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

May 4, 2005 at 4:00 am
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.

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.'"

Glasser, Jump and the McGowans decided to test the waters in 2001 and placed their dozen acquisitions on the market for $37.5 million. A few out-of-town developers nibbled, but nobody bit. Jump and Glasser, meanwhile, began to infuriate other developers by raising the price tags on their properties.

"He was buying these things at a dollar," complains one developer, "then three dollars, then seven dollars, then ten dollars a square foot, and then turning them around and asking $22 to $27 per square foot." At the time, the market couldn't sustain those prices. "He had the effect of freezing the street, because unless you were stupid, you wouldn't pay over $10 to $12 per square foot for a raw building. It just wasn't economically viable to do so."

While others busily contributed to the avenue's revitalization, Jump sat and watched like a poker player with a royal flush, secretly smiling as others raised the pot. Says another downtown developer: "Here's Dave. He buys up all the buildings. He's kind of in control of the neighborhood and is asking these outrageous prices."

Walk down the north side of Washington from Eleventh Street to Sixteenth, and there's the Cheerful House building at 1113-1129, a dilapidated monstrosity with boarded-up windows, catty-corner from the redeveloped Merchandise Mart. Jump sold the building last week to budding developer Patrick Stanley, who intends to turn it into lofts and a restaurant. Jump purchased the building in 1999 for $900,000. He sold it for $4.2 million.

Pass the abandoned Drury Inn at the northeast corner of Washington and cross Tucker Boulevard, and there's the Lesser-Goldman Building (also commonly known as the Weiss-Newman Building), home to Gus's Fashions and Shoes and former site of A. Amitin Book Shop. With its dark red brick and gorgeous rococo ornamentation, Lesser-Goldman is the crown jewel of the district -- and yet it's nearly vacant. The building was designed by the renowned architectural firm Eames and Young in 1902, and now, a century later, it seems all the more prominent because of its disrepair.

"The downspouts were falling off," complains one developer, "and dropping in the street. The rats and homeless guys were living under the loading dock, which was crumbling. It was only after was pulled into court that he actually did the work to start fixing it up."

The City of St. Louis Building Division has cited Jump for numerous violations related to the Lesser-Goldman Building, including its rotting window frames, missing bricks, defective and missing gutters and accumulation of garbage.

Jump's allies say he has maintained the building. He just hasn't redeveloped it. He's put on a new roof, painted the windows and, with the help of Bob Cassilly, worked on the façade ornamentation. Others are horrified by the aqua-green, makeshift cornice that wraps around the peak of the building, a violation of historic preservation codes.

Because of its strategic location, the building's woeful condition damages the entire district, argues Jim Cloar, president of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "The buildings themselves have either the ability to attract you or to draw you across an intimidating intersection, or they can suggest that it's not worth your trouble. And right now, at least on the north side, it kind of suggests that it might not be worth your trouble."

Says Sam Glasser: "Dave used to tell me that he did his real estate on the way to his real job."

Jump's part-time gig stands in stark contrast to the work of his property-owning peers, whose hearts and livelihood are invested in the blossoming loft district. Still, Kevin McGowan, who now runs McGowan/Walsh Historic Renovators, maintains that if it wasn't for Jump, Washington Avenue probably wouldn't be where it is today.

"Because of Dave," he says, "and because of Dave's faith in [us], we went out and lit the street on fire. Before long you have Craig Heller, you have Pyramid Construction, you've got Desco and the Old Post Office. You've got the Terra Cotta guys from Chicago. It brought us to the point where we are today. In a backhanded kind of way, the city owes Dave some thanks."

Nonsense, grouse his peers. "He hasn't helped downtown development, because he hasn't developed anything," says one. "He's speculating. But to say that what he did was beneficial? That's ridiculous. That's just Kevin McGowan sucking up to Dave. I don't see how he's added any value to it. I don't think he's a bad guy; I just don't think he's helped the process. We're going to get it done despite Dave Jump, not because of Dave Jump."

Echoes another developer: "He deals in any type of commodity, whether it's feed corn or downtown buildings. Buy low, sell high. He's never shown any significant interest or capacity in fixing up the properties that he owns."

"Most of what you're going to hear is going to be, 'I hate Jump,'" says Kevin McGowan. "'He's a speculator -- he's this, he's that.' But you're rarely going to hear, 'He told me something and he didn't do it.' He'll tell you to your face, 'I'm going to squash you.' And he will. He once told me, 'You know, Kevin, I like this partnership, but I have to tell you a little bit about myself. If I smell blood, I have a real hard time helping myself from going for the jugular.' He's aware of that about himself."

Gus Torregrossa offers another view. "He's got a heart," says the proprietor of Gus's Fashions and Shoes, the downtown hip-hop clothing store located in Jump's Lesser-Goldman Building. "He wants to see people get ahead. He comes and talks to me all the time: 'How you doing, Gus? How's sales? Is Washington Avenue picking up? I hope it is, because we're doing a lot of development here, and we'd like to keep you on this spot as a tenant because you've been in the community all your life.' We go out and we have breakfast in the morning. A lot of times we'll have dinner together."

Even Jump's most ardent critics concede he's a nice guy -- humble and smart, yet shy and ever-content to be the wallflower. Until recently, he operated his businesses on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, out of old trailer homes mounted on stilts. He's in his early 50s, fit and handsome, married with three children. He works with Boy Scouts.

"He told me once that he has a learning disorder," recalls Bob Cassilly. "And he doesn't understand inference, which is the most brilliant learning disability I've ever heard of. When people say something, he assumes they mean it, and when he says something, you should assume he means it. If you can't understand inference, you can't understand double-talk."

Cassilly, who bike-rides with Jump on Sundays, compares his friend to an ancient conqueror. "He's completely indifferent to comfort, like Attila the Hun," says Cassilly. "He could ride night and day. And he sees second-generation money and holds it in contempt. He's really a self-made man. He admires action and bold moves. He doesn't put any limits on himself."

Jump is generous with his time, especially with children; he once took a group of kids on an adventure in the Bahamas. But he doesn't flaunt his wealth. "You would never believe the man had a building," says Torregrossa. "You always see him with a hammer, nails. You'd think he was one of the workers. He's always got a smile for you."

"He always dresses like a man of the land," adds Larry Amitin, owner of A. Amitin Book Shop, "not like a French aristocrat or someone from the house of royalty."

"I think the problem for Dave is he does his own laundry," quips Kevin McGowan. "And that's not his strong suit at all. But I'll also say this: Every T-shirt you ever see him in, he brags that it was free."

Gentry Trotter laughs as he tells the story of the beginnings of his charity organization Heat-Up St. Louis, which helps pay the bills of lower-income St. Louisans and keeps its offices in Jump and Glasser's International Building. Strapped for cash five years ago and looking for donations, Trotter went to Jump, who sits on Heat-Up's board. Jump had recently closed on the Bee Hat Building at 1021 Washington, acquiring with the building an avalanche of hats.

Jump told Trotter that he couldn't offer money but would gladly donate his bounty. "I went in that building," recalls Trotter, "and there were millions and billions of hats -- fedoras, ten-gallon hats, straw hats, felt hats, Sunday hats. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven." Jump helped Trotter load the hats for the sale. "Every time I saw him after that he said, 'Do you have enough hats?' He would have given us hats until the Second Coming. We made $75,000."

Still, Jump shows little emotion when it comes to business. After purchasing the Lesser-Goldman Building, Jump evicted Larry Amitin, an arduous process made more difficult because of the hundreds of thousands of books on the shop's three floors. Ultimately, Jump had to sue Amitin to force him to move.

"At one point," recalls Amitin, "I literally got down on my hands and knees and begged Dave to let me stay in the building. He just turned his back and said, 'No, Larry, I can't do it.'"

But Amitin doesn't hold a grudge. "With a little work, Jump could become a mensch," he says. "He can't live in darkness his whole life. There's a better man inside of him that wants to come out. But he's been badgered, and he got insensitive when people just kept whacking away at him."

The key to uncovering some of the mystery of David Jump is Sam Glasser, Jump's real estate partner. Glasser's a character, with his no-holds-barred demeanor and slight New York accent. The best way to hear the full story, a former associate suggests, is to meet Glasser at Kitchen K, one of his hangouts. "Buy him cocktails," says the associate, smiling. "He'll either talk, or he'll stick a pen in your neck."

Glasser is sitting at his desk at New Realty on a recent afternoon when told of the impending profile of his friend David Jump.

"He's a business partner, not a friend," he says flatly, "and I don't talk about my business partners." Glasser wears artsy black-framed glasses, a blue blazer and jeans. One of the middle buttons on his blue oxford is missing, and when he leans over he reveals a touch of pale skin. He's a tall man with a wide smile and a healthy head of mussed dark brown hair. He looks like a mix of Gregory Peck and Stephen King.

To say that Sam Glasser has made enemies along Washington Avenue is like calling Pol Pot a pickpocket.

"He's an asshole," says one downtown developer.

"I hate Sam Glasser," says another. "He'll look you in the eyes and tell you one thing and have absolutely no intention of following through on it."

Glasser, it seems, has rankled many within the community. Says one developer: "He is gleeful in holding up downtown development and extorting money out of other developers for his own financial gain. He has no civic motive. He doesn't care what happens to downtown, other than to the extent that it raises the water for his property values so that he can sell them."

After hearing that, Glasser replies, "Fuck 'em. It's a free country. I don't give a shit what anybody says, when it comes down to it."

But then Glasser calms down and his rumored charm starts to shine through. He says he's happy to provide "pithy quotes" and answer questions about Jump. The New Yorker says he has nothing to apologize for. He and Jump may have let some of their properties sit undeveloped for a few years, but that doesn't mean they were letting the buildings rot. They were repairing roofs and elevators, performing environmental remediation, preparing the buildings for other developers who would turn them into lofts.

Glasser and Jump are familiar with the criticism aimed at them. First, it was their methods. The pair bought all these buildings and then jacked the prices so high -- at least in St. Louis terms -- that potential loft developers couldn't secure financing.

A few of Glasser's and Jump's decisions, however, damaged their reputations. In 2000 the developers alienated much of the neighborhood when they purchased the Knickerbocker Building at 1308 Washington Avenue and proceeded to raise the rent on the Downtown Children's Center, a nonprofit daycare facility considered crucial to the success of the loft district. Jump and Glasser wanted the center to purchase the space, but the nonprofit, which didn't have a lease, couldn't afford to. Each month, recalls a former Chidren's Center employee, the new owners increased the rent by $500, until it reached $8,000 per month -- more than twice what the Center was paying when it first took hold of the space.

At one point during negotiations, Glasser showed the facility to another daycare provider interested in relocating, a high-pressure move that prompted more outcry. At the time, then-Deputy Mayor Mike Jones called their tactics "functional child abuse." Jump was outraged at the accusation, but soon he and Glasser relented and worked out a less-expensive arrangement with the center, ultimately selling them space in the building.

In 2001 residents of Jump and Glasser's Knickerbocker building sued them for failure to deliver a promised parking garage. "He didn't even build the garage," says a resident who is still owed parking spaces. "It didn't occur to us that not only were we not going to get a spot, but that the garage wasn't even being built."

Four years later, the lot is finally finished, although it remains unopened until the neighboring building, under which the driveway to the lot will run, is renovated. Glasser, who stresses that the litigants dropped the suit, says the lot will be ready in a couple months and that every legal commitment will be honored.

"Do you think Dave and I are going to try and screw somebody out of a parking spot?" he adds incredulously. "We're not looking to be feted and wined and dined and congratulated and given the gold keys to the city, but by the same token, understand who we are here. I'm going to fuck you out of a parking space?"

If it wasn't their methods, it was their pace. Jump and Glasser were in no hurry to make deals and were convinced that eventually the market would rise to meet their prices. But that delay rubbed people the wrong way.

"I think the prices that they held out for slowed the recovery," says one former city official. (Deputy Mayor of Development Barbara Geisman declined repeated interview requests for this article.) "If nobody buys it, you're retarding the opportunity for development. It wasn't like McGowan coming in, buying and holding until the market got ripe enough to develop, because they make their money in development, not in flipping real estate."

Glasser is incredulous. "I want more money than you think my building is worth? Too fucking bad, OK? You know what a building is worth? It's what me, the seller, and you, the buyer, exchange it for. That's what it's fucking worth. And if I want $1 million for the building, and you say, 'Fuck you, Glasser, it's only worth $500,000,' well, then, I guess we don't have a deal.

"I've sold seven or eight or ten or fifty fucking buildings to people not by holding a gun to their temple. They all agreed. And it's not like we sold all these buildings to one idiot. Every building we've sold is through a different person, and some of them are highly intelligent, highly sophisticated, highly experienced."

And, in fact, Jump is purging himself of many of the Washington properties. His Arts and Crafts building at 1635 Washington, long an eyesore, is under contract to former McGowan Brothers colleague Andy Hillin, who's converting the space into lofts. Earlier this year, Jump sold the dilapidated Old Square Building at 1706 Delmar Boulevard to Craig Heller, who also purchased Jump and Glasser's Mary Muffet building on Locust Street. Heller is reimagining the building as the Printers Lofts.

In the next few months, Jump will have pared his Washington Avenue holdings down to six, most of which are either finished or are in the process of being finished -- and the Lesser-Goldman building. Jump and the McGowans retained their joint ownership of the Fashion Square Building at 1301 Washington Avenue, where a loft-development project is under way.

Kevin McGowan believes Jump might be getting nervous about the rumored changing of the Missouri historic tax credits, which nearly single-handedly funded the downtown redevelopment boom. "This tax, if tinkered with, there's a lot of people that will go down the tubes." Without the credit, elaborates McGowan, it will no longer be economically feasible to redevelop the buildings.

"I think that Dave may be sensing that the market is near cresting," adds another developer, "because the interest rates are going up, and if there's some question about the viability of the tax-credit program -- not that he's taken advantage of it -- that affects the value."

Regardless of the reasons, Jump has made his millions. Says McGowan: "I look back over the years, seeing that Dave has sold or put under contract most all of his property; he has made in appreciation better than $20 a square foot. So for all the bad labels on the man, he's made in excess of $20 million. The difference is, I had to go and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to make my money. Dave, on the other hand, did it for very little money."

Bob Cassilly is standing beneath a giant, forged-steel praying mantis that perches atop his City Museum. "You can almost see the curve of the Earth," says Cassilly, looking east toward Illinois. He then turns to look down at Washington Avenue, where dust is flying out of buildings, where new windows have replaced old ones, where bedrooms have supplanted storerooms in former warehouses.

Cassilly is showing off the progress on yet another phase of the City Museum: the rooftop water park and, below it, the City Museum Lofts. On the roof, a mason is on his hands and knees laying bricks in a curvy pattern. Soon, says Cassilly, whirlpools will dot the roof, and slides will extend from one pool to another. Swimmers traveling them will seem to be headed off the edge of the museum, only to curl into a pool.

Cassilly can barely contain his enthusiasm for the Tesla coil that he's going to mount in the praying hands of the insect. At night, he'll flip a switch, and bolts of purple and blue electricity will shoot into the sky.

"If it wasn't for Dave Jump, none of this would have been possible," says Cassilly.

Sam Glasser introduced Cassilly to Dave Jump in 1999. "Even before I introduced them, I knew it was a perfect match," says Glasser. "Dave admired Bob's work, and I knew Bob needed a sponsor, as it were. As in renaissance times: The artist meets his prince, Michelangelo meets his Medici. It was a marriage made in Heaven."

In 2001 the City Museum was deep in debt and in dire straits. It had been operating, and failing, as a nonprofit, and Cassilly was working to wrest control of his creation back from its board of directors. The museum hadn't been making its mortgage payments and ultimately defaulted on the loan. When Cassilly won back his museum, the bank foreclosed. Lights off, doors closed.

"They gave us 30 days to pay up," recounts Cassilly. A decision had to be made, and quickly. "Dave stepped in and saved the whole place by guaranteeing a loan for $3.2 million. That saved the whole show."

Since then, Glasser estimates, Jump pumped anywhere from $3 to $4 million dollars into the museum with no fanfare and without much hope for a return on the investment. The project is in a state of perpetual motion: welders working the iron, masons laying brick, artisans transforming box-lots of bottles into glorious glass walls.

Cassilly jumps into the elevator and gets off on the fifth floor, which contractors, carpenters and electricians are transforming into 28 lofts. In what will be Cassilly's and his family's condominium, he's creating a child's dream home. Cassilly's wife is expecting a baby, and the artist has created secret passageways and tunnels for his child to crawl through. The master bath is viewable from the kitchen. "I'll be able to watch my wife take showers," he explains with a smile.

"Something like that has to fed, greased, lubricated," says Glasser. "Someone had to have very deep pockets. And Dave has very quietly, and with no chest-beating, underwritten the City Museum. And not one fucking article about that."