new red-brick pedestrian mall to model what completed homes could look like.
Despite the fencing and security, Clark knew the empty homes were vulnerable and likely to be scavenged. She was newly single and, after having helped several boyfriends restore their houses, decided to rehab a house of her own.
"My whole life, I felt like I could never get anything that was just mine. I was tired of always having to be the one that left when a relationship ended. I wanted a home of my own."
After learning that homes in LaSalle Park were coming available, she set her sights on a house on Morrison, drawn to its large side yard. It was occupied by an Irish widow named Anna O'Keefe who had lived there for decades.
"I knocked on the door and said, 'Hey, I'm sorry they're making you move.'"
The 27-year-old Clark explained to the white-haired O'Keefe that she was worried about the house being stripped once it was vacant. O'Keefe seemed relatively indifferent about the buyout and showed Clark around the house politely and without apparent sentiment. "Of course it needed everything," Clark says. "But the architectural elements were there."
Clark scheduled a meeting with LaSalle Park Redevelopment Corporation, which operated atop Ralston's corporate tower. The homes could not be sold yet due to the eminent-domain process, but she convinced them to let her rent the house in the meantime. In the summer of 1976, reeling and heartbroken over her recent breakup, Clark moved in as O'Keefe moved out.
Ralston, Clark says, was quite nervous about the neighborhood's viability. People were fleeing the central city in droves, and it was hard for some to imagine anyone investing in an upscale urban island in a sea of disinvestment.
She was the historic district's solitary resident (not counting the occasional squatter and roaming packs of wild dogs). With no air conditioning, old behemoth space heaters, a rehab that included removing the ceilings, and a roof that allowed rain to pour in, the living situation was primitive for the first few years.
When the homes were finally able to be sold in 1977, the first sale was not to the first resident but to prominent local author John Rodabough. Still a bit irritated about being passed over for that distinction to this day, Clark believes the powers that be thought that having the writer as the first owner would generate buzz. In his 1980 book Frenchtown, the late author boasts of being the first owner, and recounts falling in love with the derelict neighborhood, learning it was to be restored and being elated at seeing the fence and construction.
Perabo, the attorney for Ralston, recalls Rodabough being "a Southern gentleman," and Ralston being so enthusiastic about Frenchtown that they helped fund the publication.
Clark's rehab cost more than the $5,000 she spent on the house, but being a Teamster meant she earned what she called "man's wages."
"At UPS I had 13 guys working for me. Men harassed me all day. I was good-looking when I was younger. I ignored it," recounts Clark, who has aged marvelously. Ignoring harassment wasn't always possible. After one boss at a different company groped her, Clark screamed, cursed and walked out.
"Did I put up with an extraordinary amount of balls-to-the-wall harassment? Yeah, but it just didn't stop me. But the feminist fight is not over. We are 50 years in and still fighting the same battles. I hope my struggle wasn't for nothing."
At the dawn of the 1980s, Clark took a commission-only ad-rep job for a small organization, the South Kingshighway Businessman's Association. While selling ads to business owners in the Kingshighway-Chippewa corridor didn't turn out to be a cash cow, she learned a lot about printing and ad sales.
Then her former boyfriend, Larry Giles, with whom she was still friendly, had an idea, Clark recalls: "'Why don't you do a newspaper about rehabbing?' I started calling people like Henry Plumbing, all sorts of small businesses, and sold enough ads to do the first issue of the Rehabber, which later became St. Louis Home. Our first issue, released May 1981, coincided with National Preservation Week. We had a circulation of 30K to 40K."
Clark credits her upbringing for her willingness to enter male-dominated environments. "I was never once told not to do something because I'm a girl. I was never taught that we couldn't do everything,"
She also says she is wired for her line of work. "I took the Myers-Briggs, and my personality type in women is half of 1 percent. Least common personality type," she says of her INTJ result. "They call my personality type the 'Architect.' I'm hardwired to do this."
While hard to imagine today, St. Louis was a big-league media market in the '80s and early '90s, so much so that publishing magnate Ralph M. Ingersoll Jr. invested $20 million to launch the St. Louis Sun, a daily tabloid-style paper intended to go head to head with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In the midst of a frenzied battle for market share, Don Hall, by then Clark's husband and business partner, offered to sell St. Louis Home to Pulitzer. "He told them, 'You're in a world war, and we're a strategic port," Clark recalls. The sale was finalized in 1991. The couple ran the magazine for Pulitzer for the first few years, and their famed parties only got more lavish once Pulitzer was footing the bill. Clark and Hall suffered a reversal of fortunes, however, when they used their beloved home for collateral when developing the Rudman Building on Washington Avenue. The project fell apart, and they lost the house.
The couple started over in Florida in 1994 and built successful businesses, and then in 2011 Hall was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He was given five years, and lived four and a half. While he was sick, Clark began checking in on past acquaintances and on her old life in general.
The couple hadn't been all that social in Florida, in part because they were liberal and their community was strongly Republican. "Subconsciously, I believe I knew I needed more people in my life," Clark says.
In 2011, Clark became curious about her former home and reached out to Story. She went to visit him at the house two years later. "I enjoyed his passion for it. I loved that house. That was the first house that was mine. Geoff was obsessed with this stuff, and I found all these old photos and shared them with him. I still love the house, but I'm very good at moving on. It was great to see it."
The two kept in touch, and Story was a confidant while Clark dealt with Hall's illness and passing.
LaSalle Park today
Clark is happy that the historic area has fared well over time, despite problems that include a higher crime rate than Soulard and Lafayette Square. "LaSalle Park is a jewel of a neighborhood. It has always puzzled me that it does not have a higher visibility. There is a round of serious investment going on in the neighborhood today that I hope takes its public profile up another notch."
Carolyn Toft calls LaSalle "one of the triumphs of the Landmarks Association" and says Ralston Purina, which spent millions to transform the district, was a good partner.
Fred Perabo, the former Ralston attorney who lives in Kirkwood, drives through whenever he's in the downtown area and says he's pleased with how it turned out. He's struck by how the trees form a canopy over the streets. "Those were all young, freshly planted trees at the time."
While I had attended several soirees at Story's home in recent years, it occurred to me that I had never walked the neighborhood. On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, I decided to do just that. As I was admiring the incredible architecture, tree-lined streets and lush gardens, a 10-year-old boy named Mason crossed the street to hand me a flier for a kickball game starting in a few minutes. It was his job to round up as many neighbors as possible.
LaSalle Park's small surviving historic district is bordered by Hickory to the north and the 10th Street pedestrian mall to the west. In a small park at 10th and Hickory, straddling the neighborhood divide, I settled in and watched dozens of children, parents and volunteers playing, grilling and socializing. Deb Aerne was the main organizer, and was preparing to grill hot dogs when I approached. Aerne and a group of volunteers, including her niece Meg Holmes and nephew-in-law Brent Holmes — both big neighborhood boosters — organize activities, including school-supply drives and concerts on the mall with free ice cream as well as beverages courtesy of neighborhood brewer 4 Hands.
As architecturally haphazard as LaSalle Park's overall aesthetic may be, this kind of mixed-income model was a utopian ideal of mid-century urban planning. The senior housing apartments on the pedestrian mall, for instance, were intended to bring back displaced residents. The mall has seating areas to bring people together. And the neighborhood includes the suburban-style affordable housing communities LaSalle Park Village and St. Raymond's Apartments to the north and west. For Aerne and the group of residents I met, that community ideal is alive and well. Their neighbors are not people to be walled off from. For many residents of the historic area, their neighbors in the affordable housing village are part of why they are here.
Aerne took a short break from passing out drinks to children and setting up a table of snacks to explain that LaSalle Park aligns with her values, something I heard echoed by other residents. Neighbors on both sides of the LaSalle divide are working to create a unified neighborhood, and to look after one another.
Mason, who lives in LaSalle Village, is walking through his neighborhood when passing out fliers on the historic blocks, and as Aerne's right-hand man, frequently pops by her door to visit about neighborhood business. Aerne walks through the village with fliers for events, and is met with hugs.
Of course not all residents are on the same page. "Some ask questions like, 'Why are you hosting on the mall?'" says Meg Holmes. "And I say, 'Because it's marvelous!'"
Cornerstone of a friendship
Geoff Story was fascinated with Clark years before meeting her and says he's in constant amazement of her nimble perseverance and her tolerance for risk. "She's not afraid of failure. She could lose everything tomorrow and just move on to the next endeavor."
And when asked about her thoughts on her friendship with Story, Clark replies, "I just love him. I think his ability, within the context of his creativity, to make people feel something is extraordinary. I think he's as talented as [Steven] Spielberg. I do every single thing I can possibly do to support him with getting his documentary done. I say, 'I'll do this, but you're taking me to Sundance,''' she says with a laugh. "He's a really good person. We shop, we bitch about architecture ... the house bonded us, there's no question, but it's way beyond the house now. We have the kind of friendship where I can complain about the same thing 10 times and he'll listen, and I'll do the same for him. We take trips together, and since we're both single, we have the freedom to be spontaneous."
In 2017, Clark bought a charming home in picturesque Elsah, a historic town nestled between bluffs on the Great River Road near Grafton, Illinois. She operated it as an Airbnb for two years, and made it her residence in 2019.
"God knows I love it here. I'm surrounded by so much beauty: tugboats, bicycles, students ... It's like there's a movie going on out my windows. What's not to like? It's clean. I feel safe. I feel it's perfect."
Clark's cocktail parties are far smaller than in her media-mogul days, but I've never passed on an invitation. Her salons are intimate gatherings with fascinating friends — most of whom have a shared appreciation for the natural and built environments of this region.
Story says he's struck that something as random as a house laid the cornerstone for such wonderful friendships, including his friendships with the Canadian Mennonites who keep in touch and have even stayed with him while visiting. "That house had an impact on all of us," he says.
Sand castles by the sea get swept away without a trace, but this city's haunted old bricks and the memories they house endure. Instinctively, Barbara Clark knew this is where her tribe awaited. After a 19-year absence, the front door of the house on Morrison swung open to welcome her home, almost like she had never left.
Chris Andoe is the critically acclaimed author of Delusions of Grandeur and House of Villadiva. He is also the author of Chris Andoe's Society Page, an RFT column in which he profiles the city's most interesting people.Coming soon: Riverfront Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting St. Louis stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter