In the Shadow of the Lewis & Clark Tower

Marred by graffiti, the Lewis & Clark Tower is a familiar sight in north county.
Marred by graffiti, the Lewis & Clark Tower is a familiar sight in north county. KELLY GLUECK

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Tom Stelmacki's family runs a destination grocery adjacent to the Tower. - KELLY GLUECK
Tom Stelmacki's family runs a destination grocery adjacent to the Tower.

The notion of myths, of what-ifs, is a constant refrain when it comes to Lewis & Clark Tower's future, with business owners in the plaza either declining conversations about it or wishing to speak off the record. There's a sense that the building is there for now, it's not going anywhere anytime soon, and the best that can be hoped for is a demolition, at some point.

When told what this story is about, Tom Stelmacki says, without anger, "Well, I have no idea. You're talking to the wrong person about that."

He adds, bluntly, "I wish they'd tear it down today. It's an eyesore. It was an eyesore at the end of its days and wasn't being taken care of. The back of the building is a complete mess; people are dumping trash all over. The back parking lot is beat up. The city's talking about about wanting to do something. Maybe a new strip center, maybe getting rid of this whole thing."

But the adjacent plaza, he says, remains a place of commerce, despite the decay next door. "It's always been full; just a couple tenants have left. But you come in here on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, and our whole parking lot's full. There are a lot of tax dollars going to the city from this building.

"The word, I think, is 'frustrating' for our part," he says. "I think for everybody's part. No one knows what they can do. I'm not a lawyer and don't known the legalese of eminent domain. Maybe the city, working with the county, could work something out to get the thing torn down."

Weiss foresees just that fate. "That building is a goner," she writes in an email exchange. "When even Moline Acres city hall wants it gone, it's a goner."

"I drive by at least once every two months on my way to Alton," she adds. "Its rapid decline is nauseating! The first time I saw the first bit of graffiti on the top floor my heart sank. As that graffiti spread across the entire tower, coupled with broken glass, my heart broke. I now drive by and moan. The last time I pulled in for updated photographs, I had tears streaming down my face. It just hurts."

For Weiss, though, the Tower's fate isn't singular. Moline Acres has a story. The neighboring municipalities have a story. As the years pass, residential and shopping trends change, buildings fall and examples of the region's mid-century modern past dim or disappear outright.

On her blog, she reminisces about losing a nearby neighbor, the Lewis & Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library system.

"They tore down the old one to build the new," she explains in an email. "That was, literally, an important piece of NoCo childhood extinguished. And as I'd watch them tear down the old library, I'd look up the hill and see the Tower being destroyed by disregard, and my heart hurt for Moline Acres' past and present. Which is odd, because the library — ultimately — was a GOOD thing, investing in the future. But they didn't need to kill its past to welcome the future. There's so much wonderful history and [mid-century modern] architecture along Chambers Road in that area. Some of it is being kept up and utilized. Others are decaying, and it's sad. At this point, it'd be nice to raze them for some new pre-fab business buildings. I hold onto hope that it will happen. What other choice is there BUT hope?"

Stelmacki hears that concern and gets it. But he hears from plenty of people, with a variety of desired outcomes. Nostalgia plays a strong role in the conversation, no doubt.

"A lot of people," he says, "would like to see someone still do something with it. The feedback I get from customers is that they remember it from when they were little kids. 'I remember the Tower. Why can't they do something? There's no reason for a building that we're all used to seeing fall apart.' And it was a beautiful building, very well taken care of. There were neon lights and a big canopy out here. The theater's billboard was lit up, showing what was playing in back. That sign was right out here, in the grass out front.

"But the longer the Tower sits, the worse it gets. In the beginning, it might've still been manageable. That was the time to do something. An owner could've bought the building for nothing, dumped some money into it and had something. Now it's too far gone. Now it's all about how we're going to demolish it. What else can we do with it?"

Stelmacki is one of eight siblings, four of whom still work at the grocery store. He grew up in the 53-year-old business. "I can walk out into the store and greet five shoppers by name."

But when he walks into the building, he aims not to look left. Something in that direction grates at him, daily.

"I try not to look at it," he says of his crumbling, iconic neighbor. "I try to not even see it."

See also: 15 Haunting Photos from Inside the Tower

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