Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
September 21st, 2012

Gin and Drugs, My Dear, Gin and Drugs

T.S. Eliot

In his masterpiece The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot begins with the famous line “April is the Cruellest Month”. What follows is generally regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th Century. When T.S. Eliot published his influential work, it was 1922 and he had been living in London for several years. He was far removed from his youth growing up in the  gritty neighborhood on the western edge of downtown St. Louis.

For that reason, I’ll forgive him for overlooking August in St. Louis, which to me is far crueller.

But T.S. Eliot wasn’t writing about humidity and how ridiculously hot it gets in this town. He may have been alluding to the prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He turns it on its head, informing the reader that The Waste Land will be a far darker reading experience.

Personally, I’ve read The Waste Land twice. The first time was about twenty years ago when it was assigned in college. The second time was a few days ago when I realized I was about to write a blog post about T. S. Eliot.  On both occasions, getting through it was no easy feat. The Waste Land changes voices and locations constantly. It contains lines in German and mantras in Sanskrit. It alludes to Homer, the Bible, Aldous Huxley,  Sophocles, Dante, and even Buddha. I won’t pretend to offer insight into its meaning or explain it’s purpose. Just take my word for it. The Waste Land is a momentous achievement. Read it and it’s impossible to not admire the beauty of Eliot’s prose.

The Waste Land

Many haven’t read him, and I’d venture to guess that many more bend the truth and say they have. But find me a person who hasn’t at least heard of T.S. Eliot. Pull up any list of the great poets, and it’s likely his name is on it somewhere. For that reason, it has always surprised me T.S. Eliot is not more recognized in the city he was born and raised in. Eugene Field’s boyhood home in St. Louis is a museum. He lived in St. Louis less than ten years. Scott Joplin’s home is a state historic site. He lived here less than seven.

T.S. Eliot’s time in St. Louis was not a flash in the pan. He was born at 2635 Locust Street in St. Louis on September 26, 1888. He was raised and spent his formative years here until leaving to be educated at Milton Academy and then Harvard. His family was well established in St. Louis. His grandfather was William Greenleaf Eliot, a prominent St. Louisan and co-founder of Washington University.

Recently, I took another great bicycle history tour sponsored by the good people at Trailnet. This one led us up and down Locust Street on the western edge of downtown St. Louis, an area that was once referred to as “Automobile Row”. The area has that nickname because of the large amount of automobile dealerships, showrooms, parts stores, and automotive businesses that once existed there. Another post may be coming about that topic at some point, but Trailnet promoted this tour by claiming we’d see “one of the most overlooked historical locations in the midwest”.  The tour was led by Harold Karrabell, a man  who previously led me on Trailnet bike tours of Cahokia Mounds, East St. Louis, and Carondelet.  As I mentioned in a previous post about the Jacob Stein House, Mr. Karabell has an impressive knowledge of the history of St. Louis. His tours are well-researched, well-organized, and informative. Even better, he prefers to lead these tours while riding a bicycle. And once again, Harold didn’t disappoint. As we rode east along Locust Street, we slowed as we approached the Jefferson Avenue intersection. Harold stopped us in front of a parking lot and pointed out a large plaque on the sidewalk.

T.S. Eliot Plaque at 2635 Locust

The plaque identifies the location of the home where T.S. Eliot was born and raised. My jaw dropped when I saw it. Over the years, I have ridden or driven past this location hundreds of times. I simply never knew it was there. I had always heard Eliot lived in Central West End, not in the sketchy outskirts of downtown St. Louis. I simply love historical markers such as this. Some people prefer to only see historical places that still exist, but that’s not me. I enjoy seeing places that have changed and thinking about why they did. Why was T.S. Eliot’s home razed and turned into a parking lot? What did the neighborhood look like when he lived there? When T.S. Eliot lived at 2635 Locust Street, the population of St. Louis was almost 700,000. In Eliot’s day, the street was likely teeming with activity. Today, the neighborhood shows no sign of once being a residential neighborhood. Fortunately, one building still stands that can give us a frame of reference between then and now.

2635 Locust - H.W. Eliot Home - Then & Now

At the time Eliot lived there, Locust Street was a neighborhood in transition. Once residential, saloons and factories started popping up, making it a rougher part of town. Although the Eliot family was wealthy, they remained in the neighborhood during it’s decline because of family that lived nearby. In 1905, the family moved to a new home in the prosperous Central West End. Although this home still stands today as a private residence,  T.S. Eliot lived here for less than a year before heading off to school.

4446 Westminster Place - H.W. Eliot Home - Then & Now

After graduating from Harvard, Eliot moved to London in 1914. There he met the poet Ezra Pound, a man who would have a profound impact on his writing and career. Pound helped Eliot get his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock published in 1915. The success of Prufrock marked the beginning of Eliot’s career as an influential poet.  Along with The Waste Land, Eliot would publish several noteworthy poems such as The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945), each of which earned him critical acclaim and recognition. He also gained renown as a playwright and a literary critic.  In 1939, he published a book of poems named Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which became the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. In time, he’d be recognized as one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. To honor of his impressive body of work, he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature.

 In 1929, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. He lived the rest of his life in England, but he never forgot the influence St. Louis had on him. Later in life, he spoke about the impact of  growing up in a river town. He fondly recalled going down to Eads Bridge to view the Mississippi when it flooded. He believed people who grew up in a river town understood rhythm more than people who didn’t. In The Four Quartets, he writes about a river in this notable stanza:

The Four Quartets

T.S.EliotEliot did return to his hometown on a few occasions. In 1953, Eliot returned to speak at the celebration of Washington University’s 100th anniversary. In his speech, Eliot expresses his feelings about growing up in St. Louis:

“Many other memories have invaded my mind since I received the invitation to address you today. But I think these are enough to serve as a token of my thoughts and feelings. I am very well satisfied to have having been born in St. Louis. In fact, I’d even say I think I am fortunate to have been born here rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”

T.S. Eliot died of emphysema on 1965. His ashes are interred at St. Michael’s Church in East Coker, Somerset.

In closing, can we get a street or something named after this guy? As of now, the extent of T.S. Eliot’s recognition in St. Louis doesn’t go beyond a few plaques and a small bust in the Central West End. How about a park or a library? His grandfather has one of the Ittner schools named after him. It’s time St. Louis gave T.S. his due.

Harold Karabell & I on the Automotive Row Trailnet Ride

The Drink

Initially, I planned to get a drink at the closet location possible to T.S. Eliot’s plaque on Locust Street. This worked out pretty well, because that meant I’d be heading to the Schlafly Tap Room, located just a couple blocks to the east. Even better, Schlafly was hosting their annual “Hop in the City” beer festival on the same day Harold showed us the plaque. Since I already had a ticket, it seemed like a perfect fit.

That is, until I read about an exchange T.S. Eliot had with an admirer in the 1950′s. The person asked him about the source of his inspiration. His reply quickly changed my mind.

Gin and drugs, my dear, gin and drugs

Imagine my joy when I found out T.S. Eliot drank gin. Although the Manhattan is my favorite cocktail, gin is very dear to my heart. The gin and tonic is probably my standard drink to have on the porch after a long day at work. I also love martinis. After reading his response,  I started hunting around for more clues about T.S. Eliot’s drinking preferences. The news only got better. I found out he had a cat named “Noilly-Pratt” after the French vermouth brand. In the Letters of T.S. Eliot, he explains how he wrote the monologue to the verse drama Sweeney Agonistes: “I wrote it in three quarters of an hour after church time and before lunch one Sunday morning, with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s gin.”. Finally, I found this quote:

Martini Quote

With that, there leaves no doubt that a martini is the drink for a T.S. Eliot blog post. Located just a few blocks west of T.S. Eliot’s boyhood home at 3037 Locust is the Fountain on Locust.  The window of this restaurant advertises ice cream and retro cocktails. It’s a neat place with a fun and colorful decor inside. Their specialty is the “Ice Cream Martini”, and the drink menu has a full-page of varieties. I’m not an ice cream and alcohol kind of guy, so I went for the standard dry martini. The selection of gin at Fountain on Locust is a bit weak for a place advertising retro cocktails, so I the best I could get was Bombay Sapphire. Nothing against Bombay, but I was hoping to get something special like Plymouth or Broker’s.  To my delight, the bartender made me an excellent martini. If it had any vermouth in it, it was probably the same amount my father used when he taught me how to make a martini: Open the vermouth bottle and just wave your hand over it a couple of times. And to top it off, it was wonderfully stirred. I can’t abide a shaken martini. Damn you James Bond! I like to think T.S. Eliot wouldn’t put up with that, either.

The Fountain on Locust

July 2nd, 2012

Compton & Dry’s View of St. Louis

Back in the early 1870′s, a man named Richard J. Compton came up with a pretty big idea.  Compton wanted to design and publish a new perspective map of St. Louis on a scale that had not been attempted before. The result would become the most important and significant map of any American city to date. Even by today’s standards, this map stands out as a significant achievement in cartography.

Perspective maps (also called panoramic, pictorial, or birds-eye maps) had been popular since the 16th century. But in the 1800′s, the industry really took off. Thousands of maps were drawn to present attractive views of cities in order to lure potential industry and people to a city. Being one of the largest American cities in the late 1800′s, St. Louis was no exception.

One example is the Parsons & Atwater map, published by Currier & Ives in 1874:

1874 St Louis - Parsons and Atwater

It’s a beautiful map, but it is not an exact replica of the city.

1874 St Louis - Parsons and Atwater Detail

Look closely at the detail and the viewer will notice that buildings in certain sections of the map become haphazardly drawn and repetitious. The perspective is not correct, especially as the city spreads out to the west.

This is exactly what Compton sought to avoid. A printer by trade, his goal was to publish a fully detailed perspective drawing of St. Louis. In it, every building, street, park, landmark, business, church, and structure would be drawn in detailed precision.

Compton was from Alton, Illinois. He served as the manager of a lithography company in St. Louis and he owned his own business under the name of Richard J. Compton & Co. It was this firm that would publish his new map. To draw the map, he hired an artist by the name of Camille N. Dry. Not much is known about Dry, but he had a background of drawing perspective maps for several other cities. It’s almost certain that Dry managed a team of artists to help with the massive project.

To make his drawing, Dry made initial sketches from a hot air balloon that was floated over the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.  Dry also used this birds-eye view to determine the correct perspective needed for a map of this size. Since a map of such detail would require an enormous surface area, the plan all along was to publish the map in book form.  When complete, it consisted of 110 individual drawings or “plates”, each depicting a section of St. Louis.  Along with the plates, 112 pages of descriptions are included in the final publication. These descriptions give details about the thousands of businesses, buildings, and structures drawn in the map. At the time of its publication, no other American city could claim a map with such meticulous detail of its urban landscape.

It was published with the title Pictorial St. Louis: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, a Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875. 

Pictorial St. Louis 1875 Cover Page

The title page credits Camille Dry as the artist and Rich. J. Compton as the designer and editor. It’s believed the initial sketches took place in the spring of 1874. The final book was published in December 1875. It sold for $25.00.

I first saw this map in its full glory at the Missouri History Museum when I first moved to St. Louis. They had the entire map up on a wall as part of a St. Louis exhibit. It’s since been taken down to make room for newer exhibits, but one can hope it will be put on display again in the future.

Since this map is so big, it’s difficult to fully appreciate on a single webpage. The approximate size of each plate is 11×18 inches. If you were to assemble all the plates together to make one big map, you’d need a wall at least 24 feet long and 8 feet high.  Even Compton and Dry did not intend to have the map viewed in such a manner.  Since the map was published in book form, many buildings and map features are duplicated on adjoining plates.

Scale the plates down, and it could fit on your living room wall, which is where I put it (read more about that in this post).

Compton & Dry on my wall

However, just by looking at a few of the individual plates, it’s easy to appreciate what Compton & Dry accomplished. This is plate 43, which shows the area around Washington Avenue and 14th Street.

Plate 43

Compton funded the work by selling subscriptions. By detailing every structure in the city, he could identify buildings and businesses by numbers etched on a plate. A paying subscriber could then get a business identified on the map and in the key below the image. A description of the business would also be included.  It’s assumed Compton charged more for longer descriptions that took up more space. For example, the description of the “Belcher Sugar Refining Company” fills an entire page, something that must have called for a higher subscription price.

Find a copy of the book and it’s easy to get lost in it. I have spent hours examining the plates looking for landmarks and buildings that still stand. Here are six that can still be seen in St. Louis today:

Pictorial St. Louis 1875 Buildings

Pictorial St. Louis 1875 Buildings

It’s also interesting to see what’s not yet there. Plate 1 shows a congested city and riverfront where the Gateway Arch now stands.

Plate 1

Plate 94 depicts a spacious Tower Grove Park in 1875. Henry Shaw’s land sits barren to the north where the Missouri Botanical Garden would eventually be built.

Plate 94 - Tower Grove Park

Plate 84 shows a small baseball diamond on the west side of Grand Avenue. This small ballpark would eventually evolve into Sportsman’s Park, the future home of the St. Louis Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Plate 84

I strongly recommend seeing this book in person. It’s a stunning achievement in cartography and art. It’s also easy to find. It can be viewed on-line at the Library of Congress here. The St. Louis Public Library has copies at several of their branches. Recent republications are usually available for purchase on eBay.  But if you happen to stumble upon one of the original copies printed in 1875, you’ll likely need to fork over about $10,000 to call it yours.

The Drink

I thought heading out to get a drink for this post would be easy. Since my history topic literally deals with the ENTIRE city of St. Louis, I simply had to choose a bar and a drink. However, I figured I should try to find a place that can be found and identified on the Compton & Dry map.
Broadway Oyster Bar

But I couldn’t find one. It’s sad to realize how many 1875 St. Louis buildings are gone. It seemed each old bar I looked up was located in a building that been built after 1890. Fortunately, all I had to do was call my pals over at the Campbell House Museum. The director, Andy Hahn, needed about four seconds to tell me of a place I should have known all along:  Broadway Oyster Bar. It’s in one of the oldest buildings still standing in St. Louis.

Broadway Oyster Bar is a fun place. They have great food (it’s where to go in St. Louis if you like to eat crawdads), music, and a very eclectic interior. It’s not a place I’d go for a cocktail, but it’s a great place to drink beer and listen to blues. It gets loud, which is tough for guys who are deaf in one ear (me). But, it’s still a place I often take friends who are visiting St. Louis.

Broadway Oyster Bar in 1875

The building that houses Broadway Oyster Bar was constructed in 1845. The original hearth even still stands in the back dining room.  On plate 3 of the Compton & Dry map, a group of houses are drawn at the corner of 5th and Mulberry, which is now the corner of S. Broadway and Gratiot.  They aren’t identified, but I believe one of those structures is where I ordered a Manhattan on a recent hot Saturday afternoon.

Since it was 102 degrees, I sat at their nice outdoor bar where it was empty (the inside was packed with people escaping the St. Louis heat). My bartender thought I was nuts biking in this weather, but she was very friendly and happy to make me a Manhattan. I ordered it without any special instructions, which means I expected to get it on the rocks (sigh).  She used a good 2:1 ratio of Maker’s Mark Whiskey with Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth. She put three maraschino cherries in it and a a splash of maraschino juice. It was stirred, and no bitters were added.

Broadway Oyster Bar Manhattan

I’d send this drink back at some other establishments, but not here. I know better than to be a cocktail snob to a pretty girl who’s being extra friendly. She could have topped off the Manhattan with Mad Dog and I would have simply smiled back. It was still a tasty drink. She poured a good ratio and the ice probably helped on a super hot day.

Normally, that’s way too many cherries for a Manhattan. I don’t use even one in my own recipe. Still, the maraschino cherry is the standard fruit complement to a Manhattan. I certainly will not complain when it’s added.

Notes:

Much of my information about Compton & Dry came from a fantastic book titled St. Louis Illustrated Nineteenth-Century Engravings and Lithographs of a Mississippi River Metropolis by John W. Reps. The book is now out of print, but I was able to purchase a copy in great condition for only $6.00 from an online used bookseller.

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