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Archive for the ‘St. Louis Architecture’ Category

April 13th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

The St. Louis Water Towers

In the past few years, I have been fortunate for many opportunities that I have been given to share my take on St. Louis history. In presentations, tours, and talks to various groups and organizations, I’ve found that I really enjoy getting out and talking up the great history of this city. I also always try to accompany my talks with plenty of visuals, photographs, and maps. I mix it up based on what the event is, but a few images have been included in nearly every presentation I have given. One of them is this image, which features the three famous standpipe water towers located in St. Louis.

The St. Louis Water TowersThe St. Louis Water Towers

I say “famous” because just about anyone who has lived in or spent time in St. Louis has at least seen these three structures. They are standpipe water towers, and each one of them played an important role in helping deliver water to the people of St. Louis in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. All three of them rise more than 150 feet into the air, and they are hard to miss if one happens to be on a nearby highway or in a city neighborhood that happens to have one. From left to right, they are the Grand Avenue Water Tower, the Bissell Street Water Tower, and the Compton Hill Water Tower.

The notable fact about St. Louis and its three towers is that although hundreds of these standpipe water towers once existed all over the country, only seven remain standing today. St. Louis has three of them, with Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, and Louisville rounding out other four. This is the same fact I use in my presentations, and it always gets a nice response from the audience. I always notice a few people nodding their heads in agreement or a few others showing pleasant surprise. St. Louis likes being a winner, and St. Louis won the water tower game.

The Grand Avenue Water Tower

The towers are special to me because along with a few other structures (such as the bear pit wall in Fairground Park), the towers are a reason I started writing this blog. Back when I started to poke around St. Louis to get a better look at it, I was repeatedly drawn to these three structures. However, while I’ve stared at these towers, photographed them, talked about them, and even climbed one of them a few times over the years, I’ve never really tried to figure out the answer to one important question:

How did they work?

Not intending to make it a blog post, I set out to learn a bit more about the towers for my own benefit. But along the way I learned some good stuff, so I decided to turn it into a quick Distilled History entry. And fortunately, few topics have been easier to research. Each tower has its own Wikipedia page, the National Register of Historic Places nomination forms for each are available online, and a simple Google search landed me a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article written by Joe Holleman that answered the very question I was asking. And best of all, the Compton Hill Water Tower even has its own foundation with plenty of information available to those interested.

Interior Views of the Compton Hill Water Tower

Prior to working on this post, I had always assumed the three water towers somehow served the same purpose as modern water towers do today. Simply put, I thought they stored water. I just never took the time (until now) to figure out where all the water was being held (the St. Louis water towers look much skinnier than today’s bulbous versions). But I soon learned that water storage was never the intended purpose. In fact, they aren’t even the same kind of water tower. The key function of the St.Louis towers was not storing water, but regulating water pressure.

According to the St. Louis Water Department, in the mid-to-late 1900’s the city utilized a system of steam-driven pumps to deliver water from water plants to consumers in and around the city. The water got around no problem, but the steam pumps created surges in water pressure. The steam pumps caused water pipes to frequently rattle and shake, and delivering water to the upper levels of multi-story buildings was difficult. To remedy this, each water tower contained an enormous (100+ feet tall, 5-6 feet wide) vertical iron pipe filled with water. The standpipe acted like a vent, with the water level rising and falling as the intensity of the water pressure in the water mains fluctuated. As a result, the water towers were responsible for allowing consumers to get an even flow of water from the city’s waterworks.

I was also interested to learn that even the masonry sheathings found on each tower serves a special purpose. Each has its own unique and beautiful exterior, and it’s logical to assume that the decorative masonry installed on each was done for aesthetic purposes. Actually, there’s more to it. The primary functions of the stone, brick, and terracotta exteriors are to protect the standpipe inside. If left to the elements, water inside the giant pipes would freeze, causing the pipes to burst like any standard water pipe would.

It’s also important to note that the water towers, especially the Grand Avenue and Bissell Street towers, represented the city’s first modern and comprehensive water distribution system. As new areas of the city suddenly had a working water supply, new builders, homeowners, and businesses began to populate new neighborhoods. St. Louis actually grew because of these water towers.

Grand Avenue Water Tower

Located at the intersection of Grand Avenue and 20th Street in the College Hill neighborhood, the Grand Avenue Water Tower is the oldest of the three St. Louis water towers. Built in 1871 when Grand Avenue was still a dirt road, the Grand Avenue Tower was designed by architect George I. Barnett, who also designed the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower The Grand Water Tower in Compton & DryGrove House, and the Missouri Governor’s Mansion. Interestingly, the Grand Water Tower was commissioned when a man named Thomas Whitman, the brother of the poet Walt Whitman, worked as an engineer for the St. Louis Water Department. The Grand Water Tower served St. Louis until 1912 when the city installed a modern pump system that delivered water at an even pressure and the need for the tower was eliminated. Soon after, the iron standpipe and spiral interior staircase were removed. In the 1920’s, lights were installed atop the Grand Water Tower and were used as aviation beacons. According to the tower’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form, some in the city government wanted the tower razed in the 1930’s, but a group of local businessmen successfully “agitated to have it restored”. Today, the Grand Water Tower may need a coat of paint or two, but it continues to stand tall in north city. It can also lay claim to being the tallest free-standing Corinthian column in the world.

Bissell Street Water Tower

Located just a couple blocks east of the Grand Water Tower, the Bissell Street Water Tower stands at the intersection of Bissell Street and Blair Avenue in North St. Louis City. Completed in 1886, the Bissell Street Water Tower (or “Red” Tower as it is commonly called) was designed by William S. Eames, the deputy The Bissell Street Water Towercommissioner of public buildings at the time. Built to supplement the nearby Grand Avenue Water Tower, both towers were located near the Bissell Point Plant, the city’s first water treatment facility. Standing at 194 feet tall, the Bissell Street Tower is the tallest of the three water towers in St. Louis (and it’s also taller than the four found in other cities).  Set in a circular plaza 67 feet in diameter, the “New Red” tower (as it is also known) is my personal favorite. But the New Red Tower doesn’t seen to get as much attention as the others, perhaps due to the fact that it sits off the beaten path. And maybe as a result, it has spent more time under threat of demolition than the other two. After being removed from service in 1912 (the same year as the Grand ower), the Bissell Tower spent much of the 1900’s under the threat of demolition. Efforts were made by the city in the 1950’s and 1960’s to have it razed. Fortunately, a study concluded that restoring the tower would not be significantly more expensive than tearing it down. With help from a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the tower was restored in the 1970’s and continues to stand today.

Compton Hill Water Tower

The youngest of the three water towers, the Compton Hill Water Tower was built in 1898. It was designed by architect Harvey Ellis, a man who had a hand in Theodore Link’s winning design for St. Louis’s Union Station. Located in Reservoir Park at the intersection of South Grand and Russell, the Compton The Compton Hill Water TowerHill Water Tower stands 179 feet tall. It remained in service until 1929. Along with being a magnificent icon in South St. Louis, the Compton Hill Water Tower is also special because it’s the only tower open to the public. On one Saturday each month (and on evenings with a full moon), the Water Tower Park & Preservation Society will let people in to climb the 198 stairs to an observation room and get a fantastic 360-degree view of St. Louis. It’s the same thing people were doing 113 years ago, when thousands of visitors climbed the tower during the summer of the 1904 World’s Fair. From the top, the 28-million gallon Compton Reservoir can’t be missed, a reservoir that still provides water to residents of the city. The Compton Hill Water Tower also shares Reservoir Park with the a large bronze sculpture known as “The Naked Truth”. Designed by Berlin sculptor Wilhelm Wandschneider, the Naked Truth honors the German-American press in St. Louis. Due to the statue’s nudity, the Naked Truth created a bit of controversy when the design was unveiled.The Drink

Tower Pub

Getting a drink to celebrate the three water towers was tough. Not a single (and I mean not one) drinking establishment exists near any of them. Well, the Compton Hill Tower has a few bars within a few blocks, but nothing that really relates to the iconic structure. And as many know, the neighborhood around the Grand and Bissell Towers is a struggling one. As a result, I decided to get my drink at a place that at least shares a word with what I had been thinking about: Tower Pub on Morganford.

I actually go to Tower Pub often. They have a nice patio and good happy hour specials. It gets too crowded for me later in the evening, but it’s a pleasant south city hangout. And along with toasting water towers, I had another exciting reason to share a few Urban Chestnuts with friends. Yesterday (April 13, 2017), was the day I finally could hold my new book with my own two A Beer at Tower Pubhands. After picking up cases of Lost Treasures of St. Louis from my publisher, I made sure to get out and celebrate two years of hard work (and I may have celebrated a bit too much). I’ll have more to share about that project in the future, but please consider purchasing a copy in the time being. Signed copies can be purchased in the Distilled History Store (the link is also at the top of the page), but the book is available in bookstores and other retail outlets as well. I’ll also have plenty of events and signings in the coming months.

As for the water towers, I recommend getting out and taking a closer look at these fine structures (and be sure to climb the Compton tower). All three were made City Landmarks in 1966, and they each hold a special place in the story of St. Louis.

The Compton Hill Water Tower in 1890
The Bissell Street Water Tower
The Grand Avenue Water Tower
March 2nd, 2017 by Cameron Collins

The Hero of the Southern Hotel Fire

Lost Treasures of St. Louis

I know I must sound like a broken record, but please pardon my lack of activity here (again). But this time, I think I have a pretty good reason. I am happy to announce that I have a book coming out on April 15, 2017.

It’s not Distilled History in book form (baby steps), but it was this blog that prompted a publisher to reach out and ask if I’d like to take on a special project. The book is titled Lost Treasures of St. Louis, and it’s a fun look back at many of the restaurants, amusement parks, movie theaters, and other St. Louis memories that are no longer with us. The project took hundreds of hours of my life over the span of eighteen months, and I simply couldn’t keep Distilled History going at the same time. Now that it’s done, I plan to get back to blogging here as much as I can. In the meantime, pre-orders are now available at the “Store” link at the top of the page.

Anyway, I’m excited to get back to the great stories (and watering holes) St. Louis has to offer. And now that the entire archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch are available online (with a subscription), finding a good story has become immeasurably easier. I still love listening the whir of microfiche machines at the Central Library, but it’s so convenient to get your history fix from a home computer. And while doing that last summer, I found something interesting.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Snorkel News

I can’t remember what I was looking for, but I forgot it as soon as my eyes landed on a 1949 article with the word “snorkel” in the title (the firefighting “snorkel”, not the thing that lets you breath under water). And seeing the debut of the snorkel in St. Louis made me think a particular fire in which a snorkel would have come in handy. That’s the Southern Hotel fire of April 11, 1877, a fire I know well since my pal at the Campbell House Museum (Robert Campbell) owned the hotel at the time. The Southern Hotel fire was a devastating event in the city’s history. Along with the complete destruction of the city’s most elegant and magnificent hotel, more than twenty people lost their lives. And many of them died because they were simply out of reach.

But the snorkel article also made me think of a particular firefighter who was a major participant in the events of that fateful night. I have always wanted to learn more about him because his story always sounded too good to be true. His name is Phelim O’Toole, and it turns out it his story really is that good.

In the spring of 1877, Phelim O’Toole was a captain of Hook & Ladder No. 3  in the St. Louis Fire Department. Born in County Wicklow, Phelim O’Toole worked as a sailor before coming to America in the 1860’s. He turned twenty-nine just a few days before he arrived on the scene that night. A member of the St. Louis Fire Department since 1872, O’Toole already had a reputation as one of the bravest men in the department. But on the night of April 11, 1877, Phelim O’Toole became the stuff of legend.

I’ll get to telling O’Toole’s amazing story in a bit, but I have to stop and make sure the other guys who helped him that night also get the credit they deserve. As I started to dig into what happened on that horrible night 140 years ago, it became clear to me that the response of the St. Louis Fire Department was probably the only thing that went right. Another firefighter named Mike Hester deserves as much recognition as O’Toole (and he did get it at the time), but I’m going to focus on O’Toole for now. I have started researching Hester’s heroics as well, and my plan is to tell his story in a future post.

I should also mention that this post was meant to be published in conjunction with the post I wrote about the Southern Hotel last summer. I recommend going back and reading that one first. It will provide a good backdrop for what Phelim O’Toole was dealing with that night. Even better, here’s a short video I put together featuring some great images and a waltz composed in honor of the hotel.

The events that unfolded in the early hours of April 11, 1877 probably began in a storeroom in the basement of the Southern Hotel. The exact cause was never determined, but as Arlen Ross Dykstra details in an article in the Missouri History Museum’s Gateway Heritage magazine in 1986, there was “no lack of combustible material” in the hotel’s basement. Dykstra points out a variety of fire hazards, including a large pile of hair (for use in mattresses), the hotel’s gas supply meter, and a baggage elevator described as “wooden and oil-soaked”. And it was this elevator that caused the night to take a very deadly turn. As the fire reached the wooden elevator shaft, the fire was sucked to the top floors of the hotel almost immediately. As the fire quickly spread to the hotel’s upper hallways, the 500-room Southern Hotel began to burn up from the basement and down from the top floors at the same exact time.

Phelim O'TooleBy the time hotel employees became aware of the situation unfolding around them, the fire was already out of control. Although men such as Charles Shephard, one of the hotel proprietors, and George Ford, the night clerk, sprung into action as soon as the fire was discovered, it wasn’t enough. Already undermanned due to the late hour, hotel employees failed to adequately warn hotel guests, the key to the city fire alarm telegraph box couldn’t be found, and heat-sensing mechanical alarms didn’t activate (the sensors were turned up too high by employees frustrated with false alarms). Furthermore, the flaming elevator shaft was located next to the hotel’s primary staircase. Before many guests were aware of their predicament, the hotel’s primary route for escape was already lost.

As hotel employees abandoned efforts to extinguish the spreading fire and fled, most of the estimated 650 guests, residents, and employees located on the hotel’s lower floors had been alerted and were able to escape without much difficulty. One of them was Joseph Pulitzer, a resident of the hotel who occupied two rooms on the third floor. According to the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Pulitzer didn’t even bother getting dressed, and escaped “sans shirt, stockings, or anything else”. But to anyone watching the night unfold, it was clear that the critical scenes would play out on the hotel’s upper floors. As the streets around the hotel filled with hundreds who had escaped and thousands more who came to watch, the pleas of those trapped rained down from windows high above.

The chaos caused by a fire of this magnitude is hard to underestimate. The Southern’s chief engineer, J. E. Russell, told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat two days after the fire that he was rousted from his fifth floor room shortly after 1:00 a.m. by the sounds of women shrieking. Finding smoke seeping through the transom above his door, Russell fled his room and immediately tripped over a woman laying prone in the hallway, screaming for help and crawling frantically for a path to safety. Dropping to the floor to catch his breath, Russell found himself crawling over more than a dozen people screaming for help. Russell reported that he did his best to lead people to safety, eventually reaching the servants wing where he found many of them in a “state of panic” and “running wildly about”.

Southern Hotel Ruins

Finally, approximately twenty minutes after the fire started, the first alarm was pulled at 1:30 a.m. from a Fourth Street alarm box. Within minutes, fire carts arrived on the scene. After two additional alarms (1:45 a.m and 2:00 a.m), every fire department in the city was involved except one. Upon arrival, firefighters quickly determined the building was doomed. With the hotel’s interior made almost entirely of wood (including the duct system), and rooms lavishly decorated with flammable carpets and drapes, the fire raged unchecked from within. As firefighters rushed into the hotel’s main entrance, they found the floors and ceilings on the verge of collapse. Rushing back outside, it was clear that all emergency efforts would proceed on the hotel’s exterior only. The fire department then turned their attention to saving lives and preventing the fire from spreading to other buildings.

The Southern Hotel Fire

Other than the inferno itself, the biggest problem facing the fire department was the inability to reach those trapped on the hotel’s upper floors. While some extra height was provided by positioning ladders on top of porticos and on top of Tony Faust’s restaurant next door, many remained out of reach to ladders that could reach no higher than the hotel’s third floor.

This reality of the situation forced many to take drastic action. Kate Reilly, a hotel employee with no means of escape from her fifth-floor room, jumped from her window rather than be consumed by fire. She died instantly. Adolph Einstmann, using a makeshift rope fashioned by tying bed sheets together, attempted to scale down the exterior of the building. With his wife and mother-in-law watching from above, Einstmann made it about halfway down before the rope slipped. Before hitting the ground, he was gored by a hook mounted on the outside of the hotel. With no option but to follow, Einstmann’s wife and mother-in-law descended the rope after him. While his wife was able to reach the ground safely, her mother did not. Critically injured by the fall, she died the next day.Phelim O'Toole Sheet Music

Another man named G. Frank Gouley initially found a path to safety, but then made the tragic decision to return to his room to retrieve a cherished photograph. The fire sealed him in this time, and Gouley was forced to jump from his fourth floor window. He died moments after hitting the ground. Another man named Sidmore Hayden was one of the fortunate to have a ladder reach his window. But while climbing on, Hayden lost his footing as he attempted to step upon the top top rung. Death found him on the balcony below. The St. Louis Globe Democrat reported in the days after the fire that at least twelve people died falling or throwing themselves from the hotel.

And what may have been the most heartbreaking turn of events, a member of the British House of Commons named Lord William Felix Munster became separated from his wife of eight months while fleeing from the fire. Reaching safety, Munster learned that his wife did not make it out alive. In a fit of despair, Munster produced a revolver and fired a bullet into his head. Tragically, it was discovered hours later that his wife had in fact survived.

The Southern Hotel Fire

But a glimmer of hope was restored when a special truck known as a “Skinner escape” arrived on the scene. Drawn by horses, a Skinner escape was an early form of today’s aerial ladders, and its hand-cranked extension ladder provided the best hope for those who remained out of reach. Phelim O’Toole was the truck’s foreman (a term used for “Captain” at the time) and what happened next must have been quite a sight for the thousands of people on hand to see it.

Ruins of the Southern Hotel

After arriving and “making better time to the fire than we usually do” as O’Toole reported in his own journals, O’Toole’s Skinner escape made its first stop in front of the hotel’s main entrance on Walnut Street. With no sign of anyone in the windows above, the truck was then moved to the 4th Street side. With several identified on this side, the order was given order to stop and raise the ladder. But Skinner escapes were cumbersome vehicles, and getting a good position on the ground proved almost impossible with obstacles such as the hotel’s porch and double-car tracks in the street. As a result, when Phelim O’Toole eventually reached the top of the ladder, he found himself five feet short and five feet back from the fifth floor window (with four people inside) that he was trying to reach.

O'Toole Portrait in the STLFD HeadquartersRealizing he wasn’t able to effectively throw the rope he brought with him, O’Toole shouted for someone to pass him a bed sheet. With assurances that “I’ll save your lives”, O’Toole was able to grasp one end of a sheet thrown by a Washington University professor named Reese. With the other end tied to a bed inside the hotel room, O’Toole twisted the sheet and then swung himself off the ladder. Dangling fifty feet above the ground, and with a remarkable faith in an English professor’s knot-tying skills, O’Toole climbed hand-over-hand up the side of the hotel and into the burning hotel room. Reese and his family must have been amazed by the feat, but there was no time for admiration. Almost immediately, O’Toole had his rope around Reese and ordered him out the window. It wasn’t possible to lower Reese to the top of the ladder (which remained five feet back from the wall), so O’Toole ingeniously made Reese a part of his rescue effort. Lowering him to a position on a wider widow sill below, O’Toole brought the rope back up. As Reese’s wife was lowered next and came within her husband’s reach, O’Toole instructed the professor to shove her out to the ladder. As Reese did this, another firefighter stationed at the top of the ladder was able to grasp the woman and pull her to safety. And this was all done in the midst of a treacherous fire.

After saving several others on the Fourth Street side in a similar manner (with a few lowered completely down, bypassing a shove from Professor Reese), the Skinner escape was moved again. On the Elm Street side, a man named Charles Kennedy was spotted outside his fourth floor window. As Kennedy repeatedly announced that he was about to jump, O’Toole climbed the ladder again, threw Kennedy a rope, and shouted “No, damn it, don’t jump.”  Then O’Toole ordered Kennedy to turn around (facing the window) and hang his legs over while clutching the window sill. O’Toole reached up and fastened his arms around Kennedy’s legs like a vise. Holding tight, he shouted for Kennedy to “Drop!”. Kennedy let go, and after a bit of a struggle, was soon secured at the top of the ladder. Charles Kennedy was the last to be saved by Phelim O’Toole that night, and it happened just moments before the entire Fourth Street side of the hotel fell.

Phelim O'Toole Quote

In the end, it’s believed Phelim O’Toole was responsible for saving the lives of at least twelve people. It could have been more, but much remains unknown about that tragic night. In fact, the number of people who died in the Southern Hotel fire has never been precisely determined. The hotel’s guest book was destroyed in the blaze, and newspaper accounts had numbers varying from fourteen to more than thirty. Two days after the fire, the St. Louis Dispatch attempted to calculate the number of people unaccounted for, and the number reached was thirty-eight. However, bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, and the article admits that some survivors may have simply left town.

Phelim O'Toole's Grave in Calvary Cemetery

As for Phelim O’Toole, his heroics brought him celebrity and instant fame throughout St. Louis. Awarded with a gold medallion, a substantial monetary reward (which he promptly donated to charity), and musical performances held in his honor, Phelim O’Toole became the toast of the city. He even had a song written about him. And even today, Phelim O’Toole is remembered as one of the bravest and most revered firefighters in St. Louis history. Walk into the St. Louis Fire Department’s headquarters on Jefferson Avenue, and his portrait can be seen prominently displayed in the lobby.

Sadly, Phelim O’Toole’s career was cut short just three years after his heroics at the Southern Hotel. In July 1880, O’Toole was responding to a small fire in a vacant house on Locust Street when a fire extinguisher blew up in his hands. He was killed by the blast. Two days later, as many as 20,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects during Phelim O’Toole’s funeral cortege. Beginning at a firehouse, O’Toole was carried by a Skinner escape to the (Old) Cathedral. After the memorial service and being transferred to a hearse, more than 100 carriages and 70 buggies followed Phelim O’Toole to his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery.

The Drink

Seamus McDaniel's in Dogtown

While writing this post, I decided to reach out to the people who probably knew Phelim O’Toole as well as anybody, the St. Louis Fire Department. Phelim O’Toole is an important figure in the department’s history, and I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight. So, not long after I knocked on the front door of the department’s headquarters and asked if anyone could help, a captain from Engine House No 1. named Michael Corson reached out to me. It took me a while to get back to him (pesky book project), but we eventually met and shared information about the history of fighting fires in St. Louis and its most famous firefighter. It was a great experience, and I’m grateful for his and the St. Louis Fire Department’s help.

Finally, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate neighborhood in which to toast Phelim O’Toole than Dogtown. It’s not Kerry Patch, the long-gone Irish neighborhood O’Toole called home 150 years ago, but Dogtown is an Irish as St. Louis gets today. I lived in Dogtown for several years when I first moved to St. Louis, and I have many fond memories of walking just a couple hundred feet from my front door and ordering a pint of Guinness at Pat’s (now the Pat Connolly Tavern).

I have a special project in mind for the Pat Connolly Tavern, so for this post I decided to cozy up to the bar at the other Irish bar in Dogtown, Seamus McDaniel’s. I ordered a pint of Guinness, and while getting a good pour from one of the nicest bartenders around, I raised my glass to Phelim O’Toole and toasted to one of the bravest men in the history of St. Louis.

A Toast to Phelim O'TooleKey Sources:

  • St. Louis’ Southern Hotel Fire of 1877 by Arlen Ross Dykstra – Gateway Heritage Magazine
  • The St. Louis Fire Department
  • Campbell House Museum Archives
  • Countless articles published in the days and years after the fire in the Missouri Republican, the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the St. Louis Dispatch, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 30th, 2016 by Cameron Collins

The Magnificent Southern Hotel

The Southern Hotel on Plates 4 & 24

As much as I love the rich history of St. Louis, I must admit that a vivid imagination is often necessary to enjoy much of it. This city has always had an inclination for knocking down old stuff, and that fact makes it tough for many in St. Louis to recall what the streets, buildings, and people who moved among them looked like years ago.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve always had a pretty good ability to think things up. As much as I wish I could still gaze upon long-lost treasures such as the Planter’s House Hotel or Chouteau’s Mansion, I’ve never had a difficult time staring at a parking garage and imagining a vivid St. Louis street scene that occurred there 150 years ago.

And that’s what I did just a few weeks ago. I hopped on my bike, rode downtown, and worked my way to the corner of 4th and Walnut. That’s where the Stadium East Parking Garage stands today. It’s an active garage, often filled with cars and surrounded by ticket scalpers on Cardinal game days. But as I sat there and stared, I saw something completely different. I was looking at the majestic Southern Hotel, and I envisioned it dominating a bustling corner filled with people, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and noise.

4th & Walnut Today

Before I go into detail about that vivid scene, I should mention that one could spend days thinking about what’s happened on that corner. First of all, it’s where Fort San Carlos once stood, the centerpiece of the only battle fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Revolution (an event I wrote about in this blog back in 2013).

It’s also where many believe the famous Odowan Indian Chief Pontiac is buried. Historically significant for the military campaign he personally launched against the British in 1763 (the appropriately titled “Pontiac’s War”), Chief Pontiac was murdered near the village of Cahokia by a Peoria warrior in 1769. It’s believed his remains were brought over the river to St. Louis and interred in the ground near that intersection.

The Southern Hotel in 1869

Those are pretty good reasons to stare at a corner and wonder what once happened there, but I think the magnificent Southern Hotel, which stood on that corner from 1865 until 1934, provides many more. I should also admit I’ve been boasting about the Southern Hotel for years. The guy who owned it from 1865 until 1877 is someone I’m a huge fan of. That man is Robert Campbell, and it his house (now known as the Campbell House Museum) that is the base of operations for this blog and where I spend time as a volunteer.

The Southern Hotel in 1868

The idea behind the Southern Hotel’s construction, a project of several prominent city leaders in the 1850’s, was based in the belief that St. Louis required a world-class hotel as it rushed to become a world-class city. Profit was surely a motivation, but civic pride was the driving force behind this particular hotel. And when it opened in December 1865, the city celebrated. Marching bands played, governors visited, and glowing reports of the opening night’s gala were printed in newspapers across the nation. The Missouri Republican proclaimed it the “finest hotel in the world” and it was “the theme of many celebrated pens and tongues, both native and foreign”. It even became the subject of song: “The Southern Hotel Waltz”, which was published in 1865 by composer Albert Mahler.

The Southern Hotel Waltz

The Southern Hotel occupied the entire block bounded by Walnut, 4th, 5th (now Broadway) and Elm Streets (of which Elm no longer exists in that part of the city). The principal front and entrance of the hotel faced Walnut Street, stretching 270 feet from one end to the other. The Southern was six stories tall, with an exterior made of “Chicago stone”, which the St. Louis Republican at the time described as “magnesian stone of excellent properties”. It contained over 350 guest rooms and apartments, and employed nearly the same number of people to keep it running. It was designed in the Italianate style by the famous St. Louis architect George Barnett, who’s other notable works included the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House, and the Grand Water Tower.

TChief Pontiac Commemorative Plaqueo imagine what this special hotel looked like in its day, it’s important to note that the city of St. Louis at that time was a very crowded place. The population was almost exactly what it is today (about 320,000), but the city itself was much smaller. Before 1876, the city’s western boundary sat just a few hundred feet west of Grand Avenue, and Carondelet hadn’t been added yet. Although new neighborhoods had been developed away from the congested riverfront starting in the 1850’s, the city around the Southern Hotel remained densely populated. The neighborhood around the Southern was also a very upscale part of town. Grand homes and elegant buildings surrounded the hotel, especially to the north and west. It was a time when St. Louis was one of the biggest cities in America, and it could rival the glitz and glamour of cities like New York and Philadelphia.

The Southern was the most luxurious hotel in St. Louis, and if one wanted to be seen, the Southern was the place to be. If one stood on the corner of 4th and Walnut in the 1870’s, seeing a celebrated actress of the day, a business tycoon, or even a president walk through its doors would not have been a surprise. Inside, one could find Mark Twain playing billiards, Adolphus Busch sipping wine, or Ulysses S. Grant leaning against the Southern Hotel’s famous mahogany bar. In the hotel’s immense rotunda, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, or the famous actress Lily Langtry could stride by, all of whom were guests at the Southern at one time or another. And if one was fortunate to be invited, attending a lavish banquet in honor of a prominent citizen such as James Eads, Henry Blow, or Robert Campbell was a possibility.

The Southern Hotel in 1888

Famous guests aside, the Southern Hotel was also the site of some remarkable events. The most tragic of them explains why there were actually two Southern Hotels. In the early morning hours of April 11, 1877, a fire broke out in the hotel’s basement. The result was a tragedy that rocked the city of St. Louis and became front-page news across the nation. Perhaps more than twenty guests and hotel employees were killed, many more were severely injured, and the original Southern Hotel was completely destroyed. However, the story of that fire is also remarkable for the bravery and heroism shown by the St. Louis Fire Department (and that story is coming up next in this blog).

The Southern Hotel Dining Room in 1894

Another amazing story is the Preller trunk murder.  On April 12, 1885, the manager of the Southern Hotel checked room 144 after reports of a foul odor emanating from the room. Inside, he found the decomposing body of a man stuffed inside a trunk bound with rope. The victim, identified as Charles Arthur Preller, was found wearing nothing but a pair of white underwear with the name “H.M. Books” stitched into the waistband. A cross had been carved into Preller’s chest and a placard with the inscription “So perish all traitors to the great cause” was found along with the body. The subsequent trial of H.M Brooks (who had to be fetched from New Zealand) is so fantastic that I can’t do it justice here (in other words, Preller also gets his own future Distilled History post).

Bob Wilkinson, barber of the Southern Hotel

Along with fires and murders, the Southern provided the backdrop for a host of notable events. It’s at the Southern where a man named Logan Reavis argued that the capital of the United States should be moved from Washington D.C. to St. Louis. It’s where James Eads proposed building a ship railway across Mexico, and where William McKinley caused an uproar when he did something no other president had done before: he lit a cigarette in public. In a room at the Southern Hotel in 1888, Democrats decided to nominate Grover Cleveland for President. Eight years later, Republicans used the Southern to negotiate the nomination for William McKinley. The outlaw Jesse James was rumored to stay at the Southern Hotel during his visits to St. Louis under the alias “J.J. Howard”. He came often for the purpose of racing his horses at the St. Louis Jockey Club (and he was recalled as an excellent tipper). In the years prior to becoming a publishing icon, Joseph Pulitzer lived in rooms 305 and 306 at the Southern Hotel, and he was there on the night of the tragic fire. In an article written for the paper Pulitzer would own just two years later (the St. Louis Dispatch), it’s reported that Pulitzer had to flee the building “sans shirt, stockings, or anything else”.

The Southern Hotel in 1914

Sports and recreation were also no stranger to the Southern. People gambled, drank, boasted, and challenged each other daily at the Southern Hotel. The hotel’s bar is where Adolphus Busch placed $100 bets that he could name any wine he sipped, and it’s where “Gentleman Jim” Corbett challenged John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship in 1892. The result of that bet was one of the most famous fights in boxing history, and the first match to require that gloves be worn by the heavyweight contenders. Even baseball can point to the Southern for some of its history. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that the Southern Hotel’s lobby is where two newspaper men helped the American League’s Ban Johnson and the National League’s John Brush settle their differences. As a result, an annual event known as the “World Series” would come to be.

The Southern Hotel in 1934

After the fire in 1877, the Southern Hotel was rebuilt (eventually) and it opened again to great fanfare in 1881. The new version was bigger, fancier, and advertised as “completely fireproof”. This newer version of the Southern continued as the city’s premier hotel, and it thrived during exciting times such when the world came to St. Louis in 1904. But cultures change, cities change, and the glimmer of the Southern began to fade in the early 20th Century. Citing declining patronage, the Southern Hotel was closed for good on August 1, 1912. Despite immediate rumors that it would soon reopen as a hotel, be converted into an office building, or even turned into a beer garden, none of them came to fruition. The former Southern Hotel spent its final two decades mostly empty or sporadically utilized as an exhibition hall for automobile shows. Burdened by taxes they no longer wanted to pay, the owners announced in 1933 the building was to be demolished.

And just two years later, a shiny new Mobil gas station opened on a pretty remarkable corner in downtown St. Louis.

The Drink
Tony Faust's Restaurant and Oyster Bar

For someone like me (someone who spends way too much time thinking about how and what people were drinking 150 years ago), places like the Southern Hotel are special. Today, great bars can still be found at hotels, but it’s not quite the same. Hotels were social centers back then, and hotels were places where 19th Century drinkers went if they wanted something other than a shot of whiskey (see: saloon) or a stein of beer (see: beer garden). Specifically, it was hotel bars that helped usher in an increasingly popular form of drink in the late 19th Century: the cocktail. St. Louis’s most famous example of this is the Planter’s House Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Old Courthouse. That’s where Jerry Thomas, a man known as the “father of American mixology”, plied his trade in the mid-19th Century.

Today, good cocktail bars are ubiquitous, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of passing one of them up in order to get a drink for this post. For one thing, parking is no fun for hotel drinking, especially at the many downtown St. Louis options. However, it’s only fitting that I make my way to a hotel bar and toast the Southern, so I chose the St. Louis Union Station’s Hilton Hotel. Thinking it’s probably closest I can get to the spaciousness and grandeur of the Southern Hotel in its prime, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Union Station’s Grand Hall, with all its tourists, light shows, and lack of cocktail snobbery (that I can provide), is a fun place to have a drink.

Union Station's Grand Hall

I ordered the New York Central Manhattan off the cocktail menu (of course), and I’ll admit I wasn’t disappointed with that, either. The price is ridiculous ($11 for Four Roses?), but I’m pleased to report it was stirred and served up without me asking for it that way.

Cheers to you, majestic Southern!

Southern Hotel Timeline

 Key sources:

  • The Campbell House Museum archives gave me enough material about the Southern Hotel to write a book about the Southern and everything that happened there. I’m considering it.
  • “St. Louis’ Southern Hotel Fire of 1877” – Gateway Heritage, Fall 1985, pages 38-48
  • Many of the anecdotes about stuff like Busch’s wine bets, Corbett’s challenge, and the presidential nominations came from newspaper articles “remembering” the Southern Hotel when it was demolished in the 1930’s. Someday, I’d like to go back and nail them down with primary sources, but I think that will have to wait for a bigger project (book) to do that. In the meantime, the September 8, 1933 and the August 15, 1934 editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were a big help
  • In researching this post, I probably dug through over one hundred newspaper articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Missouri Republican, the New York Times, and many others. I’m not going to list them all here, but if anyone would like a list, please contact me.
  • More attention to sources will be given in my next post about the 1877 fire that destroyed the Southern Hotel
June 3rd, 2014 by Cameron Collins

The Summer of Eads, Part I

Eads BridgeOnce again, despite this blog never making me a single dime, my life continues to become richer as a result of it. This time, it’s in the form of a new friend that recently crossed my path.

Her name is Amanda Clark, and she owns and operates Renegade STL, an architecture and history tour company here in St. Louis. Like me, she’s all about telling the story of this city to people who are looking to hear it. Not only do Amanda and I share a common interest in the subject matter, we share a common interest in how we do it. We can both be a bit offbeat, we can each be a bit colorful (perhaps profane), and we don’t mind throwing a few drinks back when we do it.

Amanda may not know it, but she gave me one hell of a problem. On the day I met her, I listened to Amanda discuss one of her favorite St. Louis history topics, James Buchanan Eads. That guy, and the bridge that bears his name, are both very dear to her heart. A bit of this bridge love must have rubbed off on me, because I now find myself thinking about it all the time.

Fast forward to this exact moment and I find myself staring at stacks of notes, books, photographs, and drawings of this city’s landmark bridge. In the past few weeks, I’ve stared at it, biked over it, sketched it, toasted to it, and even joked that I am awesome enough to survive jumping off it. What it all means is that I have way too much information to shove into a single blog entry. My dear mother chides me because my posts are too long as it is, but how can I keep that bridge, the man who designed it, and the drink to celebrate them both under 2,000 words?

Bike-a-Sketch: Eads BridgeI can’t, so I came up with a plan. Like my Elijah P. Lovejoy posts last year, I think certain St. Louis history topics simply require a bit more love than others. For James Eads and his bridge, I’m going to write a couple, or maybe a few, and I’m going to post them all in a row. The good news is that most of my research is done (the biggest time consumer), so all I have to do is write, edit, and of course, drink.

Before I jump in (figuratively), I have to take a moment to clear something up. In discussing the Illinois & St. Louis Bridge (its original name), I often hear fellow St. Louisans confidently make a completely incorrect claim:

Eads Bridge QuoteThe Eads Bridge was definitely not the first bridge to span the Mississippi. It was the first one at St. Louis, and it contained several notable firsts in its design and construction, but it definitely wasn’t the first to span the river.

Perhaps people wouldn’t look to attribute unfounded facts to what the Eads Bridge is above the water if they only knew how special it is under the water. For that reason, I’m going to start my Summer of Eads with the story of the two massive limestone piers that hold it up. Specifically, I’m going to start with the story of the men who suffered building them. It’s a tragic story that I found particularly fascinating while researching every aspect of the structure. It’s also an unusual place to begin this bit of history, but like my new pal Amanda, I do tend to follow the unbeaten path.

Eads Bridge

Although he had never built a bridge before, James Eads knew the river better than anyone. His full story will come later, but it’s that point that must be noted here. The Mississippi is big and cranky. While it made many a riverboat pilot rich in the 19th century, it swallowed up just as many with its unpredictable currents and flows. As a young man, James Eads made his fortune walking around the bottom of it, salvaging wreckage in a diving bell of his own design. He knew first-hand how quickly the Mississippi could move something, and he had to be certain his bridge didn’t move. Sitting two massive bridge supports on silt and mud deposited by river currents wouldn’t cut it. They had to sit on bedrock.

James Buchanan EadsDuring a trip to Europe in 1868, he witnessed first-hand a relatively new technology that he decided to employ in his own bridge, the pneumatic caisson.

Caissons are watertight retaining structures. To work in depths of water, pneumatic caissons are sealed at the top and filled with compressed air. Sealed workspaces created by caissons allowed laborers (referred to as “submarines”) to work at the base of a bridge pier, on the riverbed, by digging up silt and sending it to the surface through pneumatic tubes. As the men dug towards bedrock, huge limestone blocks were piled on top of the caisson, thus building the pier at the same time the caisson pushed deeper into the riverbed. When it hit bedrock, the structure was leveled and the air chambers were filled with concrete. The concrete-filled caisson then became the base of the finished pier.

Pneumatic caissons offered an unprecedented level of efficiency, but at the time, only two bridges in the United States had been built using the technology. Neither came close to the size and depth required in Eads’ bridge design. Even today, the pneumatic caissons used in constructing the Eads Bridge are among the largest ever built.

When the east caisson was launched and sunk to the sandy river bed in October 1869, two engines on the surface went to work pumping compressed air into the chamber far below. This pressurized air compensated for leaks and provided a breathable workspace for laborers below. To get into the chambers, workers descended through a candle-lit spiral staircase and entered an airlock. When the airlock was sealed, an alternate door leading to the chamber was opened. The men could then climb out and begin work at the riverbed.

Dr. Alphonse Jaminet

As workers dug through the sandy riverbed and the caisson sank deeper, air pressure increased to compensate for the higher water pressure outside. When the east caisson hit bedrock in February 1870, the air pressure inside the chamber measured fifty pounds per square inch. That’s over three times the “normal” air pressure a person experiences at sea level.

At first, these pressurized compartments were a source of wonder. Eads himself frequently led friends, politicians, and curious St. Louisans down through the spiral staircase and into the air chambers at the bottom of the river. While there, visitors experienced an eerie atmosphere, water dripping from above, the hissing of escaping air, and a nearly intolerable odor. While many found the experience wholly terrifying, others found amusement. The increased air pressure caused voices to sound nasal and high-pitched, it was impossible to whistle, and blown-out candles seemed to re-light themselves as if by magic.

Soon, the physical effects of working such environments took a darker turn. Foremen started hearing complaints from workmen experiencing severe stomach, head, and joint pains when they emerged from the stairwell. Others suffered temporary paralysis in legs and arms, causing several to be admitted to a local hospital.

The situation became deadly on March 19, 1870, when a man named James Riley emerged from the center access shaft, informed a friend that he was feeling well, and promptly keeled over. He died fifteen minutes later. A few hours later, James Moran, an Irishman who worked in the east pier caisson, died at City Hospital. Three days later, a 22 year-old German named G.S. Alt died after two weeks of hospitalization. The next day, 27 year-old Henry Krausman and 21 year-old Theodor Baum both expired.

Eads Bridge Diagram

The lack of consistency in visible symptoms was confounding. Nearly every case involved stomach and joint pain, but similarities seemed to end there. While several men died, others experienced full recovery within a few hours. An Irishman named Mike McCoole became ill for the first time after three weeks of caisson work while an American named Hugh Devel collapsed on his very first day. An Irishman named Michael Herwin starting spitting blood while a co-worker named James Galloway was found to have pus in his urine. A 20 year-old German named Hansep Miller was hospitalized for nearly two months. Legs fully paralyzed, Miller had no control of his bowels and required frequent catheterization. Another man, a 30 year-old German named William Saylor worked three months in the west pier with no issue. After being transferred to the east pier, he died shortly after his first shift.

On March 31, Eads assigned his family physician, a man named Alphonse Jaminet, to figure it all out. Already familiar with the problem, Jaminet was the obvious choice for the task. Several weeks earlier, on February 28, 1870, he suffered a near-fatal encounter himself. After spending two hours in the east caisson, Jaminet emerged from the stairwell and discovered that he could barely walk. Racked with pain, he somehow made his way home and spent several hours expecting death to come at any moment. Fortunately it didn’t, and his recovery enabled him to spend the next several weeks doing everything he could to assist those afflicted. His detailed transcript, published in 1871, is the first record in history of what we now know as “decompression sickness”.

The Grecian Bend

Jaminet was faced with quite a dilemma. As John L. Phillips explains in his book The Bends: Compressed Air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering, it was unlike anything that had been seen before. It was a disease unique to the Industrial Revolution, and Alphonse Jaminet had no medical or scientific basis to work from.

Named “caisson disease” when it reappeared during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge two years later, it was jokingly referred to as “the bends” by workmen in St. Louis. According to Robert W. Jackson in his book, Rails Across the Mississippi, this epithet evolved from a popular fashion of the time. Men who suffered through the severe stomach and joint pain often walked about with a bent over posture. In the late 1800’s, it looked similar to the “Grecian bend”, a pose many women in Victorian society used to show off their bustles.

Today, we know that decompression sickness happens as a result of leaving a pressurized environment (such as a caisson) too quickly. The increased nitrogen produced in the bloodstream in such an environment requires sufficient time to dissolve when leaving it. If the nitrogen doesn’t dissolve, it may form bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body. These bubbles can lodge in the head, abdomen, or joints, producing symptoms experienced by the men working in the caissons.

Jaminet recorded the details of every case presented to him. He attempted to isolate it by recording each worker’s age, nationality, amount of time worked, their body type, and even their daily behavior. His biggest frustration came from the unruly behavior of the men who paid little heed to his warnings. Mostly Irish and German, many of these men were young, strong, and not the type willing to lay down for a spell. With four dollars of pay in their pocket, many rushed out of the caissons and headed straight for the beer and whiskey offered at saloons and taverns along the riverfront.

Caisson & Pier Diagram

Jaminet knew the problem was related to changes in air pressure, but his efforts to remedy the problem never provided the proper level of decompression we know today. Despite this fact, his work must be commended. With the support of James Eads (who also believed frequent saloon visits had a hand in the matter), shift times were reduced, the time between shifts was increased, and men were compelled to rest and eat before going ashore. He even ordered a “floating hospital” built next to the east pier. Many men received overnight care in this facility on the river before being sent home or to the hospital. According to John Phillips, this clinic was the first of its kind to provide on-site care for workers injured on the job.

Perhaps most importantly, he insisted the men working the airlocks, the men essentially controlling the rate of decompression, follow strict guidelines. Prior to this, veteran workers often initiated “greens” to caisson work by opening airlocks as quickly as possible and letting air rush in.

Sinking the East PierHowever, a few methods implemented by Jaminet also display the basic lack of understanding of decompression. Along with his belief that drinking alcohol accelerated symptoms, he also believed taking a hot bath would hasten paralysis. Drinking water was forbidden, and men who complained of thirst were given ice cubes or beef tea. He wasn’t alone. Home remedies circled around the workmen themselves, including various elixirs and useless “magneto-electricity” amulets made of silver and copper.

Despite fifteen deaths, two permanently disabled men, over 100 caisson workers severely afflicted (not counting the men who simply walked off the job when they became ill) caisson and pier work didn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only time caisson work cease was when workers attempted to strike for higher pay. Knowing that St. Louis provided no shortage of men looking for work, Eads and the bridge company simply waited them out. After a few days without pay, the men shuffled back into the caissons.

East Caisson Detail

By late May 1870, work at the riverbed was complete. James Eads was filled with pride in observing the two the two largest and deepest bridge piers ever constructed rise out of the water. As Howard Miller explains in his benchmark essay about the bridge, he had ample reasoning to admire his masterpiece. His accomplished marked a new chapter in the annals of civil engineering. In discussing his accomplishment, Eads wrote:

“When I left it to-day, I could not help being impressed with the feeling that I had never undertaken any mechanical or engineering performance before with such full assurance that failure was absolutely impossible as in the case of this, the greatest work of my life…”

This sentiment is remarkable for a man whose life was filled with wondrous accomplishment. That story comes next in the Summer of Eads.

The Drink

Selecting a drink to celebrate the Eads Bridge was difficult. I can’t drink on the bridge, and the rows of saloons and taverns that once welcomed caisson workers between shifts are all long gone. But I wanted to find something I could tie to the men who did a job I’d never sign up for.

Despite Jaminet’s warnings about drinking alcohol, one can’t blame these guys for ignoring him completely. As I spend my days sitting in a cubicle for too much money, these guys spent their days shoveling mud for not enough. If they didn’t drink for the taste, they certainly drank to celebrate surviving another shift.

A final anecdote found in my research further illustrate the dangerous changes in air pressure these men experienced. In Rails Across the Mississippi, Robert W. Jackson tells the story of a caisson worker who inadvertently carried a flask of brandy in his pocket down into an air chamber. Or perhaps it was intentional, and this man thought a few nips far below would help prevent the joint pain he suffered after work. Either way, it must have been a shock when he emerged at the surface and the flask exploded in his pocket. If he hadn’t already determined his job was dangerous, he surely must have realized it at that moment.

Personally, I wouldn’t climb down into a caisson if the reincarnation of James Eads came back to life and offered to lead me down into one himself. Instead, I decided to simply go stare at it again, just as I did after my new friend Amanda told me her version of its story.

But this time, I brought a flask of brandy with me. With no risk of it exploding in my hand, I raised it and drank to the men who worked and died building our famous bridge.

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Sources invaluable to this post:

  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
  • The Bends: Compressed air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering by John L. Phillips, 1998
  • Physical Effects of Compressed Air, and of the Causes of Pathological Symptoms Produced on Man, By Increased Atmospheric Pressure Employed for the Sinking of Piers, in the Construction of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis Missouri by Alphonse Jaminet, M.D., 1871
May 7th, 2014 by Cameron Collins

More Love for Rob & Ginny

Rob & Ginny's Crib

A few months ago, I started my third year as a volunteer docent at the Campbell House Museum in downtown St. Louis. I’ve said it many times before in this blog, but I just have to say it again: I love this place. There are so many reasons why it’s special, so I decided it was time for Distilled History to highlight a couple more of them for people to come down and see it in person.

When people take my tour of Robert and Virginia Campbell’s house, most visitors will recognize right away that I tend to focus on the history of the family and the house they inhabited. I do love all the stuff that’s inside the house, and I’ll always point it out, but I’ll admit that china sets and chamber pots are not my strong suit. If Ulysses S. Grant drank out of a silver cup that’s now on display in the butler’s pantry, knowing why he drank (and of course what he drank) is far more interesting to me than the cup itself.

My preference for the “how did it happen” instead of the “how pretty it is” could be why the history of the city of St. Louis gets a prime seat at the table during one of my tours. To me, the history of the Campbell House and the family is far more vivid when accompanied by the story of the city that rapidly grew around them. The two are irrevocably linked together.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When Robert Campbell stepped onto the St. Louis riverfront for the first time in 1824, he stood before a town containing around 4,000 people. St. Louis was young, and it didn’t extend very far from the river that had initiated its creation. Lewis and Clark had set off just from the same point just twenty years earlier, and one of the city’s co-founders, Auguste Chouteau, was still alive.Rococo Revival Furniture

When Robert died just fifty-five years later in 1879, that small town had grown into an enormous beast of 350,000 people. He’d watch his house, built in 1851 on farmland beyond city limits, become enveloped by buildings, commerce, and a city that wasn’t taking it slow. The story of how all of that happened, and all of the accompanying subplots (Civil War, cholera, cyclones, and beer, to name just a few) makes for a fascinating Campbell House tour. Hear it, and one will understand that Rob and his family were on board for on one hell of a ride.

Anyway, one of the great things about being a visitor to the Campbell House is that every tour is different. While my tour may focus on how Rob and his family  moved through St. Louis, another docent may provide amazing facts about Rococo Revival furniture, Virginia’s intricate needlework on display in the formal parlor, or the $40,000 spent on one massive shopping trip in 1855 (for those wondering, that’s like dropping 1.5 million in today’s dollars).

Weekend Manager ExtraordinaireOne person in particular has a fun project going that’s helping me further appreciate these inanimate aspects of Campbell life. David Newman, the weekend manager, posts a daily photograph on social media as part of a project he calls “Campbell House Photo-a-Day”.

David is one of my favorite people at Campbell House. He’s barely over twenty (I think), and his energy level is really kind of disgusting. Along with his weekend responsibilities of keeping me and a few others in line, he’s in graduate school, he’s a Park Ranger at White Haven, and he’s frequently marching off to Civil War reenactments playing the role of a Union private. When all of that isn’t happening, he’s playing gigs or jamming with his band mates until the wee hours of the morning in his apartment in the Campbell Carriage House. Watching this guy go makes me feel very old.

But David knows his stuff, and talking Campbell history with him is fun. If we aren’t leading people around the house, we can usually be found seated around the break room table checking each other’s facts, comparing notes, and making sure our tours are solid.

He’s also got a great eye and is an accomplished photographer. I love this project he has going on, so I decided to take a break from the usual burden of research-heavy Distilled History and show off what David is up to. The following slide show highlights forty or so of my favorite images he has taken in recent weeks. Hopefully, they’ll convince a few Distilled History readers to take his tour and see these things for themselves.

After that, I hope people will come back and hear my side of the story.

(To see more of David’s fun project, search for #chmphotoaday on Instagram)

The Drink

Beer in the Garden

Another (new) aspect of my tour at the Campbell House is one that I’m pretty excited about. Since I started volunteering there, I’ve always thought it would be great if I could offer a cold beverage to people while they listened to me throw down some good history. I mean, my two favorite subjects are history and booze, so why not try to add a drink to my favorite history in St. Louis?

However, I knew without asking that serving beer inside the Campbell House was not an option.  Spilling PBR on a 165 year-old sofa would put me in some hot water. Even worse, it would certainly be me that spilled it. That can’t happen, but the idea kept nagging at me. But then it hit me: There are no sofas in the garden.

Suddenly, I had it all figured out! If I offered a cold beer to museum visitors outside, it would make for a fitting conclusion to the tour. It could also be an opportunity for visitors to take a seat under the gazebo and we’d continue the conversation from one of the best viewpoints of the house. We could even talk about Campbell family alcohol preferences (another topic I’ve included in recent tours).

Remarkably, when I reluctantly asked the museum brass if I could do this, their response was immediate.

Great idea! But the beer must be free.

Woah! Not only did they like the idea and support it, but the lack of a liquor license means I can’t charge a dime for it. My plan was to give it away all along, so everything has fit neatly into place. Come for a tour at the Campbell House, ask for the Distilled History guy, and you’ll get free beer on your tour. If you’re lucky, I’ll even have some homebrew on hand that I’m brewing specifically for this endeavor.

So, there you go. Plenty of reasons, including cold beer in your hand, to get down to the Campbell House Museum. You’re out of excuses.

December 16th, 2013 by Cameron Collins

87,000 Stories to Tell

Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1900Since I started this blog, I have purposely avoided writing about certain St. Louis history topics. In the past eighteen months, people have suggested I write about various things like the InBev buyout of Anhueser-Busch, the Pope’s visit in 1999, and even the Edward Jones Dome (seriously?). Honestly, these are topics that just don’t interest me. They make me yawn. Other suggestions, like the 1904 World’s Fair and the Gateway Arch, are so familiar in St. Louis that I’m not sure I could make them interesting. I worry writing about them would make others yawn.

The category “I’d Rather Be Burned Alive” includes a topic someone suggested just a few weeks ago. On that day, I was asked to research why everyone in St. Louis always asks everyone else in St. Louis “Where did you go to high school?”

After informing my well-meaning and idea-challenged friend that I attended Elmira Free Academy (located about 900 miles to the east), and then asking where she went to high school, I rolled my eyes and politely declined.

(Damn! I succumbed to that tedious St. Louis high school inquiry after all.)

Anyway, there’s another category of St. Louis history topics that I’m saving for a rainy day. These are the big kahunas; the topics that I believe are very special in this city. I want to space these gems out over the next several years (or as long as I continue to beat myself up trying to write this blog). Examples include the Cahokia Mounds, the Lemp Caves (if I can ever get down there), Forest Park, Pruitt-Igoe, and the Camp Jackson Affair. Dozens more exist, which means I plan to force this blog down people’s throats for years to come.

Well, I think it’s about time to dust off one of the good ones. A few weeks ago, I was the lucky recipient of a special tour of Bellefontaine Cemetery, the wonderful 314 acres in north St. Louis that holds as much history (literally) as any patch of ground in the Midwest. Over 87,000 people are buried there, and each one has a tale to tell. If you like Distilled History, get used to Bellefontaine. I plan to pluck stories out of this place for years to come.

Entrance to Bellefontaine Cemetery

Let’s kick this off by admitting that I adore cemeteries. I love to drive through them, bike through them, and tour them. I enjoy locating graves of notable people, as I’ve done for the Homer Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Irma Rombauer posts in this blog. I sometimes go to cemeteries just to sit and read a book, admire the foliage, or even take a nap. I think they are big, wonderful parks of history.

A park-like type of cemetery such as Bellefontaine (and Woodlawn, the Elmira, New York cemetery that my fellow high school graduates should know), is considered a “rural cemetery”. These are cemeteries that primarily honor the dead, but are also designed to provide a welcoming and comfortable place for people to visit. That’s certainly the case at Bellefontaine. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to see. Containing more than 4,000 trees and over 180 species of trees and shrubs, Bellefontaine is not just a cemetery. It is also an accredited Level II arboretum.

The Rural Cemetery

The “rural cemetery” movement started in the mid-19th Century. Following a model set forth in Paris, the first rural cemetery in the United States was established in 1831 (Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Eighteen years later, Bellefontaine in St. Louis was established as the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi River. Prior to Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis buried their dead in plots around churches and in smaller, overcrowded cemeteries in and around town (many were located along current-day Jefferson Avenue).

St. Louis in the mid-19th century was growing rapidly. Along with overcrowding, many believed that air, water, and soil could become infected with disease if people were buried near population centers. Both concerns were further intensified in the summer of 1849 when a deadly cholera epidemic killed nearly 10% of the city’s population (note: future blog post). Suddenly, burying people farther away became a priority.

Bellefontaine Cemetery in Autumn

As a result, city leaders formed an association for the purpose of founding a large rural cemetery outside city limits. It was named after Fort Bellefontaine, a military garrison located about five miles northwest of St. Louis. Along the road to that fort sat the Hempstead farm. This 138 acre farm was purchased by the foundation, and the land became the first of three parcels that together now make up Bellefontaine Cemetery as we know it today.

Bellefontaine Cemetery Map

The next significant step in the shaping of Bellefontaine Cemetery was the hiring of a renowned landscape architect named Almerin Hotchkiss. It was this man who created the master plan for the cemetery and gave it the look we still see today. He oversaw the building of the roads, landscaping, and overall maintenance of the grounds. Upon completing the overall plan, he remained in St. Louis as superintendent of the cemetery for the next forty-six years.

Perhaps the most significant monument in the entire cemetery (along with one of the better stories), is the Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb. Universally regarded as an architectural masterpiece, the tomb was constructed in 1892 for the wife of millionaire and philanthropist Ellis Wainwright. Referred to in local press as “the most beautiful woman in St. Louis”, Charlotte Wainwright died suddenly of peritonitis at the young age of thirty-four. Her husband Ellis was emotionally devastated by her passing. In order to preserve her memory, Ellis Wainwright reached out to a particularly famous architect for a unique and exceptional design.

The Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb

The result is one of the most significant designs from of one of history’s most important architects, Louis Henry Sullivan. Known as the “father of the skyscraper”, Sullivan was at the height of his fame when he was commissioned to design Charlotte Wainwright’s tomb.

Key to Wainwright Tomb

When Charlotte Wainwright died, Louis Sullivan was already in St. Louis finishing another project for Ellis Wainwright. That building, which also bears Wainwright’s name and stands today at the corner of Chestnut and 7th in downtown St. Louis, is another topic I better be careful with if I choose to write about it. Considered by many to be the first skyscraper ever built, the 10 story Wainwright Building is a masterpiece. It was even featured in recent a PBS documentary as one of 10 Buildings That Changed America.

When Wainwright asked Sullivan for a preliminary design, he provided a sketch of a tomb that combines two classic forms, a half-sphere resting upon a cube. Inspired by the tomb of a Muslim Saint in Algeria, the form appears solidly Byzantine. Assisting Louis Sullivan with the design (particularly the interior) was his head draftsman, a promising young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.

The simple cube and dome design is accented by a border of richly carved motifs and bronze grill doors. Windows adorn each side of the tomb, each surrounded by additional stone carvings. Interestingly, the name “Wainwright” appears nowhere on the exterior of the tomb. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it is often referred to as the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis”. The New York Times referred to it as a “major American architectural triumph”, and “a model for ecclesiastical architecture”.

Hugh Morrison, in his book Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture, writes:

…it is the most sensitive and the most graceful of Sullivan’s tombs, distinguished alike in its architectural form and its decorative enrichment. In the writers opinion, at least, it is unmatched in quality by any other known tomb.”

Wainwright Tomb Interior

While the exterior is unassuming, the interior (that I was delighted to be able to see on my special tour) surges with subtle color, swirled marble, and flecks of gold. The walls and ceiling are covered with a beautiful patterned mosaic. Look above, and small angels dispersed among small mosaics seem to come and go depending on the point of view. Below, two burial slabs are inlayed in the floor to mark the final resting place for Ellis Wainwright and his wife Charlotte. Each is chiseled with a poem, Lord Tennyson for the husband and Anna Laetitia Barbauld for his wife:

A Poem for Charlotte

Despite having two architectural masterpieces named after him, things didn’t go very smoothly for Ellis Wainwright during his later years. While in New York in 1902, Wainwright learned he was being indicted for attempting to bribe several politicians as part of a business deal. Instead of heading home to face the charges, he fled to Europe. Although he lived lavishly in Paris for several years, his self-imposed exile took a toll on his health. He didn’t return to St. Louis until 1911 when the prosecuting attorney in his case had retired. He paid a bond upon arrival and proclaimed to the press that he was happy to be back. Ultimately, the charges didn’t stick and Wainwright was able to resume life as he wished.

Soon after, Wainwright moved to New York to be close to other business investments. In 1922, he shocked friends and associates by “adopting” a twenty-two year old woman named Rosalind Kendall (he was seventy-two). She took his name, called him “Daddy”, and became his constant companion. She lived in the apartment adjoining his on Park Avenue.

Not surprisingly, The arrangement didn’t last. When Wainwright’s efforts to make Rosalind a movie star proved unsuccessful, Rosalind moved on. She supposedly accepted a sum of money in return for relinquishing any claims to Wainwright’s estate. Upon Wainwright’s death, this arrangement was legally overturned, making Rosalind Kendall very wealthy.

In declining health, Ellis Wainwright returned to St. Louis in 1924. He turned his attention back toward his departed wife Charlotte, setting up an endowment at Bellefontaine to repair her tomb in the event of vandalism or earthquake. His behavior also became increasingly peculiar. During his final days at the Buckingham Hotel, servants were required to physically move him from room to room in order to avoid being seen by hotel maids.

Ellis Wainwright

Ellis Wainwright died on November 6, 1924 at the age of seventy-four. He was laid to rest next to his wife in the remarkable monument to them both in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The Drink

Homebrew

The reason why Ellis Wainwright had the means to build one of the first skyscrapers and the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis” is a good one. Like the familiar names in 19th Century St. Louis such as Busch and Lemp, Wainwright became rich as a result of beer.

When Wainwright was just twenty-four years old, he inherited his father’s Wainwright Brewery. Displaying a keen business sense, he secured his path to wealth by doubling profits within two years. He became even wealthier when he sold his brewery to a syndicate named The St. Louis Brewing Association (SLBA). Wainwright was named president and became responsible for managing day-to-day operations. The famous building that bears his name in downtown St. Louis today was initially built as a headquarters for the syndicate he managed.

With that in mind, it’s only appropriate to drink beer in honor of Ellis Wainwright, his lovely wife, and his epic tomb. Even better, I thought this post would provide a perfect opportunity to brew up a batch of my own.

 Homebrew Labels

First of all, I must admit that I am not an accomplished homebrewer. People who are familiar with the hobby know that it’s really nothing more than simple cooking. Well, I’m not a very good cook. But I can follow a recipe, and homebrew kits always come with recipes. I still brew from extract kits, and despite people insisting I move up to the world of “all grain” brewing, I haven’t done it yet. That day will likely come, because with each homebrew batch, I seem to add some additional piece of homebrew equipment that makes the process more fun. For those in the know, I introduced a stir plate and an outdoor burner for this batch. The result was an active primary fermentation that two days later had me scrambling for a blow-off hose.

Until I get to the next level, I’ll keep going with the real reason I started home brewing in the first place: Beer labels. Drinking the beer you make is fun, but naming the beer and designing the beer label is really fun. It’s probably why I’ll never keg it. As much as I hate washing and sanitizing forty-eight individual beer bottles, it makes my day to drink out of a bottle labeled as my own.

My beer may not taste as good as others, but I think my labels are top-notch.. This includes a new one featuring the exquisite tomb found in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Charlotte's Tomb IPA

Sources:

  1. Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley
  2. St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious
  3. St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts by Carolyn Hewes Toft and Lynn Josse
  4. Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison
  5. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – National Park Service
  6. Woo, William F., “Story Behind the Wainwright Building,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1966 p. 3J
August 26th, 2013 by Cameron Collins

A Day in the Life of Distilled History

A Day in the Life

Here’s a useless fact to kick off this edition of Distilled History. If I had to play one of those “deserted island” games and choose only one song that I could listen to for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be difficult. “A Day in the Life”, that magnificent opus that closes out side two of Sergeant Pepper is the greatest rock ‘n roll song ever made. I have no doubt about it.

That song has absolutely nothing to do with St. Louis history or drinking, but it sure put a smile on my face a couple of weeks ago. I played it (loudly) on purpose, and I made sure to share my Beatle appreciation with Tower Grove South on the morning of August 10, 2013. I did that because I knew that I was at the start of a very good “Day in the Life” of St. Louis. It’s a day when everything I love to do in this city came together in one very neat package.

It all started at a church south of downtown. I met a few friends, unloaded a bicycle, and spent the morning peddling through a historic tour of two unique St. Louis neighborhoods. After that, I spent the afternoon with another group of friends talking about things that happened 150 years ago. At the same time, I marched people through my favorite 10,000 square feet of St. Louis history. When that was over, I met up with a yet another group of friends and proceeded to get myself quite drunk on well-made cocktails.

That is how a great day in my life goes down.

I thought it would be interesting to recount that excellent day in this blog. It wasn’t a day focused on just one history topic or drink. It was a day filled with random facts, bits of St. Louis history, and plenty of sips.

Follow along as I describe a “Day in the Life” of Distilled History.

The Morning

Our Ride Through Old Frenchtown

Each year, the local bicycle advocacy organization Trailnet offers an extensive calendar of fantastic bicycle rides, tours, and events around the St. Louis area. My favorites are their Community Rides, which are centered on simply having fun and developing an appreciation for St. Louis. I’ve written about a couple of them in my posts about the Jacob Stein House and T.S. Eliot.

Many of these rides are history tours, led by a St. Louis authority/genius/superhuman named Harold Karabell. An avid bicyclist himself, Harold also shares my opinion that seeing St. Louis from a bicycle offers a unique perspective from which to see our city.

On this day, Harold debuted a new tour that I was really excited about. It was a rambling ride through a section of St. Louis formerly known as “Old Frenchtown”. Once a seamless group of neighborhoods in south St. Louis that blended together, “Old Frenchtown” was carved apart in the years following World War II.

Trailnet's Old Frenchtown Bicycle Tour

That’s when I-44 and I-55 were built through south St. Louis. Suddenly, the borders dividing the neighborhoods of Soulard, LaSalle Park, and Lafayette Square became defined by asphalt and semi-trucks. Use of the term “Old Frenchtown”, already in decline due to shifting neighborhood dynamics, faded further into memory.

Harold kept the audience captivated

The field of architecture is Harold’s wheelhouse, but St. Louis history gets equal attention on his tours. While touring historical and unique neighborhoods like LaSalle Park and Soulard, the amount of information presented in both topics can even be overwhelming. I’ve tried taking notes in order to keep up with him on previous tours, but I always end up with nothing but pages of hurried scribbling.

Old Frenchtown is a remarkably historic section of St. Louis. Originally settled by Germans, French Creoles, and Irish, it later became home to concentrations of Syrians, Lebanese, Czechs, and other groups. It was where in 1896, the third-deadliest tornado in American history uprooted homes and buildings. Fifty years later, Old Frenchtown nearly suffered the same fate at the hands of man. A city plan developed in 1947 proclaimed the vast majority of Old Frenchtown to be “blighted”. Furthermore, the plan proposed razing the majority of structures in the area and rebuilding it with modern homes and cul-de-sacs.

As we rolled along, St. Louis history was on display in all forms.

Harold's Wisdom

At the end of the tour, Harold couldn’t resist throwing out one final fact that I particularly enjoyed. When a fellow rider asked for his surname, he responded that it’s “Karabell”, short for the Yiddish term “Karabellnik”.

“Karabellnik” means “country peddler”. And with that final fact, Harold closed out an excellent morning.

The Afternoon

Happy Cameron

After throwing my bike in the back of the car, I sped off to the next stop. After changing into proper attire and drying the sweat off underneath an air conditioning vent in the gift shop, I was set to throw down some epic tours at my beloved Campbell House Museum. At this place, I actually get to spout history off to folks who are willing to pay for it. Even better, I get a group of people like the one I had on August 10th. The tour on that day was rowdy, long (over two hours), and fun.

Rowdy tours are the best tours. When I say “rowdy” I don’t mean people get unruly and start tossing around furniture. Instead, folks get laughing, hundreds of questions are asked, and visitors offer up their own glimpses of history. It’s tours like this where an amusing back and forth dialog exists. It’s also obvious to me that a mutual appreciation for the home exists.

Knock on this door!

The big rowdy tour that I led that afternoon turned out to be only one I gave that day. The most colorful visitor was an English World War II veteran who now lives in Canada. While his wife constantly tried to quiet him, this guy kept us laughing by cracking bad jokes along the way. In the same group, another visitor boasted that this tour was his fourth trip through the Campbell House.

He reinforced a point that I make to every guest: Every tour is different.

It’s not simply because of the overwhelming number of facts, stories, and tales there are to tell, but the difference really comes in the delivery. While I tend to focus on the history of the family (my main area of interest), another docent may focus on the architecture of the house. Yet another may focus on the lives of servants, or the furniture, or even restoration efforts.

There’s even one guy named Tom who could talk to you for three or four days about Lucas Place, the neighborhood the house used to be a part of.

I’ll even admit that I have a mild man-crush on Tom. I aspire to be the best docent ever, and that won’t happen as long as Tom lurks the halls of Campbell House. The guy is a research machine. If a Campbell House docent battle was ever held, Tom would make quick work of me.

Well, if I can’t beat him, I might as well learn from him.

Campbell Facts

I love giving tours, but simply being inside the Campbell House makes for a good day. If we don’t have visitors, I can head upstairs to do research, sift through the archives, or read through the thousands of Campbell family letters.  More than likely, I’ll just kick back in the break room and hash out Campbell history with other museum folks.

The Campbell Kids

Before I head off to the final phase of my day, I’d like to point out some of the excellent press Campbell House Museum has been getting lately. People work hard at that place, and I’m proud to be apart of it.

The Campbell House in the 1930's

The Evening

Blood & Sand Interior

Another benefit of being a Campbell House docent is what sits directly across the street. Blood & Sand, located on the ground floor of the Terra Cotta Loft Building on Locust Street, is one of my favorite places in St. Louis to get a cocktail.

Blood & Sand is a unique establishment. It’s a membership bar and restaurant, which means patrons pay a small monthly fee in order to visit. In return, members receive a level of personal attention not found elsewhere.

I won’t go into detail about how Blood & Sand works. Instead, I’ll simply say that the level of service I’ve received there makes it worth the price of membership for me. On just my second visit, I had a new cocktail set in front of me that was tailored to my own personal tastes. The owners and bartenders enjoy talking about cocktails, and they all know their craft. Each time I go to Blood & Sand, I seem to learn a bit more about the necessary ingredients and practices I should be incorporating into my own drinks at home.

To add to the allure, Blood & Sand also sits on a St. Louis corner that has some very interesting history.

Terra Cotta Lofts Facts

Then & Now: The Corner of 15th and Locust

Blood & Sand makes a variation of the Manhattan that is one of my favorite cocktails in St. Louis. Blood & Sand’s classic “Grounds for Divorce” adds Campari and Amaro to the standard mixture of bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. I’m not certain, but my guess is the vermouth used is Carpano’s Punt e Mes. The result is spicy, bitter, and exceptionally delicious.

The drink is stirred in ice, strained into a coupe glass, and adorned with a “real” maraschino cherry.

The Grounds for Divorce at Blood & Sand

We spent a couple of hours at Blood & Sand sampling cocktails and closing out the day. My friends had to listen to me throw out more useless trivia while we did it, but they are used to that.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my “Day in the Life” of St. Louis, I was exhausted at the end of it. Bicycling, cocktails, and those rowdy Campbell House tours (especially those rowdy tours), combined to put me in bed early that night. I think I’ll have to wait a few weeks before I cram biking, history, and drinking all into one day again.

On second thought, maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.

April 18th, 2013 by Cameron Collins

The Southside Brewing Heritage Tour

Andrew Veety

In about two weeks, Distilled History is going to celebrate its first anniversary. Looking back over the past year, I am amazed at how this project has enriched my life. I’ve won an award, I’ve scored free meals, and people tell me all the time that I’m good at what I’m trying to do. I’ve had bike crashes, I’ve been chased, and I’ve even been tickled. I’ve met great teachers, librarians, historians, bicyclists, and mixologists who have helped me find the answers I needed. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve become much more aware of the city I know call home. Wrap it all up and it’s been a fun and amazing year.

It all started when a guy named Andrew Veety told me that I should be writing a blog. A freelance writer himself, Andrew has made a name for himself in St. Louis as a person who can tell you where you can find good food in this town. His articles are often published in local magazines such as St. Louis and Feast. With several other “foodies”, he’s also involved in a podcast named StewedSTL that will tell listeners (in a very colorful way) where to find the best (and worst) places in St. Louis to get food and drink. Three years ago, he thought up a project named “The Church of Burger“. For twelve months, he toured St. Louis eateries to find out where the best burger was being served. Like my history posts, it wasn’t done for any sort of reward or pay. He simply wanted to know where it was and let other people know what he found.

Andrew is a great writer. He’s witty, intelligent, and an insufferable smart-ass. I thought I could curse with the best of them until I met this guy. Still, maybe he saw a diamond in the rough when he first tried to convince me to put my opinions to page. At the very least, I’m sure he was growing sick and tired of me complaining about the lack of places in St. Louis that do a Manhattan cocktail right.

1706 Washington Avenue

As I approach the one-year mark of Distilled History, this post will be a bit different. For this one, I don’t have a history topic and tasty drink to write about. Instead, I’m making a fun announcement (keep reading) and offer my thanks to that goofball Veety. I ask my readers to go check out his work, because it’s very good.

The last post, the Bygone Ballparks of St. Louis, was my most ambitious one yet. With all the research, biking, and artwork that went into it, I needed a nap after it was done. And two days after it was published, the company I worked at for the last sixteen years suddenly closed. I’ve tried to keep topics coming out on a regular basis since starting this blog, but Distilled History had to go on hiatus while I looked for a new job.

After working (and biking) to the same job for sixteen years, my daily routine was flipped upside-down. Instead of biking the back streets of St. Louis city, I found myself wearing suits and driving far into the forests (or as most people call it “the County”). Worst of all, I had to cut back on the good gin. As anyone who has been out of work can tell you, unemployment doesn’t pay the liquor bills. However, I did find some time to get out on the bike and create an appropriate new bike-a-sketch.

Bike-a-sketch: Hire Me

Fortunately, things turned around quickly. In an interview, I was actually recognized and asked “Are you the guy that writes the St. Louis history blog?”. After a twenty-minute discussion about it, I was rewarded with a job offer the next day. With that in my back pocket, I started talking up Distilled History in other interviews. Remarkably, two more job offers soon followed. I’m sure it’s just a funny coincidence, but I’ll take it. Suddenly, I had my choice of places to work. I accepted a great position back in downtown St. Louis and things are now getting back to normal. I’ve also started research for the next Distilled History topic and lining up an ambitious drink plan. It should be ready for publication by early next week. So along with blowing up Mr. Veety’s ego, I’ll use this brief post to make an announcement that I’m really excited about.

(Upate: As of May 1, 2013, the tour has been sold-out. However, we’ll have another one scheduled in the near future. I’ll post on this blog when we have a date.)

The Southside Brewing Heritage Tour

Here’s the skinny: Due to popular demand, Landmarks Association of St. Louis has decided to reprise their popular South Side Brewing Heritage tour. They last offered it in 2010, but this time they’ve asked Distilled History (me) to help them out. The tour will travel past a wide array of brewing-related sites in St. Louis including remaining brewery buildings, the sites of former breweries, the homes of beer barons and former “tied houses” (brewery-owned/operated taverns). We’ll even offer snacks and tasty beer from a local microbrewery on the bus. The tour will make stops at several brewery-related buildings including the Malt House of Schnaider’s Brewery (now Vin de Set) and the stock house and cellars of the former Cherokee Brewery. Andrew Weil from Landmarks Association and yours truly from Distilled History will provide riveting and enlightening commentary along the way.

Landmarks Association of St. Louis

Tickets are $45.00 for members of Landmarks Association and $55.00 for non-members. Call Landmarks Association at (314) 421-6474 or email Andrew Weil (aweil@landmarks-stl.org) at Landmarks to purchase tickets. Seats are limited and additional bar tabs at tour stops are not included. Participants must be 21 or older.

Since 1959, Landmarks Association of St. Louis has been a dedicated advocate for the architectural heritage of St. Louis City and the surrounding region. The organization is an independent non-profit that works to protect St. Louis’ unique architectural heritage and to educate the public about the economic and social values of unique historic buildings and neighborhoods. Through the years, the organization has played pivotal roles in the protection of iconic St. Louis buildings such as the Chatillon-DeMenil House, the Bissell Mansion, the Wainwright Building, and the Old Post Office. It has also helped to protect thousands of neighborhood buildings throughout the city and create incentives for their redevelopment through the creation of National Register Historic Districts. Landmarks Association of St. Louis is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of our amazing historic buildings and works hard to create opportunities for people to explore and learn about the places where we live.

When I decided to write this blog, I made a decision to avoid making controversial statements. Not a fan of debate (especially on the Internet), my goal has been to relay interesting information about topics that interest me. I know I ruffled a few Cardinal feathers in the baseball post (some of you people need to lighten up), but other than that, my intent is to simply inform and amuse. But here’s an opininion I will never back down from: St. Louis is better because of Landmarks Association. I would not be able to write this blog at the level I can if that organization did not exist.

Landsmarks Association

With that said, lets review a few more opinions that I will cage fight you over:

The Del Taco Flying Saucer

  • Stop shaking the Manhattan cocktail. It should be stirred. Although I am grudgingly accepting that many people insist on drinking it on the rocks, I’ll never buy into the shake
  • You need to see the Campbell House Museum. It’s one of the most amazing places in St. Louis. Go there and take a tour. Seriously, the things you’ll see and the story you’ll hear in that house are worth well more than the seven dollars you’ll pay to get in
  • A martini is made with gin. If you want vodka instead of gin in your martini (something that confuses me) you should say “I’d like a vodka martini”. If you ask for it shaken, then you are an extraterrestrial
  • Get on a bike and ride around St. Louis. Even better, get involved with Trailnet and take any one of their fantastic bike tours. It’s a great way to see our city

In closing, please join Landmarks and myself for a beer tour on Sunday, May 19. It will be fun to meet Distilled History fans as we travel through the brewing history of St. Louis. We’ll drink good beer and hear some good stories.

(Update: Again, as of May 1, 2013, the tour has been sold-out. However, we’ll have another one scheduled in the near future. I’ll post on this blog when we have a date.)

Most importantly, proceeds will help Landmarks continue their efforts in historic preservation and educate St. Louisans about the history of our great city.

October 24th, 2012 by Cameron Collins

Schnaider’s Beer Garden

Schnaider's AdvertOne of my first action items when moving to St. Louis in 1995 was to take a tour of the Anhueser-Busch Brewery. Fresh out of college, I thought the place that made Budweiser must be the only significant brewery in the history of the city. I marveled at the bottling machines, admired the Clydesdales, and tried to scam more than the allotted two glasses of free beer in the tasting room. Back then, I had no idea that there was much more to learn about the story of beer in St. Louis.

As I've matured (well, maybe I should say “aged”), I'm pleased to report my appreciation for the history (and drinking) of beer in St. Louis now goes far beyond Bud and Bud Light.

The history of beer in St. Louis is an enormous topic. It's too big for a single blog post, but to make this one work, a bit of historical backfill is necessary. In second half of the 19th century, the population of St. Louis exploded. Between the years 1850 and 1870, the number of people living in the city more than tripled. A significant part of that population growth was German. In 1829, a famous German writer dubbed Missouri “The Rhineland of the west”. As a result, thousands of German immigrants flooded St. Louis and the lower Missouri River valley. With the Germans came beer and the need to make more of it. St. Louis was a perfect fit for this industry. Along with a growing number of thirsty people, a large system of natural caves existed beneath the city. These caves provided the cooler temperatures needed to ferment large quantities of lager. As a result, St. Louis would find itself brimming with dozens of breweries in the latter half of the 19th century.

I recently learned about the unique story of one of those breweries. Even better, I found my first opportunity to research the history and drink aspects of a subject at the same location.

That brewery is Joseph Schnaider's Chouteau Avenue Brewery. Once located at the intersection of Chouteau Avenue and Twenty-First Street, it was one of the most successful St. Louis breweries in the in the 1870's. In 1876, Chouteau Avenue Brewery ranked among the top three local breweries in capital stock, annual value of business, number of barrels produced, number of employees on hand, and number of horse wagons used. Today, no trace of the brewery exists except for one building.

It's founder, Joseph Maximillian Schnaider, was born in Zell am Hammersbach, Germany in 1832. A brewer by trade, he settled in St. Louis in 1854. At first, he co-owned a successful brewery named the “The Green Tree Brewery”. In 1865, he sold his interest to his partner and set off on his own. Shortly after, he opened Chouteau Avenue Brewery just west of the city.

The story of Schnaider's brewery isn't much different from the other St. Louis breweries of the day. What makes it unique is the beer garden he built next to it. Covering several acres, Schnaider's Beer Garden served food and drink to thousands of people at once. At its height, it became a nationally known resort where visitors could enjoy music, watch theater, and of course, drink beer.

Entrance to Schnaider's Beer Garden

The northern half of the brewery complex can be viewed in the upper left corner of plate 40 in Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis.

1875 Pictorial St. Louis - Plate 40

By lining up plates 39 and 40, the full extent of the beer garden can be seen. The main brewery is located in the upper-right edge of the complex (labelled “1”). The rest of the property contained an auditorium, pavilions, plenty of shade trees, gazebos, and other structures used to entertain the large crowds that would pack Schnaider's each day.

1875 St. Louis Pictorial - Plate 39 & 40 - Combined

Across the street from the brewery is a structure that no longer stands. It was demolished and Schnaider's Malt House was built there in 1876 (one year after the publication of Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis).

1875 St. Louis Pictorial - Plate 40 - Closeup

Schnaider's Beer Garden became a nationally known venue. Bands, theater groups, and travelling shows performed nightly during the summer months. According to the book St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009, Schnaider even created his own light opera company to compete with a local baseball team, the St. Louis Brown Stockings. The success of the Brown Stockings (later to be known as the Cardinals) was drawing patrons away from his beer garden and eroding his profits. It's also believed that some of the musical groups that played Schnaider's would eventually combine to form the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. To promote Schnaider's, schedules, advertisements, and reviews for performances such as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Beggar Student”, were published daily in local newspapers.

Schnaider Bands

Behind all the entertainment, Schnaider's served beer… enormous quantities of beer. Thousands of people would fill Schnaider's Beer Garden each day to eat, drink beer, and celebrate. They'd make toasts, smoke cigars, and watch fireworks displays as music and theater swirled around them. With such revelry, it's not surprising things would sometimes get a little out of hand. One notable example was reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August, 1881. A young man “under the influence of liquor” visited Schnaider's Garden and promptly began throwing tables and chairs around. When waiters intervened and called the police, the man simply claimed “Oh, that's nothing! We do that kind of thing in Philadelphia and never think anything about it”.

The next morning, he found out things work a bit differently in St. Louis. A judge fined him ten dollars.

Schnaider Pavilions

Joseph Schnaider died in 1881 while visiting his homeland. His wife and oldest son took control of the brewery and continued to expand operations. Over the next ten years, several buildings were added to the complex, including an ice house, a machine house, a storage house, a bottling house, and a summer theater. By 1885, Schnaider's would be one of the largest breweries in St. Louis.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Despite growth and the splendid reputation of garden, Schnaider's wouldn't last long. In 1889, eighteen St. Louis breweries were consolidated under one company, the St. Louis Brewing Association. Although breweries such as Lemp and Anhueser-Busch opted not to join the syndicate, Schnaider's Brewery did.

Over the next few years, the SLBA began consolidating and closing down member breweries one by one. Schnaider's continued operations for a few years, but the beer garden slowly began to lose its allure. New musical venues and entertainment establishments opened around the city, drawing patrons away. In 1893, the brewery was closed and the beer garden abandoned. The main brewery buildings were converted to a cold storage and ice plant. The beer garden structures were razed to make way for a large shoe factory. The Schnaider Malt House, located across the street, is the only building that still stands today.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Today, the “Centennial Malt House” (as it is now called) stands at 2017 Chouteau Avenue. In 2005, the building was purchased by Wendy and Paul Hamilton. They quickly went to work on an impressive $4 million restoration project. Across the street, the former site of the beer garden is now where several attractive row houses stand. These homes, located at the northern end of the Lafayette Square neighborhood, set a good example for effective urban development in St. Louis.

Schnaider's Malt House is significant because it is was one of the first malt houses to be constructed in St. Louis. Designed by Fred W. Wolf, a Chicago engineer, and Louis Kledus, a St. Louis architect. Wolf was a prominent brewery engineer of the time. The Schnaider Malt House is one of his earliest designs and one of just a handful that still stand today. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Schnaider's Today

The Drink

The Centennial Malt House offers a variety of dining and drink options. The first floor contains PW Pizza, a great place to drink local beer and eat pizza made with fresh ingredients. Moulin, on the second floor, can be rented for special events and meetings. The third floor contains the rooftop bar and bistro, Vin de Set. There's also a small market and culinary store on the first floor named Grand Petite Market. The Malt House Cellar, which once granted access to the underground caves, is also used for private events. Overall, it is an impressive renovation of a historic building.

Vin de Set

After thinking and writing about Joseph Schnaider and his brewery for over a week, I'm elated that I can get a drink in the actual building that I'm writing about. It's a first for this blog. Even better, Vin de Set is exactly the kind of place where I like to get a drink. Although it has a nice rooftop seating area, the bar inside is even better. The lighting is great, the staff is extremely friendly, and the brick and woodwork make for a great atmosphere. It's obvious the history of the building was important to the designers.

The first thing a visitor sees when entering the bar is a familiar statue. It's a smaller version of “Apotheosis of St. Louis”. The full-size version of this statue is a symbol of St. Louis city and stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum. While at Vin de Set, I was told this smaller version was presented to Schnaider's as a gift to commemorate the 1904 World's Fair. Years later, it was found stored away in the Malt House missing its head and sword. It has since been restored and now sits impressively above the bar.

My drink of choice at Vin de Set was an Old-Fashioned cocktail. Made with a spirit, bitters, simple syrup, muddled fruit (and sometimes club soda or water), the Old-Fashioned is one of my favorites. I plan to write more about the history of this drink in its own post . I've been told it's considered an “old man drink”, so it's appropriate that I'm in an old building (but at 41, not yet an “old man”). Even better, the bartender made a good one. He made it with rye whiskey, which I was happy about since I did not offer any instruction. Some Old-Fashioned drinkers eschew the fruit, but like the history of the drink, I'll save that argument for a future post. For now, I'm happy to have rye whiskey in my Old-Fashioned.

Since Vin de Set also offers a full menu, I'm sure I'll be heading back to take in a bit more of the Schnaider ambiance.

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Notes: The original idea for this post came from Andy Hahn, the Director of the Campbell House Museum. One day he mentioned a “beer garden that could hold thousands”, and it caused my eyes to light up. Much of the information for this post was obtained courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis. The renovation of the Joseph Schnaider Malt House was on their list of “Eleven Most Enhanced Places” in 2006. Photographs are courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. The book St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious also provided quite a bit of information. Anyone who is interested in the history of beer in St. Louis should own that book.

August 30th, 2012 by Cameron Collins

The St. Louis Schools of William B. Ittner

William B. Ittner

In 1897, a man named William B. Ittner became the Commissioner of School Buildings for the Board of Education in St. Louis.  It was a new position, created to oversee an ambitious plan to design and build scores of new public schools in St. Louis city. Before this, school buildings in St. Louis were vastly unappealing structures. Almost resembling prison blocks, school buildings were uniformly dark, dreary, and overcrowded. Simply put, attending public school in 19th century St. Louis was an uncomfortable and unhealthy experience.

Growing up in St. Louis, William Ittner attended city public schools. The experience of learning in a cold box-like building must have made a significant impact on him. After attending Washington University’s Manual Training School, he earned a degree in architecture from Cornell University. Upon returning to St. Louis, he began a successful career working in a few private architecture firms and on his own. When he landed his new job for the Board of Education in 1897, Ittner would apply his experience and knowledge to completely revolutionize school building design.

Ittner introduced what would eventually be called the “open plan”. His new school designs used natural lighting, open spaces, unique classroom designs, attractive exteriors, and improved safety features. Instead of a simple four-sided box, his schools implemented E-, U-, or H- shaped floor plans. Corridors were lined up along large windows, allowing sunlight to spill in and fill open spaces. His schools were the first in St. Louis to have indoor plumbing, heating, and adequate ventilation. Proper fire proofing became a priority for the first time.

School building exteriors became canvases for works of art. His father owned a brick factory, so he knew how to utilize different colors and textures of brick to create appealing designs. He incorporated towers, cupolas, and grand entrances that made schools look like civic monuments instead of plain brick boxes. Most importantly, his schools were designed to create a safe, healthy, and warm environment that fostered learning.

Walnut Park School

Ittner would design over fifty schools in St. Louis over the next eighteen years. At the same time, he built a national reputation. Architects, educators, and tourists from around the country traveled to St. Louis to see his designs in person. Thus, he began designing schools for other cities around the country. As a result, he is credited with the design of over 430 schools nationwide.

Today, forty-eight Ittner school buildings still stand in St. Louis city. Several more can be found in the county (including Maplewood High School and University City High School). His legacy is not limited to school buildings. He is the architect of three of the most notable buildings in St. Louis: The Continental Life Building, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and the Missouri Athletic Club.

I decided to head out into St. Louis and find his schools. Over the course of a few days, I biked and drove all over St. Louis locating each one of them. The result was one of the most entertaining weekends I’ve had in some time.  It became something like a treasure hunt, sending me into neighborhoods and parts of the city I had never been.  I even met some friendly people who wondered what I was up to.  One particular gentleman walked me around and showed me some interesting features of the school he attended as a child.

I needed help, however. Since Ittner had such an influence on future school architects, many schools built after his tenure look almost identical to his.  To make sure I had the right schools, I went down to Landmarks Association of St. Louis to get some assistance.  The staff at Landmarks went above and beyond what I expected. Not only did they answer any question I threw at them, they let me review their entire survey of William B. Ittner schools. I thought forty-six schools existed, but Landmarks helped me determine two I had missed. After a quick ride to find them, I had pictures and notes for every Ittner school still standing.

Starting with his first school Eliot, and ending with his last school Mullanphy, here are the forty-eight schools still standing in St. Louis city. Each thumbnail is a link to a larger image and a bit more information about the school.

Several of the buildings remain open as functioning schools today (Blow, Clark, McKinley, Farragut, Mann, Sigel, Soldan, Sumner, etc.), while others are empty and for sale (Simmons, Lafayette, Marshall, Shepard). Many have been remodeled and are now apartments or condominiums (Field, Arlington, Emerson, Franklin, Harris Teacher’s College, Monroe), while others are being used for other purposes such as magnet schools or for special purposes (Shaw, Humboldt, Madison). Sadly, a few are in a severe state of disrepair (Rock Springs, Central/Yeatman High, Jackson). Carr School, located just north of downtown, is perennially on Landmarks Association’s list of the most endangered buildings in St. Louis. Just a few blocks away sits Henry School, which looks like it could have opened yesterday.

William B. Ittner Schools
It’s believed Ittner met an artist named Henry Chapman Mercer at the World’s Fair in 1904. Shortly after, beautiful mosaics designed by Mercer began being incorporated into the exterior walls of new Ittner schools. The mosaics at Carr are especially noteworthy. At Farragut Elementary in north city, a gentleman from the neighborhood walked me around and showed me a lion head fountain. It worked when he attended the school as a child, but it’s since been filled with cement.
Ittner School Features
Several of the schools are on the National Register of Historic Places (Carr, Clark, Eliot, Emerson, Field, Jackson, Mann, Rock Spring, Soldan, Sumner, Wyman, etc.). However, many consider Soldan High School on Union Boulevard to be the premier Ittner design. The school features towers, intricately carved stonework, fireplaces, a grand auditorium, and a beautifully tiled cafeteria. At the time of construction, even the lavatories and locker rooms in Soldan were being compared to fine hotels of the day.
Ittner School Features
Getting out to find the Ittner schools will take you to every corner of the city of St. Louis. Most can be identified by a cornerstone chiseled with the schools name, date of construction, and his name, Wm B. Ittner. Here’s a Google Earth map showing the location of each school.

St. Louis Ittner Schools

The Drink
Mosaic Lounge

Initially, I struggled with the drink aspect of this post. At first, I figured I’d just head to a bar or lounge near one of the schools. This idea didn’t seem quite right since a random bar has nothing to do with Ittner or a school it may sit near. Fortunately, the good folks at Landmarks helped me out again (albeit unknowingly).  While at their office, they informed me that the architecture firm that William B. Ittner founded after his job with the city of St. Louis still exists.  I left Landmarks and walked over to the building (it was located just a couple blocks away). To my great delight, the tapas bar Mosaic sits on the ground floor of the building that houses Ittner’s firm. After work, I headed over to Mosaic to see what kind of drink I could get.

I learned a few things at Mosaic. First, I learned that Mosaic makes a pretty good Manhattan. The recipe on their classic cocktail menu calls for Buffalo Trace Bourbon and Cinzano Sweet Vermouth. I ordered it straight-up, but I made no mention of my preference for shaken or stirred. I wasn’t happy with the presentation (they shook it and served it in a rocks glass), but I still liked the taste. Buffalo Trace was new to me, and I’ve always enjoyed Cinzano in my Manhattan.

Mosaic Manhattan

Second, I learned that I need to shut my trap about the topics I’m researching for this blog. The bartender saw me taking notes, so she asked what I was up to. I told her I was writing a post about William B. Ittner (she had never heard the name) and that I needed to find a drink that relates to him somehow.  When I explained that’s how I found myself at her bar, she rolled her eyes and looked at me like I was a complete nerd. She may be right, but I had a shitload of fun nerding out for this post.

This has easily the most enjoyable topic I’ve tackled in the young life of this blog. I enjoy exploring the parts of St. Louis I haven’t seen, and William Ittner took me to dozens of new places. A few of the areas were a bit rough around the edges (to say the least), but I love those parts of St. Louis. It’s why I write this blog. There are stories all over this town.

In conclusion, a few of the Ittner schools are worthy of their own post (Soldan, Sumner, Carr). I assume I’ll be retracing my steps and coming back to William B. Ittner in the future. Stay tuned.

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