Friday, August 19, 2005

There are worse things they could do

News from my neighborhood: The Southside location of Rizzo's is gone! The venerable Italian restaurant has vacated its digs on Chippewa, and a new Turkish/Mediterranean joint is about to open in its place (which, I was sad to learn today, was not the former location of a Parkmoor drive-in, as I'd previously thought). The new restaurant is called Aya Sofia, and I'm pretty curious about it. I haven't seen any advance press, though. Anyone got any inside info or an opening date?

Proud member of AAA, ADD and OCD

Wow, it's been a while. I've been traveling and researching and photographing all kinds of stuff as diligently as ever, but when I buzzed through several unfamiliar Midwestern cities in one day and only had time to take a few pictures, I started debating with myself about whether to bother posting my findings until I had more background information. While it's fine to present a photo and say "look at this rusty old neon sign at a bar in Dubuque," part of me wants to know how old it is, and what the bar's like inside, before I go slappin' these pictures up on the Web. Otherwise, all you're getting is a bunch of pictures and no text. But I guess my Comprehensive Review Of Every Cool Thing I've Ever Seen Anywhere can wait for a real website (as opposed to a blog), so I can add to it incrementally as information arrives, rather than chronologically. In the meantime, I've got a lotta stuff to dump on you from a trip to northeastern Iowa. But not right now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

St. Charles, MO: No 20th Century, Please; We're Historic

I've been putting off delving into the mid-century legacy of St. Charles because the place has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way. When I was a kid, I lived just across the river from this historic town, and the most direct route to the shoe store my mom frequented there involved one of the scariest bridges in the Midwest (it's now been imploded and replaced). Then a friend who lived there pissed me off. And, finally, St. Charles County is the place all the white-flight refugees wound up when the dreaded non-caucasians followed them to their original haven in northern St. Louis County. Dozens of shabby, generic subdivisions went up, most of them of the sort that appears to consist of a series of two-car garages with modest living quarters tacked on behind them as an afterthought. To a lot of St. Louisans, the St. Charles area represents the worst excesses of suburban sprawl.

None of this can be blamed, of course, on the perfectly charming older section of St. Charles, much of which goes back some 200 years. But all that ancient stuff is for
another website. I hit Main Street looking for 20th-century artifacts, and came up damn near empty-handed. While South Main is preoccupied with antiques and bistros shoehorned into really, really, really old buildings, North Main has always been a little more contemporary. That's where all the jewelers, shoe stores, and five-and-dimes were located, and just like every other Main Street in America, it got festooned with neon signs in the '30s and aluminum facades in the '60s. That's all gone now. The only neon is in the windows of the sports bars, and the only structure approaching the Streamline Moderne aesthetic is now, ironically, the home of a company that specializes in retro fixtures for homes of the pre-talkie era (and the building itself is more bland than picturesque). Everything else has been restored back to the Victorian era, in keeping with the town's reputation as a living, breathing chunk of frontier history.

When suburban shopping centers drew customers away from the city center, St. Charles attempted to make Main Street more mall-like by prohibiting vehicular traffic on large chunks of the thoroughfare and installing seating areas, playgrounds, planters, and mod-looking awnings. Like it almost always does, this plan backfired and the streetscape was returned to normal at great expense. (Public restrooms erected during the mallification, thankfully, are still in use.) While the area looks very nice now, there's just not a lot on Main Street that fits into the purview of this blog. There is some pretty cool stuff, though. Dig...

One of the town's major employers in the early 20th Century was the American Car and Foundry Company, whose sprawling plant was located at the northern end of Main. Seen at the top of this post, its campus has been painstakingly converted into a multi-use business park.

A little further south, 324 N. Main still shows traces of the dry goods store founded by George Kuhlmann over 100 years ago. The space is now occupied by offices, but the Kuhlmann's logo still appears in a Red Goose Shoes ad painted on the building's side long ago, and it's also set in the tile at the entrance.
You might have to lift a mat to see them, but there are several other logos for extinct businesses still set in the entrance tile along North Main.

Main Street is fairly narrow, and it's difficult to get a photo of an entire building directly from the front. A conveniently placed parking lot in the first block of South Main, however, allows a great shot of the swankiest 20th-century edifice on the whole street: The Elks Building (below).

Downtown blocks are also narrow from front to back, and the buildings back up to the next street--which, as a result, serves mainly as an alley. I'd hoped this meant some old signage remained around back, but--save for the Red Goose sign--there wasn't any. Many of the bars and restaurants, however, use their sunken backyards as multi-tiered decks for fair-weather dining. One business had an ancient panel van in its small back lot, with "FM" painted graffiti-style on the side. The word "Spit" was also scrawled over it, and I wouldn't have known what that was about if I hadn't happened to catch
"Beat Street" on TV the night before!

Off of the main drag, down near the huge Ameristar Casino, new housing is being built in a classic brick townhouse style that complements the old Water Works building that stands in the midst of the development. It's been handsomely restored as a bar and grill called Maryland Yards.
Downtown St. Charles is also home to a fanciful little building with a corner tower; it's now a bail-bonds office, but I'm pretty sure it housed a taxicab company when I first noticed it 25 years ago.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Upon Perusal of a Bombastic Document Singularly Unreflective of the Subject it Purportedly Honors, or What the Hell Does Sufjan Know about Illinois?!

Well, I pretty much have to have an opinion on it. Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens has just released the second in a projected series of CDs celebrating our fifty states, and it's all about Illinois.

It just doesn't sound like the Illinois I know.

When I heard that Stevens was including songs about towns I'd spent a lot of time exploring, I became very interested in hearing the CD, and when Pitchfork declared it the best album released thus far in 2005, the stakes were raised. I didn't know much about Sufjan Stevens, so I didn't really know what to expect. The jokey, Slade-referencing title, Come on Feel the Illinoise, and the album cover--festooned with the Chicago skyline, UFOs, Al Capone, and a famous Illinois-identified cartoon character (whose handlers issued a cease-and-desist order that resulted in his likeness being removed from future pressings)--suggests that the record might be fairly it wasn't unreasonable to expect something droll and Steve Goodman-esque, considering that I've heard Stevens described as something of a folkie. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

This thing is ornate, man. It's fey and fussy and foo-foo; it makes the Decemberists sound like AC/DC. Sufjan squandered an opportunity to create an artifact for the ages--something that could be enjoyed and understood by Joe Sixpack and maybe even used as a teaching aid--and instead opted to whip up a rococo wedding cake of smug, cutesy-poo math-fluff that'll sail right over the heads of the unpretentious folk who populate the towns he name-checks. Most of the songs' titles are smirky, paragraph-long gusts of exposition--which is enough in itself to keep them from becoming standards or even seeming sincere--and one of them suggests that the orchestra repeat that string arrangement again, "because I don't think they heard it way out in Bushnell." I don't know if Sufjan's been to Bushnell or just picked it at random off a map, but I've been there--and it seems like the kind of town that, for better or worse, wouldn't hesitate to tell you where to stick your string section.

Why couldn't he have come up with a less obtuse song about the UFO's that apparently visited Highland a while back; something as solid and memorable as, say, "Bloody Williamson," the Rockhouse Ramblers' ode to the Charlie Birger gang? Hell, despite its ill-informed reference to the "east side," I'll take "The Night Chicago Died" over this stuff.
You want to hear some Illinois-bred music that really reflects its point of origin? Pocahontas is a tiny town in the shadow of an interstate highway. It consists mainly of a few houses, a couple of antique shops and two or three motel/gas/convenience plazas with illuminated signs so tall that their tops would land outside the city limits if they toppled. For the last thirty or forty years, Pocahontas has provided diesel fuel, clean sheets and three-egg breakfasts to outsiders who are always in the process of rushing off to someplace more important. Grandpa's Ghost is a band native to Pocahontas, and their music, infused with the deep loneliness of Neil Young at his spookiest, can damn well put you right there on the brightly-lit parking lot of the Powhatan Motel at three in the morning, when it might as well be the surface of the moon. They also play some longer and less structured pieces, which is usually the kind of thing I don't have much patience for--but, having been to where they're from, I swear I can hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights and the shudder of trucks on the overpass rising from the band's subtle swells of feedback. It sounds like Pocahontas to me. But that's just one side of the coin, and native daughter Gretchen Wilson's mainstream shitkicker country is just as valid a representation of her hometown. You can walk into a well-stocked record store in St. Louis and walk out with an accurate representation of an all-night party in Pocahontas in one hand, and a sound-painting of a sleepless night in Pocahontas in the other. They both evoke their point of origin with equal accuracy. Playing Come on Feel the Illinoise, try though I might, I can hear nothing but Sufjan Stevens' ego.

Maybe I was expecting too much from Sufjan. If I had any musical talent and a yen to record fifty albums dedicated to the fifty states, I'd recognize the magnitude of the project and try to do something useful with it. I'd take that big road trip, man, and try to put across the feel of the places I'd been; I'd try to give the people I encountered something they could be proud of. This guy is apparently just looking for a template to drape some generally cringeworthy poetry over the kind of lite-classical arrangements Pitchfork wouldn't deign to review if the auteur didn't wear a trucker hat and record for an indie label with a goofy name.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Have You Seen Me?: Star Furniture

Another great resource found in old newspapers is the Real Estate section, which published photos and architectural drawings of new buildings every Sunday. Here's a sketch by architect Benjamin Shapiro of the store he designed for Star Furniture, which was officially completed in January 1936 at a cost of about $100,000. It's still standing somewhere in St. Louis. Anyone recognize it? I've got no prizes to give away at this point, but isn't showing off your arcane knowledge its own reward?

Friday, July 01, 2005

January 1936: Tailpipe suckin' days of yore

I often beat the heat in the cool confines of a local college library, cruising through microfilmed back issues of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat until watching the pages scroll by gives me a touch of motion sickness. And you know what? They used to put a lot of news in the newspapers. If there was an inch left at the bottom of a column, they’d find something to put in it. If a kid got shot in the leg in a hunting accident 150 miles away, they’d mention it. If an 80-year-old woman took her first plane ride with her grandchildren, well, that was news back in 1936. News enough to fill out the column, anyway.

One curious thing about papers from the first half of the last century is the amount of detail that went into each item; a standard piece might mention that "James Phillips, Negro, was wounded by a pistol-wielding burglar last night in his home at 2463 Elm Street..." The now-startling racial designation was a sign of the times, to be sure, but everyone got their address in the paper, whether they died, got robbed, or had their living room invaded by an out-of-control Hupmobile. I remember seeing a photo of a house that had just been built for a star player on the St. Louis Cardinals, and the caption gave the address! That’s unimaginable today.

I’m presently plowing through the papers of January 1936, and I’ve noticed something interesting: Practically every day, at least one person succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage. Some of the news items implied that the death was a suicide, while in other cases it was suggested that an amateur mechanic simply didn’t realize you couldn’t run your engine with the garage door closed (very tempting during the colder months, if you’re an idiot) and live to tell. It’ll be interesting to see if the number of CO-related deaths tapers off as the weather gets warmer. Meanwhile, I’m taking note of the addresses that are mentioned in these old articles. My house was built in 1927, and I’d be interested to know if it was the scene of a death or a crime. (The closest I’ve gotten? A 31-year-old housewife told her family she was going to a New Year’s Eve party in 1935, but gassed herself in the garage instead...three blocks from where I live.)

These were also the days when you didn’t have to do a hell of a lot to get a photo printed in papers all over the continent, either: When the Associated Press sent out a photo of a canary who’d been taught to ride a miniature bicycle, the Post wouldn’t hesitate to print it. Then the Globe would counter with something like this:

Ah, those were cute times. Nowadays, if you want to dress your squirrel up in a sailor suit, you gotta have your own website to share it with the world.

Another interesting feature of the Globe-Democrat at this time was the RaceScope, reproduced above. The tiny type printed around the border of the octagon is just gibberish, but if you could crack the code, you’d be looking at a hot tip for one of the day’s horse races.

One more item from the first week of 1936: A panel from the Sunday edition of a comic strip called Ben Webster. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the legendary tenor saxophonist of that name, and–despite appearances–nothing to do with Felipe Rose’s sexual fantasies. It was, more or less, an illustrated adaptation of the "rags to riches" (or, in this case, loincloths to riches) themes prevalent in the popular novels of Horatio Alger. The comic’s author even called himself Edwin Alger, just so we wouldn’t miss what he was aiming for.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Ashley, IL: Fading crossroads

Ashley is now so insignificant that the Rand McNally Road Atlas doesn't even list its population; other sources place the year-2000 figure at anything from 600 to 1500. But Ashley was obviously more important at one time--How else to explain all the motels? Before the Interstates came through (a major interchange is less than 15 miles away at Mt. Vernon), Ashley was sitting pretty at the intersection of US 51 (a major north-south route) and State Road 15. This placed it just about halfway across the state for east-west travelers, and thus a natural stopping point.
The motels now look like the kind with long-term residents. It's still easy, however, to picture a trucker or drifter of the not-too-distant past rolling into Ashley, checking out the watering hole at the edge of town, and then floppin' at the Parkview.
Also of note is the Ashley Waterworks, a little north of town on 51. Built in 1941, it seems to belong to a style that could be easily dubbed "Half-Assed Moderne," or perhaps "Cheapsh*t International." I thought it was kind of cute.

Currently adrift in my files are some nice black & white photos of the old factory at the center of town. I want to say it made glass products. When the pics turn up, I'll post 'em.

Anna, IL: That's what I said

Midwesterners may recall radio ads for Bunny Bread that culminated in a bass voice drawling the slogan, "That's what ah said!" Well, the drawl comes natchul--Anna, Illinois, the home of the Bunny Bakery, is pretty near the southern tip of the state and thus not far from Kentucky. The bakery has Anna's most distinctive neon sign. It may look pretty plain at rest, but it gets extra points for animation when it's lit up and the bunny's left ear wiggles.
Another neon treat can be found at the Anna Plaza Motel, which tempts travelers with "Modern electrically heated TV."

Anna's hands-down-coolest mid-century artifact, however, is probably not long for this world. The Rodgers Theatre, built in 1937, had a bold Vitrolite facade and a colorful marquee that welcomed moviegoers for over sixty years (the black-and-white photo below is from 1948, when Yvonne DeCarlo was seen onscreen in "River Lady" as a character amusingly named "Sequin"). My 1997 photo (the second one, below) was taken when the Rodgers was going in and out of business as the ever-changing management was contemplating turning the balcony into a second screening room. (At one point, the marquee advertised "free theatre seats," but a call to the accompanying number got me nowhere.) The fancy diamond pattern on the facade was now gone, but most of the Vitrolite around the logo remained. I don't get down to Anna often, but when I meet people from the area I always ask about it. One couple told me they'd seen "Titanic" there, so there must have been one more burst of activity at the Rodgers. My most recent visit, in September '04, was sobering (last photo, below). The majority of the Vitrolite has fallen off--possibly shaken loose when the adjacent building was demolished--and people in the know say the city is eager to get the theatre torn down too. They say it's an eyesore, and at this point it is. But how's the interior? Is the roof sturdy? Did the Vitrolite tiles fall onto the marquee, and are they still in one piece? The facade will never be as beautiful as it once was, but they could cover it up with something cheap and decent. The marquee is still in pretty good shape!

An idea: If the building can't be salvaged, at least save the marquee. There are a couple of theatre chains actively building small multiplexes in southern Illinois towns, and Anna would be a good location for one of these. Restore the Rodgers marquee and use it on a new cinema to give it a little old-school charm.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Alton, IL: Wigs, bats and barrels

Most of my travels are in the eastern Missouri/ southern Illinois area, though the occasional extended vacation outside my usual radius is always welcome. I've got a couple of boxes of photos and several "virtual" folders of jpg's to dig through, and since both collections are filed in alphabetical order by city, I might as well start by showing you a few cool things in Alton, IL.

Alton may well be the most fascinating town in the St. Louis area. Its history includes a Lincoln-Douglas debate, the residency of the world's tallest man (no, it wasn't Abe), and an abolitionist publisher whose printing press was thrown into the river by an pro-slavery mob; when he continued to preach the evils of forced servitude, he was killed. Miles Davis was born here, and local author Troy Taylor maintains that Alton is the most-haunted city in Illinois--though I think he said the same thing about Decatur when he lived there.

Alton is built on and around a river bluff, so many of the downtown streets--some still paved with brick--are amazingly steep. The downtown area has some great antique shops (don't miss Steve's, a sprawling warehouse containing, among other things, a massive neon Buick sign that was hauled in through the window when the dealership vacated), some good restaurants, and a swell new martini bar called Bossanova.

On the same block as Bossanova is the Towata Gallery, a hip little art shop occupying a pretty tasty little Streamline building that used to be Goulding's Jewelry. The showcase windows are curved glass, and Goulding's logo is still present in the fancy tilework at the store's entrance (above left)...Is there a name for this process? Custom tilework at the front door is one of those cool, classy things you just don't see anymore--unless it was left behind by a business that closed years ago. (If you visit Towata, pause at the entrance and stand on the logo; then look up at the ceiling of the rounded canopy. If the paint is still peeling like it was last time I was there, a small bat may still be in residence between the layers!)

Languishing on a corner near the top of a hill is the Grand Theatre. Built in 1922, it's the only golden-age movie house still standing in Alton--but it's been closed since 1977. Mayor Don Sandidge says he'd love to see someone dust it off and put it to good use again--especially since the grubby little Alton Cine duplex closed down, leaving the sizable town without a single silver screen. One local entrepreneur came close to converting the Grand into apartments and a convenience store, but nothing ever came of it. The theatre's most recent use has been as an occasional "Haunted Theatre" attraction at Halloween.

There are a few fine old neon signs in Alton, but not as many as I remember from just a few years ago--I want to say that a neon windmill advertising an insurance company used to be visible from the Clark Bridge over the Mississippi, but it's a pretty fuzzy memory. I think the Jacoby Furniture sign is still hanging on the now-defunct store, but I can't find a photo. Did I ever take one, or have I just never been in Alton when the light was suitable? Anyway, I do have a pretty good shot of the Fraternal Order of Eagles' local "aerie." (Real eagles draw birdwatchers to the Alton area every winter. And the little guy atop the flagpole? He's just frontin.')
As you get out into suburban Alton, there are some great blasts from the past. I don't recall its exact location--it may not even be in Alton, exactly--but the Citizens Building is one of the most striking structures in the Metro East area. It's basically a big barrel, sunk one story deep into a corner lot with a suspension bridge running from the sidewalk to the second-story entrance. Looks pretty well-maintained, too, at least from photo-snapping distance.

I might as well include a couple of scenes from Godfrey, Alton's neighbor to the north--mostly because I'm never sure where one town ends and the other begins unless I'm standing right next to a city-limits sign. Godfrey's the home of Riverboat Lanes, a bowling alley that installed a touching folk-art tribute to a fallen kegler: The late Don Olive is honored with a concrete ball and pin set into the hillside adjacent to the parking lot.
I'm not sure why we even bothered to walk to the beauty school located next door (I was knocking around Godfrey with Toby of Tobybelt that day), but I'm glad we did. It was closed for the day, but through one of the windows we spotted a gaggle of wigheads at rest--as well as one that seemed to be contemplating making a break for it.

One last Godfrey note: I never got around to photographing the now-demolished Blocks restaurant and its colorful, literal-minded sign, and now it's gone. Anyone got pics?

What it's all about

For about ten years, I've been photographing places and things that retain the strong stylistic flavor of a colorful and distinctive period in the annals of design, architecture and signage. From the bold, heroic forms and confident Streamline Moderne curves of the Public Works Administration and the post-Depression recovery period to the futuristic fantasies of the Space Age to the programmatic whimsies and carefree dayglo color splashes of the Beatle era.

Why? This is the way America looked when I first saw it as I was growing up. The colorful jumble of every city's neon-laced commercial strip was about to be muted by more stringent signage codes and a muted, earth-toned sensibility that would eventually slap a dull, shake-shingled mansard roof over the gleaming candy-striped tile and glowing golden arches that had helped make the suburbs seem somehow exciting.

In the days before Everytown's fast-food-and-motel strip was dulled down by a beautification movement spearheaded by a President's wife, the commercial landscape was chaotic. When one sees a 1960's photograph of a typical "miracle mile," it's almost always shot with a lens that flattens the perspective, making the jumble of signs into a panicky collage of overstimulation--No one at the time took a picture of Fast Food Row because they thought it looked "cool;" such a photo was always created and used as an example of how how ugly and out-of-control things had become. Fair enough; there was certainly plenty of truth to that viewpoint. But today, when a vintage photo of that type is displayed, many of us find ourselves squinting to catch the details; the little things we remember from our youth but haven't seen in years. Is that an old Jack-in-the-Box sign, with the clown head bobbling on a spring? Wasn't the old Holiday Inn sign magnificent? Oh, wow, do you remember Arthur Treacher's...or Carrol's...or that huge neon Katz Drug cat with the bow tie, the one that scared the hell out of you when you were four? (Okay, that's just me. But by the time I've dug all the evidence out of my archives and posted it here, that damn cat will give you the willies too.)

A friend told me that nostalgia literally means "past-pain." We took things for granted back then, and we miss them now; we fear that someday they'll all be gone. It could be argued that a single blinking, buzzing Edsel-era neon sign remaining among a forest of tasteful, backlit logos on the highway strip is more striking and more beautiful than it was when everybody's sign blinked and buzzed just so.

Along with a growing legion of mid-century dreamers, I'm out there every chance I get, looking for that last neon beacon. If this sort of nostalgia trip seems like your cup of Postum, you should check out the Society for Commercial Archaeology and the list of links I'll be posting and most likely adding to frequently. And there will, of course, be photos. Lots of 'em.