One prove-it moment stood between George Preston Dorris and his very own, world-changing startup.
According to a 1977 article by Nelson Metz in St Louis Commerce, he just had to haul a piano around St. Louis without a car breakdown to earn continued financial backing from his principal investor, Jesse French. Haul a piano, get investment for his startup; sounds easy enough right? Not so fast. The year was 1898, and no one in St. Louis had ever built or owned a truck.
Dorris bested his challenge on his way to starting his car company, personally building the truck out of a “horseless carriage” that he had previously made by hand. Today, historians regard him as one of the pioneers who not only changed the cars we drive, but also the fortunes of St. Louis.
Shannon Meyer is the Senior Curator of the Missouri History Museum and oversaw the Museum’s 2008 Shifting Gears exhibit, which detailed St. Louis’ early auto industry.
“There was a lot of innovation with someone like George Dorris, engineering genius,” Meyer said, “Some of his contributions continued on long after his death.”
Building the truck was one of Dorris’ many milestones, and it helped him build his name. In 1906, he would form the Dorris Motor Company, and in 1907, he would put his car factory in a building that may portend St. Louis’ present and future economic fortunes. That building? The Center for Emerging Technology (CET) operated by CORTEX.
An historical landmark
The building at 4059 Forest Park Ave. is now a cornerstone of the 200-acre CORTEX Innovation Community, sitting between the region’s largest medical campus, including the Washington University School of Medicine, and Saint Louis University.
The 1907 Dorris Motor Company Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 10, 2000. St. Louisans can thank original architect, John. L. Wees, for designing the building. A sign on top of one outside wall still says, “Dorris Motor Co.,” but the building now houses the CET, operated by CORTEX.
CORTEX is a nonprofit organization focused on redeveloping a large section of central St. Louis City. Formed in 2002, the nonprofit’s founders include Washington University in St. Louis, BJC Healthcare, the University of Missouri – St. Louis, St. Louis University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Its goal is to turn St. Louis into an entrepreneurial powerhouse by making the most of St. Louis’ resources and brainpower.
The work of the CET and CORTEX
Modern day entrepreneurs line the halls of the CET, where Dorris’ old innovations once shaped the auto industry. The CET provides biotech startups with access to specialized facilities, entrepreneurship training programs, support services and funding. These startup companies operate in the spheres of bioscience and medical technology, and aim to create the kinds of economic opportunities that St. Louis needs.
The CET’s goal is to surround entrepreneurs with everything they need and help push them along to their innovations, much like new and budding St. Louis startup staples like Arch Grants and the T-REx. As one of the first startup hotbeds in the area, the CET helped lay the first bricks in St. Louis’ new tech corridor.
The CET building is home to a number of well-known names within the St. Louis “entrepreneurial ecosystem;” those tenants include Cultivation Capital, a venture capital firm focused on tech and life sciences startups, and BioGenerator, an affiliate of BioSTL that helps bioscience startups with seed and pre-seed funding.
Recently, CORTEX, in addition to overseeing the CET, has earned press as they work to bring together jobs, opportunity, and residential development. In its second phase of development, CORTEX is partnering with national research park developer Wexford Science and Technology to create a biotech and medical research corridor. That effort may include TechShop, a DIY workspace that would provide entrepreneurs with access to heavy engineering machinery.
The history of the building is the history of the area
The CET building is in an area that once was home to many of St. Louis’ most productive facilities, and the CET building itself once housed not one, but two factories. The Dorris Motor Company used the building from 1907 – 1926, and later, the Brauer Brothers Shoe Company, owned by the Brauer Brothers Manufacturing Company, used the building to produce fine leather shoes.
In many ways, the story of the building tells the broader story of St. Louis’ business fortunes. Many people don’t realize it, but today, St. Louis City employs the nation’s fourth largest manufacturing workforce of all U.S. Cities, and the area produces many of the nation’s products across a vast spread of industries.
St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city at the turn of the 20th century. For many years, St. Louis grew as a diverse and thriving economic center. According to an article by Michael A. Capps in The Museum Gazette, 219 car manufacturers were located in St. Louis from 1900–1929, and the Dorris Motor Company was recognized as maybe the best of the lot.
Following World War II, suburban expansion, tract home development, and the expansion of the Interstate highway system, many of the area’s residents moved out to surrounding areas, and the core city experienced economic decline.
Beginning in the 1980s, a movement took shape to revitalize the city. Today, after three decades of hard work, many areas, such as Laclede’s Landing, Washington Avenue, Midtown and Grand Center, the Central West End and the Delmar Loop have experienced a renaissance. CORTEX is positioned to be part of the next wave of development.
The building’s entrepreneurial legacy: How Dorris changed cars and St. Louis
In 1898, George Preston Dorris and his long-time friend, John L. French, founded the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company. They aptly named their first car The St. Louis. It sported a patented 1-cylinder engine, clutch assembly and transmission all in one unit. That was the first car that ever combined those elements, and today’s cars still use a variation of that assembly.
Dorris, recognized as one of the first automobile innovators, also pioneered the float-feed carburetor. Drivers everywhere owe Dorris for that float-feed carburetor, since it means gas can flow into the engine at a consistent pace, without drivers having to constantly maneuver a number of different gasoline valves.
Dorris’ partner, John L. French, passed away in May 1903. In 1905, French’s brother, Jessie French Jr., moved the business to Peoria, Illinois. Thankfully for St. Louis, Dorris stayed behind and opened the Dorris Motor Company, releasing a practically hand-built car that would sell for nearly $7,000. It was named The Dorris.
In 1907, The Dorris Motor Company opened its factory in what eventually became part of the CET’s space and would produce cars for nearly 20 years. Though the Dorris Motor Company closed in 1926, its presence in the heart of St. Louis stirred competition and collaboration that helped turn St. Louis into a hub of auto manufacturing.
“In my opinion, and in the opinion of a lot of people, we were a rival to Detroit in terms of what was being produced here. We had a lot of companies,” said Shannon Meyer, senior curator at the Missouri History Museum.
St. Louis was and still is one of the nation’s most important manufacturing cities. New car plants that bring new jobs and new technologies have helped make St. Louis what it is today, and the Dorris Motor Company contributed to St. Louis’ auto industry — even after ceasing production in 1926. With an auto manufacturing history, industry and workforce rooted in the area, the St. Louis region has been home to Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Toyota plants through the years.
What became of George Preston Dorris? He started the Dorris Company in 1946, manufacturing factory gear drives in St. Louis for decades. Dorris Company gear drives can be seen turning in factories throughout the U.S., and the company is now part of Supreme Gear Co. The descendants of George Preston Dorris still live in St. Louis today.
The building’s next tenant reminds us of St. Louis’ shoe manufacturing history
Many St. Louisans are too young to remember, but the city was once home to one of the nation’s thriving shoe manufacturing centers. Mom and pop shoe stores occupied plots on many streets, and many of their shoe inventories came from St. Louis factories.
After the Dorris Motor Company closed, the Brauer Brothers Shoe Company, owned by the Brauer Brothers Manufacturing Company, bought the building. There, they manufactured some of the best leather shoes in the country. Even after their shoe company closed, the Brauer Brothers Manufacturing Company produced many of the fine leather products sold across the country. And for many years, they had offices on Delmar Ave. and Washington Ave. Internet auctions sites, such as Amazon and eBay, are littered with sought-after historic gun holsters that bear the Brauer Brothers name.
Once the Brauer Brothers Shoe Company moved on, a furniture store came in and used the building for retail purposes. After years of sitting dormant, the building has come back into entrepreneurial hands. The CET not only preserves its rich history, but adds to it as well.
Just one of many storied buildings in a city worth restoring and preserving
So what’s the point of this building’s story? After all, St. Louis City has thousands of buildings, all with their own stories. History is all around us.
The point is this building isn’t the exception; it’s the rule.
A special thanks to Shannon Meyer and the Missouri History Museum for contributing historical documents to this article. Check out the Korte site for the Dorris/CET project page and more details about the renovation project.