Monday, December 17, 2007
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Remember when I was discussing the opening of Aya Sofia just a couple of years ago? Well, it's gone already. (So's my post on the topic; its reference to Wagr33n5 attracted so much spam that I had to delete it.) The humble rough-wood siding that made Aya Sofia (and Rizzo's before it) look so homey has been replaced by a grandiose facade treatment that makes the building look like the runty little brother of one of those high-end furniture hangars out in Ballwin. Don't know what's moving in yet.
Just across Chippewa (at Lansdowne), Lion's Choice has finally opened. It's only the second location within city limits for the 40-year-old chain (the other one opened not too long ago downtown), and the drive-thru is constantly hoppin'. No word on whether the nearby Arby's is suffering yet. I'd say probably. (I'd been hinting around since 1990 that they should put a Lion's Choice on Kingshighway, somewhere near Uncle Bill's--but this was before the better location on Chippewa became available. Say, does anyone else think the strip of Kingshighway between Chippewa and Home Depot has a kinda Chicago feel to it? Dunno why, I just do.)
A little farther east, eulogies for the St. Louis Hills Office Center were premature; the demolition of the structurally-unsound parking garage was just a necessary bit of cosmetic surgery. The random pieces of billboard graphics hung from the structure to keep the dust down provided a nice little public art installation for a while, too. I'm glad they're repurposing the main building, and it's nice to be able to see all the foliage that was previously hidden from the intersection. (Well, there's no foliage NOW, obviously, but that's fall for you.) Toby will keep you apprised!
Nearby there's an isolated little business block that hasn't had a vacant storefront for as long as I can remember...you know the one; it's got a dragon rising out of the sidewalk. It's always been a cheerful little strip, and the wild new purple-and-yellow facade of Gooey Louie makes it even more vibrant. (The proprietors of Gooey Louie, specializing in a local treat called the gooey butter cake, could have benefited from a pre-emptive peek at Urban Dictionary.)
This is sad: The cool old neon sign at Donut Drive-In (Chippewa at Watson) is gone. I wonder if someone ran into it. Seemed inevitable.
There's a lot going on in the Southtown strip along Kingshighway, too. The remodeling of Shop 'n' Save and the rebirth of the Kriegshauser Funeral Home as a church (hey, it always looked like a Spanish mission anyway)--not to mention the pathetic occpancy rate at Southtown Plaza--are making it look less and less likely that the entire southeast corner of Chippewa/Kingshighway will be wiped out, as previously rumored, and replaced with a shopping center anchored by Sam's Club. So...Any deluded hermits out there who are still waiting for someone to give you a million dollars for your abandoned southside movie theater, PLEASE stop holding it hostage and let someone throw you a few thousand bucks a month to fix it up as a brew 'n' view or something.
So anyway, I was at the South Kingshighway DMV the other day and I hardly recognized the McDonald's next door! For years it was one of their tackiest remodeling jobs, fronted by a gaudy PlayPlace--but suddenly it's a sleek, clean, compact, adult-friendly example of up-to-the-minute fast-food design. The interior's done in tasteful browns and blues, and there's now a double drive-thru lane. The employees even seem to have their act together more than they used to; the whole front line was friendly, everyone was hustling, and they even got my order right. I'd be happy to see ALL of those PlayPlaces scraped off, frankly; how appetizing can a fast-food place be if the first phrase that pops into your mind when it comes into view is "BALL PIT?" I know this was supposed to attract the kids, but somebody at the home office apparently realized, after much time and money was spent on market research, that it's not usually the children who are driving or paying for the food.
Across Kingshighway, that old, closed streamline-moderne garage that was painted electric blue for years has been remodeled into Eddie's Southtown Donuts. The building's lost its mid-century character, but at least it's now contributing something to the economy--and public safety. Still stuck in a picturesque time warp--at least for now--is the tiny building up the block that, for years, housed a locksmith business. The locksmith has relocated now, and hopefully someone will find a use for this adorable little storefront.
I also spend a lot of time in Webster Groves, and the Old Orchard commercial strip has just been jolted out of an unusually long period of stable business occupancy. The floor-covering store next to Weber's Front Row is gone, and a new tenant (anyone know who?) is presently bustling its way in. On the same block, the Bike and Rack Shack just put up a Going-Out-Of-Business sign. Webster would be a great place for a large, full-service bike shop, wouldn't it? I wouldn't wish any ill upon the 61 Roadhouse--mmm, bbq!--but if it ever moves out (like, maybe, to Highway 61? Just an idea) or goes belly-up, its building right by the railroad tracks would make a PERFECT bike shop. You know what happens to railroad tracks when they get decommissioned, right?
One last Webster note: I can't believe this is actually happening--and I don't know what will ultimately become of it--but it's looking great these days.
Got anything enlightening to add? It's always good to hear from other armchair real-estate mavens.
UPDATE: Aya Sofia, I have learned (thank you, readers), is not out of business! They merely closed temporarily to do a little remodeling, during which their sign was spirited away. They may have looked defunct, but they most certainly are not. So dine, by all means! Dine!!
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
You can't spend a 73-degree November day indoors, though, so I took a nice walk up and down Main Street in relentlessly-pleasant Columbia, IL. I stopped for a burger and a Boulevard at Tiny's Pub & Grill (above), a sprawling establishment that contains a small, traditional tavern in front, a newer, brighter bar and pool room in the back with a vaulted ceiling and a south-of-the-border flair, and a spacious patio. I peered into the windows of Greenfield's (above), a charmingly old-school restaurant and lounge that was until recently run by the family of a friend of mine, and now stands empty. The actual bar within is supposedly Columbia's oldest (the building dates back about 150 years), cut from a single piece of solid walnut. I located Columbia's most distinctive piece of mid-century architecture (below...and please correct me, Columbians, if I'm wrong). Then, to rest and get in out of the Thanksgiving-week heat, I popped back into the library.
The back issues of the local paper are bound rather than microfilmed here, which is a lot easier on the eyes. I plowed through all of 1950 looking for any news of business openings or closings, and didn't find much: Just a dry-cleaner changing hands, a church expansion, and the remodeling of a restaurant (Wayne's) and the local Turner's Hall. The Columbia Star--in 1950, at least--has to be the most boring small-town newspaper ever. There aren't many photos, and the front page is regularly populated by wedding announcements and small children's birthday parties. The local movie house didn't even advertise, sparing the Star even a mild burst of Hollywood hype. The high spot was definitely the comics page.
Like a lot of small-town papers, the Star settled for second-string strips. (Today's analogues would be Fred Basset, The Born Loser, and Frank & Ernest.) I look at old papers a lot, and the only two strips I recognized were Virgil--a fairly creative, Skippy-style "kid strip"--and Mutt and Jeff. Mutt and Jeff was still pretty good in 1950, with smart, unorthodox pacing and a regular flow of absurd Jeff-isms. But what I'd like to call your attention to is a trio of strips I'd never seen before.
Silent Sam, as it turns out, is pretty well-documented online; it's an American adaptation of a Swedish strip called Anderson's Adventures, and Jeff Hayes was just one of several artists to draw the strip over the years (he ran things from 1941 to 1953). Sam usually wore a large hat, but in this beach-based strip, he resembles Bruce Willis acting out a Henry gag.
Perhaps the most distinctive strip in the Star during this period--due to its dogged single-mindedness and fitfully awful art--was The Old Gaffer, by Clay Hunter (now making its first Google appearance, thanks to yours truly). I have no idea how long the strip had been around by 1950, but for the first few months of the year, EVERY SINGLE STRIP WAS ABOUT THE DUDE'S BEARD. (Granted, the Star was not a daily paper, so there may have been more Old Gaffers than I was privy to, but it's appalling enough that the good people of Columbia, IL, at the very least, were treated to such an unyielding onslaught of hoary whisker humor.) By summertime, Hunter was mixing in the occasional joke about Gaff's advanced age. (He was in the Revolutionary War! Ho ho!!) These were no better; in fact they were a little disappointing. By this time, I was actually getting curious about what would appear in the little fella's Santa-esque appendage in the next Star: it had by now hosted birds, alphabet soup, and even a booby trap that thwarted a would-be mugger. It had allowed the Gaffer to smart-off to pushy salesmen trying to sell him belts and ties. It had warmed his ancient ass at a football game. Switching the focus away from the beard at this point was tantamount to Lucy letting Charlie Brown kick the football, or Jon Arbuckle scoring with a girl. (Oh, wait, that happened.)
The Old Gaffer you see here is a bit atypical, in that the "extra" is atypically non-hideous. Generally, any one-shot character drawn by Hunter was frighteningly ugly and amateurishly-drawn. Mr. Google Glasses here is unusually pleasant.
The only reason you're seeing Sunnyside above as well: I was struck by the simultaneous and identical headfirst ejections of two characters straight out of the panel (and presumably clear off the comics page) by the punchlines in two adjacent strips. Since I did include Sunnyside, though, I might as well share a little trivia: The noticeably well-drawn strip ran from 1949 to 1951 and was produced by Clark S. Haas, who nearly a decade later would be partially responsible for the groundbreakingly weird TV cartoon Clutch Cargo, and eventually worked on mediocre Hanna-Barbera fare such as Speed Buggy. Sure, you remember Speed Buggy. It was the Saturday Morning show that answered the unasked question: "What if Scooby-Doo was a car?"
Monday, November 19, 2007
Sunday, October 14, 2007
King Pin was originally a Brunswick facility, and I think these seats still have the Brunswick logo on them somewhere.
If you're interested in hauling a few away to save the trash man some trouble, I can assure you that three of the two-seat units fit neatly into an Xterra with the back seats removed...
Friday, August 24, 2007
Back in Spring 2004, Toby and I took a self-guided tour of many of the bowling alleys of the Metro East (the St. Louis suburbs in Madison and St. Clair County, IL). We didn’t actually do any bowling on this occasion, as our objective was to find the the most-retro, least-remodeled old-school bowling alley in the area and we were mostly just takin’ pictures and movin’ along.
I never got around to posting the pics on this long-dormant blog, but recent events have reminded me why I started Mid-Century Dream in the first place: Primarily to create a permanent record of some vanishing aspects of American life. So here are some of the 2004 photos, accompanied by a fresh August ’07 update.
KNITTIG’S BOWL (Now REDBIRD LANES): 1801 Camp Jackson Rd., East St. Louis IL
God only knows where my original notes went—2004 is, I believe, resting in the old crapped-out PC I used before I wised up and discovered the External Hard Drive and my constant companion, Flash Memory—so I can’t tell you for sure what this bowling alley’s original name was. I do know something about the Knittigs, though: They used to run some lanes in south St. Louis County, and some time after the original Knittig Lanes closed, the founder’s grandson (I think) resurrected the family business on the opposite side of the Mississippi. Taking over the old Cahokia Bowl (someone correct me if I’m wrong!), Tony and Anne Knittig filled the place with memorabilia from the old location and named the lounge in honor of the founder’s nickname: Tycoon’s.
Toby and I visited on a weekday at around 11 a.m., when the place had just opened but no bowlers had yet arrived. We had a nice chat with the lady at the desk, who may have been Anne Knittig. (Someday, I swear I will recover the contents of all my old hard drives and dump them onto an external, releasing a magnificent fountain of information…Information wants to be free, they say!) She told us that the original building had about five lanes added to it several years after opening, and the difference in the brickwork is visible on the exterior if you know where to look. Since we clearly told her we were there not to bowl (this time, anyway) but to soak up the nostalgia and she seemed okay with that, I have no freakin’ idea why we came away with just an exterior photo…but here it is, complete with the giant 2-D bowling pin that no longer stands in the parking lot.
Flash forward to August 2007, when a desire to roll a few balls combined with guilt for never having given the Knittigs’ cool old alleys any business resulted in a trip to the East Side. I’d forgotten what a sad-looking neighborhood the lanes were in; it’s on a forlorn strip dotted with down-at-the-heels used-car lots and body shops and boarded-up cinderblock cafes. While I’d always thought of Knittig’s as being in Cahokia—not a pretty town itself—Google Maps just informed me that the proper address is East St. Louis, which has an even more forlorn reputation for decay and economic depression. Frankly, you probably wouldn’t be seeing a lot of white folks bowling here if the place wasn’t located just a stone’s throw from Interstate 255.
Anyway, I was surprised to see a new sign in place of the big ol’ bowling pin out front: Knittig’s is now Red Bird Lanes. Sound familiar, St. Louisans? Like Knittig’s itself, Red Bird Lanes was a fixture on the south side of St. Louis for many years, and there was quite a hubbub when the popular 24-hour bowling center got bulldozed about 15 years ago and replaced with a Walgreen’s. The Red Bird guys announced that they were hoping to open in a new location, but nothing ever materialized. Could this be their triumphant (if low-key) return?
Well, it’s hard to say. All I learned from Internet searches is that the Knittigs sold the place back around July, and that the new owners have already hosted a prestigious tournament or two. I would’ve gone in and gotten the scoop (and done some bowling, of course), but the place was closed. The hours listed on the spiffy new Red Bird sign suggested that they should’ve been open at this time, but when I peeked through the door I could see a small engine of some kind sitting on the floor a few yards away, busily whirring. It looked like some kind of pump, maybe, and since we’ve had some pretty fierce storms here lately, it’s possible that the Red Bird sprung a leak and they had to take a day or two off to bail the place out. We’ll try the Bird again at a later date.
Determined to get some bowling in, we decided to head to the spectacular Panorama Lanes in nearby Belleville. Then I got lost, which is what I do in Belleville any time I stray from Main Street or Highway 159. Fortunately, we bumped into Bel-Air Bowl, which was another stop on the 2004 tour. But wait! It was now past dinnertime, and the parking lot was still empty? What th’--?! A sign taped to the front door told the story: Bel-Air Bowl was now at a new location on South Belt West, and an accompanying illustration showed the Bel-Air name tucked into the familiar shape of the Panorama’s distinctive neon sign.
- BEL-AIR BOWL (defunct): 1703 North Belt West, Belleville IL
- (NEW) BEL-AIR BOWL (formerly Panorama Lanes): 200 South Belt West, Belleville IL
So what’s the lowdown on the Panorama-to-Bel-Air conversion? Is it a good thing?
Well, new owner Matt Shellabarger (who also runs St. Clair Bowl) thinks so, and so does longtime Panorama owner Frank Booker, who will stay on to manage the downstairs banquet facilities. And, since Shellabarger recognizes the value of the former Panorama’s well-preserved fifties-futuristic flavor, I think it’s a good thing too.
The old Bel-Air will be missed, and bowling will not be returning to the property due to a deed restriction. (In fact, at this time the facility is still for sale, and it’s a good-sized lot on a busy retail strip.) While the old Bel-Air was just the right age to possess a lot of retro charm, the sad fact is that most remodeling on the site took place when the mid-century look was considered gauche. When we visited in 2004, the last vestiges of its original flavor were found in the fantastic sign, the pastel-tiled restrooms, and the faint whiff of Googie that remained in the main-floor lounge (which was apparently nameless; Curly Joe’s was the downstairs tavern that was not yet open for the evening when we were there). The barroom had a large porthole window, and there were still traces of a fancy drop-ceiling effect that must have been pretty sophisticated in its heyday.
If one of the Belleville bowleries had to die, the Bel-Air was the logical sacrifice. Its stylistic integrity had been compromised, and it had eight fewer lanes than its competitor. The Panorama, meanwhile, appears to be in very good hands. Seller Frank Booker, a very nice gentleman who noticed us taking pictures on our 2004 visit and proudly gave us a history lesson and a tour of the entire building, is still on the job as banquet manager and resident historian (he was interviewed for the local paper here), and Matt Shellabarger is providing enough hindsight and capital to ensure that the new Bel-Air will be a state-of-the-art facility possessing plenty of the old-school flair identified with the sport. The amoeba-shaped recessed red neon ceiling of the snack bar isn’t going anywhere, the outdoor sign is being relettered and relit, and the brand-new lounge furniture is true to the vibe. (Matt’s plans are detailed here.)
Below, a couple of bonus photos from Shellabarger’s awesome-in-its-own-right St. Clair Bowl: The humble but welcoming foyer, and a wonderful mural depicting Belleville landmarks and composed entirely of carpet. Not shown: The impressive upstairs lounge that overlooks the bowling lanes through soundproof windows and offers live music.
- ST. CLAIR BOWL: 5950 Old Collinsville Road, Fairview Heights IL
As always, any background information, historical data or scuttlebutt of any kind is welcome here! I promise to try to update this blog more often, even though I just became a nearly-full-time college student.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
There are three sets of chairs: One on Big Bend near Murdoch, one at the small park with the gazebo by Old Orchard Center, and another on the wedge-shaped park area in front of Nerinx Hall, a girls' school. On Feb. 27, a work crew uprooted the latter bunch of apples and deposited them in a row along Big Bend Blvd.
It's the latest in a series of small upheavals in this immediate area, coming shortly after the removal of a large bush behind a stone monument facing the Big Bend/Lockwood intersection and last year's seemingly-unlikely collision of an SUV with said monument. (A teenage girl accidentally rammed the nearby DeSoto Building with her car in a separate incident.)
Gotta wonder if the apples will be re-planted elsewhere in the neighborhood, or if they're just going away for good. And does their removal have anything to do with the construction of a huge new theater building at Nerinx Hall (seen in the background in the above photos)?
UPDATE: During the second week of March, the uprooted apples were all relocated to the Gazebo area. The former Apple Zone is being prepped, I hear, for the installation of a piece of public art.
Friday, February 16, 2007
Let us now dig Beardstown, an Illinois River town that’s faded some since its heyday but is still holding its own.
Beardstown was first settled in 1819, and it’s best known as a stop on the young Abraham Lincoln’s law circuit and as a great place to grow watermelons.
Jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo was born in Beardstown, and for a time in the 1980s the city was also known for the Beardstown Ladies, an investment club made up of seniors who were known nationwide for achieving unusually high returns on their investments until a close look at their bookkeeping revealed that they were, whether intentionally or accidentally, fudging some of the numbers.
I first visited Beardstown in September 2000, and at the time it struck me as a particularly rough-and-tumble place. I took a few photos, and I didn’t make it back for just over six years. A lot of the mid-century landmarks I’d photographed were gone by this time, but I also found a few I hadn’t seen before. One, in fact, despite its obvious age, appears to have taken up residence in Beardstown since my last visit.
Beardstown has had a bowling alley at 218-222 West Main for over sixty years (it appeared in the city directory in 1943, but not 1939), and it has a pretty wonderful vintage neon sign. I’m just not sure if the sign itself has been here that long. Wouldn’t I have taken a picture of it on my last visit, since I photographed an arguably less interesting building right across the street? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Or maybe—just maybe—the sign wasn’t there. It’s entirely possible that the Peacocks, who have owned Beardstown Bowl since 1998, fitted it with a “gently-used” sign from another town. Or maybe I ran out of film last time I was in Beardstown, and just forgot about it. Either way, it’s definitely the city’s coolest piece of neon.
Upstairs from the bowling alley—which was bustling with high school kids on a field trip when I stopped in—is the Riverview Restaurant, accessible by elevator or by a narrow spiral staircase in the bar. The back wall is all windows, facing the Illinois River with its landmark drawbridge.
The building I had photographed across from the bowling alley, incidentally, is an old Coca-Cola bottling plant built in the ‘50s. Its Coke days were over by 2000, but I didn’t take note of what it was being used for back then, if I could even tell. It’s now been transformed into an arcade and skating rink, and the Coca-Cola logo bas relief is still visible, thankfully. I’m including my photo from 2000 here because it shows the logo in greater detail.
On the next block, above the Main Street Tap, someone is leading by example: If you’ve got a broken window, board it up with civic pride!
Watering holes in and around Beardstown have sported some intriguing names. The Sazarac has been going for over 70 years in different locations under different owners, and it’s named after an ancient and relatively obscure cocktail that apparently originated in New Orleans and was originally made with absinthe. A mile east of town was the exotically-named Bal Tabarin nightclub. The original Bal Tabarin was a legendary hot spot in Paris (and the subject of a movie made in 1952, when Beardstown’s version was already up and running), but I think it’s likely that the small-town Illinois version took its name secondhand from San Francisco’s Bal Tabarin, a popular watering hole in the first half of the last century.
Two of the saloons found in the 1915 Beardstown directory are still serving drinks over eighty years later: The Mile 88 (formerly Ira Howell’s, the Capitol Bar and then the Nook) and Looker’s (formerly McClain & Buck’s, Baker’s, and the Arrow).
But back to Main Street: Beatty Hardware was also along this stretch. Below is a photo from the store’s advertisement in the 1915 city directory, along with a photo I took in 2000, when the store was out of business but a beautifully-lettered sign still decorated a window. It’s gone now.
A prominent downtown landmark is the old Quaker Oats advertisement painted on the side of a building. It’s been touched up since I took the fall 2000 photo on the left, but—as you can see in the 2007 photo on the right—a handsome old building across the street has been demolished since then. It was one of several structures in Beardstown faced with a distinctive dark-gray brick I’ve seldom seen elsewhere.
The downtown neon roundup concludes with a pair of vintage signs placed by fraternal organizations.
Situated around the picturesque town square (seen in the title picture at the top of this entry) are an array of shops and restaurants, along with the old Carnegie Library that now serves as a City Hall annex. (The present library is a new, prairie-style building at the edge of town, and it’s one of the most attractive small-town library buildings I’ve ever seen.) I love finding remnants of long-gone businesses, and the doorways of a hair salon and a dollar store on State Street still bear the stamp of a former occupant.
There’s another business district spread out along 4th Street, containing several businesses serving the town’s large Hispanic population. There’s also the old Princess Theater, a sturdy black-brick edifice that’s been closed for years but still appears to be in pretty good shape—at least on the outside. The marquee close-up is from 2000; the other photo from January 2007.
A nearby gas station, despite its humble wooden construction, apparently tried to update its look to suit the Streamline Moderne era by adding a curve here and there.
Closer to the edge of town is a tiny house with a winch and several blank tombstones in the back yard. As the rusty old sign leaning against the house reveals, it was once a sales office for monuments.
My favorite vanished Beardstown landmark (at least I think it’s vanished; I’m pretty sure I remember where it used to be) is the old Starlight Drive-In sign. It remained on Arenzville Road long after the drive-in theater was closed and demolished. I could certainly be wrong, but I think when I took the following photos in 2000, the drive-in site had become a pig farm.
...A pig farm with a kick-ass sign.
That’s what I came away with after a day in Beardstown, digging in the library and walking around looking for pieces of the past. If anyone’s got any enlightening back-stories for any of the places pictured or mentioned above—or any corrections--I’d love to hear ‘em. An encyclopedia entry may boil a town’s history down to an Abe Lincoln sighting or two, but the stores, theaters and bars are where the people live, work, and play, and they contain a town’s real spirit. Their stories shouldn’t be lost.