Monday, December 17, 2007

Stickin' It to the Mansard

Toby's recent piece on the mansard-enshrouded little building in South St. Louis County inspired me to dig through my files for a photo I took a few years back near downtown Belleville, Illinois. I'm not sure exactly where this building stood or if it still looks like this, but it's undeniably a shining example of some hot mansard-on-mansard action.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

SWSL update

That last batch of homework before finals has kept me from doing much exploring outside my immediate neighborhood, and a cold (as well as "the cold" in general) has been keeping me indoors for a few days. Fortunately, there's a lot going on around my immediate neighborhood, and now I have time to sit here and write about it. And cough. And go through a couple boxes of Puffs Plus, which is about the only tissue my poor nose can tolerate right now--even though it's kind of like honkin' into a fat-infused sheet of Bounce.

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 The humble rough-wood siding that made Aya Sofia (and Rizzo's before it) look so homey has been replaced by a grandiose facade treatment that makes the building look like the runty little brother of one of those high-end furniture hangars out in Ballwin.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 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

A lazy afternoon in Columbia, IL

Before I declare Upside-Down Library Guy's behavior too unorthodox, I should confess that I subsequently found myself in the ladies' room of two small-town libraries within the next hour. The all-female staffs of the libraries in both Dupo and Columbia are apparently pretty lax about refilling the soap in the men's room, and when you gotta wash, you gotta wash.
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

Dupo, IL: A new perspective

This has nothing to do with anything, really, but it's too good to pass up.

This morning I was doing a little research at the library in Dupo, IL. The only other person there besides the librarians was a normal-lookin' dude with a shaved head, sitting at one of the computer terminals. After I'd been reading a local-history book for a few minutes, I glanced over and noticed that this fellow had draped himself over a chair and was just hanging there upside down, feet in the air, giggling intermittently. This went on for a good fifteen minutes.

Eventually, an older gentleman came in to drop off a book and asked one of the librarians "Is that young man all right?" She sort of laughed it off, but then called the upside-down patron by his name and told him to cut it out. He righted himself, still giggling a little, and walked toward the desk. "What on earth were you doing?" she asked him.

"Just tryin' to stay off of the Internet," he replied.

Clearly, it didn't work.