When the air turns cool, as it did today with a nip in the air, I head to the Central West End to walk one of St. Louis’ most elegant neighborhoods, an area filled with distinctive residences, great churches, sidewalk cafes, antique dealers, art galleries, bistros and shops. Maryland Avenue (according to Scape Bistro’s Master Chef, Eric Kelly, who’s travelled the U.S. from coast to coast, “one of the most beautiful streets in America”) is especially atmospheric, wonderfully evocative of Europe and England.
Over time the Euclid Avenue commercial district, from Lindell Boulevard north to Delmar (and later on, to a lesser extent from Lindell south to Forest Park Boulevard) gained the title of St. Louis’ Bohemian* district – an area where specialty coffee houses, independent bookstores (Left Bank and Big Sleep), studio walk-ups and clubs became havens to a struggling artistic set – artists, writers, dancers, actors, producers and musicians.
Established in 1988 by singer musician, Chris King and poet, Peter Simpson, Big Sleep Books (www.bigsleepbooks.com) at #239 North Euclid, is today managed by Chris’s son Ed, who came into the business when his dad died in 1995 and by Helen Simpson, Peter’s widow. A great little niche bookshop, Big Sleep specializes in mystery, detection and espionage. For both Simpson and King, keeping an independent book store afloat when so many have gone under, is less a necessity than a legacy and avocation. Both clearly love books, love the areas in which they’ve become expert and enjoy what they do. To put it simply, Ed King says, “I sell fun.”
Since Macro Sun re-located Downtown there’s less of a visible, Bohemian/gypsy influence on Euclid, and far less of a one than you encountered in the 1960’s and ’70’s, although the city’s oldest natural food store, Golden Grocer (www.goldengrocer.com), continues to thrive. But it’s in very the air here – especially when the wind hints of autumn and incipient winter, danger and adventure – in the city’s most perfect setting for a Gothic or Victorian mystery! The Central West End is an area of St. Louis where “anything goes” – a milieu established by wealth and sustained by art. And here, where many of the “merchant princes” who built the area were themselves first and second generation Europeans, sophistication has remained something of a constant, too.
For a brief period (less than two decades), the eastern edge of today’s parameter of the Central West End (Olive & Boyle near Vandeventer) became even more “Bohemian” than Euclid. Famed nationally as Gaslight Square (http://stlouis.missouri.org/cwe/landmarks_gaslights.html), it was the re-invention by a highly creative group of St. Louis artists, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs of a block-and-a-half area, decimated by tornado and transformed into the Greenwich Village of the Midwest. Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, an eighteen year old Barbara Streisand, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Dick Gregory and Miles Davis all played there. By that time the Central West End was densely populated and included – the poor and the middle class – as well as the rich, and parts of it were fragmented and struggling.**
But in 1874 when Camille Dry made line drawings of every building standing in the city for Pictorial St. Louis 1875, the central west end of what had been the Grand Prairie in Colonial Saint Louis, was sparsely dotted with mansions and farmhouses except for a large tract of open forest with a small river running through it. The river was the River Des Peres and the wood became Forest Park. The city’s last remaining wilderness was slated to be landscaped for a World’s Fair in 1904 and the pastoral lands to the north and the northeast were ripe for development into private streets and places for the moneyed.
According to Albert Montesi and Richard Deposki, authors of Central West End St. Louis,*** in the latter part of the 19th century, “merchant princes and speculators who grew enormously rich” during and after the Civil War, began developing the western limits of the city “with mansions, gardens, schools and churches to rival Boston, New York and Philadelphia”.
And did they succeed! The most prestigious architects in St. Louis worked in combination with Prussian-born topographical and civil engineer, Julius Pitzman, to plat much of the Central West End. Pitzman is credited with designing over fifty private places/streets in the St. Louis area, many of them in this neighborhood. Italianate villas, French chateaus and Romanesque to Medieval mansions rose magnificently along Pitzman’s elegantly delineated Westminster Place, Portland Place and Washignton Terrace – while less palatial but nonetheless stately homes rose side by side along Forest Park Terrace (today Lindell Blvd.), Maryland Avenue, McPherson, Lenox Place and Pershing.
Jacob Goldman, despite being fabulously wealthy, was not permitted to live in any of the aforementioned private places because he was Jewish. Left to his own devices he created Hortense Place – which stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the east side of Kingshighway Boulevard between Maryland and McPherson. I will write more in the future about Jacob Goldman and Hortense Place – to my mind, one of the three most haunted streets in St. Louis.
All of the exclusive shops that I remember from my childhood are gone from Maryland Avenue – Peck & Peck, Montaldo’s and Saks Fifth Avenue with their designer windows and haute couture/high fashions. Some were replaced by newcomers like The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis at #4657 – that might always have belonged (its stone chess tables lining the sidewalk in open invitation to young and old players alike), and Cassie’s Scents (www.cassiesscents.com), just off Maryland at #316 North Euclid, embued with owner Cassie Buell’s enigmatic, aura of magic. She may have grown up in Lake Forest, Illinois and Louisiana but Cassie’s sensibilities fit the Central West End like a glove.
The Women’s Exchange, which stood for decades near the northwest corner of Maryland and Euclid, has been replaced with its polar opposite, the trendy Drunken Fish Restaurant, which caters to an altogether different crowd than its predecessor. The Women’s Exchange Tea Room served wonderful luncheons. I still have my mother’s copy of their original cookbook and specialties like their Chinese candy have become long-time family favorites. The women who ate there wore hats and gloves and shopped before or after they lunched in a consignment boutique of beautiful children’s clothing, linens and toys. Begun Downtown in 1883 by Ariadne Lawnin as a market place for struggling women to earn a livelihood through sale of their hand-made goods, The Women’s Exchange (http://woexstl.org/) left the Central West End in 1974 for Clayton.
Karl Bissinger’s Confections (www.bissingers.com) moved a much shorter distance from their original St. Louis location near Euclid and McPherson, to #32 Maryland Plaza in a marketing move with more than a touch of genius. The former shop with its vintage candy counters and antique displays was very nostalgic but the new one with its chocolate martinis and chocolate lounge showcasing some of the most delicious candy hand-crafted in St. Louis, draws a new, varied and steady crowd. The charming townhouses on the north side of Maryland Avenue, dating to 1906 (just after the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904) are historic landmarks, recently restored where possible and updated to modern standards where practical, very reminiscent of London’s Mayfair.
In order to anchor his vision of Maryland Plaza as the vibrant commercial heart of the C.W.E., Ted Koplar of Koplar Properties enlisted the aid of his former Ladue High School buddy & football teammate, Larry Levy of Levy Restaurants in Chicago to produce a destination restaurant at the center of the plaza. Conceived as an American Bistro with European flair, Scape, at #48 Maryland Plaza (http://scapestl.com/about.html)is presided over by Chef Eric Kelly, a Southern California native, who honed his culinary skills from California to Florida, and participated in the brainstorming sessions that resulted in Scape American Bistro and Crepes next door. Chef Kelly’s recipes are “delicieux,” sumptuous!
Where Maryland Avenue intersects Kingshighway Blvd. two of the Central West End’s commercial anchors have stood the test of time, the soaring Chase-Park Plaza Hotel (www.chaseparkplaza.com) dating to 1922/1929 respectively and Straub’s corner Market which opened across the street in 1948. According to Patricia Treacy, author of The Grand Hotels of St. Louis,**** “The Chase was built on the site of the William Bixby mansion and carriage house.” Sam Koplar built the magnificent Art Deco, Park Plaza Hotel next to The Chase and combined the two in 1961. Sam Koplar’s is but one of the fascinating tales recounted by Pat Treacy in this delightful book. My fondest memories of The Chase-Park Plaza stem not from the magical Starlight Roof nor the exotic Khorassan Room but from the soda fountain that used to be just inside the north entrance where shopping excursions with my dad ended if my sisters and I had behaved. Since they often fell on the Friday before Easter, lunch consisted of a tuna salad sandwhich and a chocolate malt. Only once was my dad successful in convincing us to order the malt with a raw egg in it.
Grandpa William A. Straub, who opened the family’s first meat and grocery in Webster Groves one hundred and one years ago, was descended from a line of German farmers, although his own father was a stone mason. He made the company famous for delivering fine cuts of meat and fresh produce right to people’s homes. Although that tradition came to an end in 1975, it was very much in demand when the third Straub’s Market (www.straubs.com)opened its doors at Maryland Avenue and Kingshighway Boulevard sixty-two years ago. Store Manager, Nathanial Klein, estimates that half of their business traffic today comes from The Chase Hotel, its guests and the residents of the condominiums. He enjoys the neighborhood feel of this particular store and the diversity of the ages and nationalities of the shoppers, many of them students from Washington and St. Louis Universities.
I’m ending my walk today at the gated entrance to Portland Place where I’ll hop a Metro bus home – saving Hortense Place, McPherson Avenue, Left Bank Books, Llywelyn’s Pub and Rothschild’s Antiques for another day. There are many days worth of walking and window shopping in St. Louis’ splendid Central West End!
* Bohemian in the colloquial sense as opposed to the Slavic community in St. Louis originally centered in the Soulard neighborhood
** Gaslight Square will be the focus of a future blog
*** Central West End St. Louis by Albert Montesi and Richard Deposki, Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
**** The Grand Hotels of St. Louis by Patricia Treacy, Arcadia Publishing, 2005
Photo Credits: Scape Outdoor Patio: Tom Kavanaugh; all others: Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, author of this blog.