Perched on the corner of Olive and Boyle one Wednesday afternoon, I watched a few dozen cars roll stop signs on their way to somewhere that must have been important. Somewhere. But that somewhere wasn’t Olive and Boyle. It was a place to pass through as quickly as possible (so much so that at some point in recent history, they connected Boyle to Pendleton to speed up traffic going north and south), not a destination. I don’t mean for that to come off as rude to the homeowners on the street now filled with 21st century townhomes, but this intersection was once Gaslight Square. And when you compare it to that context, well, on Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting at the intersection of a forgotten destination.
The only thing that reminds us of Gaslight Square today, at least to those who don’t know the history, are the three columns (a nod to the five columns that sat in front of Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace) and a plaque on a brick wall. Even the gas lamps that gave the street its name were long ago shipped off to Six Flags. At least those were repurposed. Much of what was once one of America’s great nightlife districts, some dared to call it St. Louis’ Greenwich Village, was demolished over the latter half of the 20th century. A few buildings remained into the 21st century. The burden of knowledge of what once was must have been too much to bear because those buildings were razed, too.
As I sat at that forgotten destination, I wondered why 20th century St. Louis so often went to the trouble of abandoning and then erasing vibrant districts only to save a memento (and in the case of Gaslight Square they didn’t even do that, they had to reproduce columns for the district’s burial place) that says, “This place was special.” The push and pull of preservationists and boosters (not always mutually exclusive) is an important piece of the puzzle, here. To be sure, there were folks calling for the revival of Gaslight Square while others said that the entire area would prosper again only from redevelopment. For everyone in between that tug-of-war game, there’s a societal cognitive dissonance in seeing a place as both worthy of demolition and eternal reverence. These mementos rest at that confluence.
In some cases, the elements preserved have been moved from their original places, dissociating them from any sense of context they may have once had. A clock once stood in front of Moll’s grocer at Delmar and DeBaliviere. When the vibrant DeBaliviere strip – overshadowed by Gaslight Square, but with its own moment in the 1950s and 1960s – fell on hard times and the entire northeast corner of the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood was demolished, Moll’s met the same fate and the old clock was moved to Laclede’s Landing where it sits isolated next to I-44. In the mid-20th century when the private Vandeventer Place had lost its appeal to the wealthy class, the street was summarily demolished to make way for a VA facility. Being one of the city’s early private places, the gates were saved and moved to Forest Park where they sit next to the Jewel Box today.
Similarly, in a recent picture from the 1950s, I noticed that a column once stood across from the Old Cathedral. It’s no longer there today. It was from the Court House and Custom House (1851) demolished on the Arch grounds after a push to preserve it and make it the home of what would become the St. Louis Science Center failed. Demolished during the make work riverfront clearance of the 1930s – an effort focused on increasing warehouse rents in other parts of the city – someone had the presence of mind to leave a reminder of one of St. Louis’ most important early buildings. A solitary column, a mirror to the isolation the Old Cathedral must have felt being the lone survivor of urban renewal. In that context, it doesn’t have much meaning. It wasn’t even at the same location as the original building. These types of efforts to preserve history read as last ditch efforts to capture the echo of a history purposefully suffocated. It gives a sliver of a glimpse into the past, but one so incomplete so as to remain abstract in the mind.
Another type of keepsake exists throughout the city. The Vashon School in Mill Creek Valley and Field House in Downtown South represent the rare building spared by the wrecking ball in communities that were wiped from the map. In a sense, these buildings stand to say “Look at the community that once existed here!” There’s a sense of pride in that, but there’s also a feeling of shame. In these scenarios, the community was held up as valued in the continued existence of these important buildings, but ultimately deemed dispensable in the overall clearance of the district. That’s what is really shameful about St. Louis’ historic one-two punch of disinvestment and “slum clearance.” We always knew better.
St. Louis didn’t develop a strong preservationist culture by accident. It grew from tragedy and bravery. Heroes saved their communities from the wrecking ball and the insatiable demands of the automobile. Unlike the coasts where preservation is weaponized today to protect exclusionary zoning and views, it means something much different in a city like St. Louis where the replacement, if there is one at all, is often worse for community than the original. And while some communities, cultural institutions, and architectural gems were saved, others vanished save for a keepsake.
What these keepsakes really are is too little, too late (even if I enjoy seeing them around town). They’re a reminder of the disinvestment in place and the displacement of people. And if all we have left to commemorate those communities so important to the historic fabric of this city is a solitary column, a clock, or an orphaned rowhouse, that tells us that we didn’t respect our communities, culture, or history enough.