In late August of 1939, Germany signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Russia. This pretty much ended any doubt about Hitler’s intentions toward Europe, or the counterbalancing effects of Communism to Fascism. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Feverish preparations but few hostilities followed until April of 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, then Holland and Belgium. World War II had begun in earnest. By the end of May, the British and what was left of French forces were effectively bottled up in a very tight area near the English Channel. They pulled off a miraculous seaborne exodus from the beaches of Dunkirk. The last frontier remaining for Hitler in Western Europe was Great Britain, and he wasted no time in beginning an intense bombing campaign that carried through October 1940.
Although American sympathies were squarely with Great Britain, the prevailing sentiment was to stay out of another military commitment to war in Europe, all the more so as our own economic recovery remained on shaky ground after a full decade of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, emotions ran high, and national loyalties were questioned in the US as the rest of the world seemed to run amok.
In St Louis, our heavily Germanic population was forced to stifle any joy it felt toward the resurgent and apparently invincible Germany. Toward the end of October, the board of the German House at 2345 Lafayette Avenue voted to change its name to the St Louis House. The notes read that this was decided unanimously, “under pressure”. A large painted sign on the front of the building was replaced as a result. Adam Wekerle, the board president sighed that “the situation abroad appears to be getting worse, and some people associate all things German with the Nazis.” It may have been difficult for anyone of non-German heritage at that time to avoid coming to the same conclusion. Emotions were running hot.
There were still unsavory local influences that were able to meet openly. Two days after the name change, the St Louis House hosted Floyd Lee. He was a former rabble-rouser for the Ku Klux Klan during its heyday, and delivered fiery public speeches pushing membership. He now was selling a plan to guarantee a $40.00 per month pension to all who joined his new Missouri Pension Society. This, for only $1.00 membership. He claimed to have already enlisted 10,000 Missourians. Lee told the Post Dispatch that his Klan background had put him in good stead as an organizer, and added “it was good while it lasted. I was kleagle of the St Joseph klavern. Finally politics entered the picture, and I got out.”
In February 1941, the paper noted an appearance by the Woerner School Majorettes, so the regular schedule of diverse activities within the building continued. Encouraging to see, but perhaps misleading. St Louis House seemed damned by its own short history of association. The facility had run a deficit of $8,100 in 1941, bringing its total debt to $136,000. Bondholders threatened foreclosure, and meetings were held to discuss plans for regaining profitable operation. One idea was to rent the entire structure to the federal government for the duration of the war as a training center for 372 recruits. Wekerle attempted to calm potential visitors by stating that he had been advised by the FBI that none of the German societies meeting there were considered unfriendly to the US Government. He admitted that many had decided to stay away from meetings. A shame, he felt, as their patriotism was no less authentic than anyone else’s. In February 1942, the building’s bondholders gave its stockholders one week to come up with the $8,100. The board pleaded for more time, arguing that foreclosure would cost both parties nearly their entire investments, and that about $430,000 was at risk. Shareholders finally had to file for voluntary bankruptcy in March 1942 to prevent the bondholders from foreclosing. The business of the building, however uncertain, wandered on.
And it certainly could show some range. In September 1943, the 133rd anniversary of Mexican Independence from Spain drew 2,000 to the St Louis House.
As home base for a number of fraternal organizations, the St Louis House was often featured in stories about the groups convening there. Here, the Star Times draws a helpful map for the blind City tax collector to follow, in order to do his job and recover some revenue overdue from the Order of Eagles.
Five months later, burglars tapped three safes in the building. $1100 was taken from the Order of Eagles safe,but $300 in war bonds were found discarded in the alley behind St Louis House.
In early 1946, the St Louis House emerged from bankruptcy, having successfully discharged its debts. Festivals, concerts, speeches, and even classes found a warm welcome there. Soldiers coming home from war looked to retrain for the technologies that had developed in their absence, like the gradual replacement of fuel injectors for carburetors in automobiles:
Of course nothing quite catches our winter interest like hot stove league baseball. In anticipation of the 1949 season, the St Louis Brownie Booster’s Club met at St Louis Club, for an informal “jam session”. This taxed the capacity of the auditorium. Movies from the 1944 World Series between the Browns and Cardinals were shown, and club owners Bill and Charley DeWitt led off the program, which also featured coaches and Browns players Hub Pruett, Emmett Mueller, Jim Bassford, Lee Keyser, and the ever-popular Heine Meine. Meine was a journeyman pitcher and St Louis native, locally as famous for his speakeasy (Pulitzer Prize winning writer Red Smith claimed that Meine served hootch called “Moose Milk”, that would “peel the paint off a battleship”). When Meine retired to Lemay, he built a field and locker room adjacent to his tavern, and conducted clinics in baseball for boys. The field is still in use today.
In 1949 the Browns may not have received the boost they needed from the capacity crowd at St Louis House. They finished the season with a record of 53-101, a dismal 44 games out of first place.
The next Brownie Booster session in February of 1950 again drew a great crowd of fans, and featured a sure fire slump buster. Psychologist David Tracy was hired by the team to boost spirits at training camp through positive thinking and hypnosis. For the record, the Browns showed that perhaps they’d have done better remaining more fully conscious, as they lost 98 games and again finished in seventh place.
The opera “Faust” was presented to good crowds later that year, during a three performance engagement by the Midwest Opera Association. This was not only Goethe-strength German opera, but evocative of both the beer brand introduced by Anheuser Busch in 1884, and that brew’s namesake, Tony Faust, who owned the famous oyster house attached to the old Southern Hotel downtown.
And in news of the obvious from 1953, a group of property owners met at the St Louis House to cast their unanimous vote for a resolution opposing rent controls by the City:
All kinds of groups met at the St Louis House; those that wanted to view scenes of beautiful Switzerland, or learn about bike repair, or polka dancing. Labor unions met there to discuss wages and walkouts. Pipe Fitters, Bus Drivers, Meat Cutters, and Teamsters. Here is a packed auditorium in 1953:
And lest we forget the famous Rathskeller at the old St Louis House, it ran a semi-autonomous existence as bar, restaurant and nightclub, never seeming to miss a beat through the shifting fortunes of the upper floors.
In 1940, they touted their “gala floor show” and a seven course Sunday Dinner for $0.75. What value! Note the ad for Ruggeri’s on Edwards. Their steaks were legendary.This gives me an opportunity to plug what I consider one of the best researched and presented blogs in St Louis. The Lost Tables Of St Louis, run by Dr. Harley Hammerman, is a gold mine of remembrance for those who want to return to their favorite extinct restaurant. Highly recommended. Ruggeri’s is here: http://www.losttables.com/ruggeris/ruggeris.htm. I’m waiting for the Rathskeller’s turn in Lost Tables.
By 1946, with the end of the war, things slowly returned to something approaching cultural normality again. The Gothic script, the beer stein, and the sauerbraten beckoned ones teutonic cravings. It had been a long time in exile. Note the Michelob on tap. Actually, that’s the only way you could get it in 1946.
Above, the deal of a fresh Maine lobster with a cocktail of your choice for a mere $1.75. Who could resist that? A great place for the ladies bridge club to meet.
And below, two floor shows, dancing, noisemakers, all you need tor a rockin’ New Year’s Eve 1949, for only $1.50.
By 1966, the German themed Rathskeller had played itself out, and was replaced by the Siesta Lounge, where you could adapt your polka skills to the more trendy cha cha cha. The owner was Jose Santacruz, and the band Los Hermanos Santacruz played there until about 1975, when they moved to Pepe’s at 3400 South Jefferson Avenue. By 1978, they had again relocated as Ruiz Mexican Cuisine to Florissant, where it remains today; St Louis’ oldest Mexican restaurant
And cha-cha-cha means fun-fun-fun at the Santacruz. Here, demonstrating just a bit of ethnic confusion, a Latin American Halloween marquerade from 1967. From Siesta to Fiesta, just like that!
But while the musicians strolled, business within the rest of the building nearly stalled.
The St Louis House was listed to be sold at a public sale at the offices of the St Louis Real Estate Board in late 1958. Bondholders had seen their trust certificates slip into default, and they voted to sell the building rather than renew their obligation to carrying $85,000 in debt any longer. The attorney for the trustees said that declining business and inadequate parking forced the sale. C.B Mueller bought the building, continuing to lease the restaurant and bar downstairs.
1953 brought wrestling, which was a television sensation of the time, like roller derby and bowling. In the early 1950’s over 200 television stations showed wrestling. It was economical to stage and televise, making for increased profitability in a time when stations were looking to keep expenses down while attracting male audiences to support sponsors like Gillette, GM and Anheuser Busch.
There was a ticket sales outlet at Stix Baer and Fuller, which might attract the wrestling enthusiast to come out to the department store.
Above, the colorful banter of the ringside press. To the right, matches often featured personalities and behaviors the public could cheer for, or against.
By summer of 1971, in addition to the fights, there were weekly concerts at the St Louis House and two unions still met there. In the fall of that year, Shell Oil Company announced plans to build a filling station at the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson Avenues. As part of their transaction, they also gained an option to purchase the German House/St Louis House. Its proximity to I-44, then under construction, made a super station concept attractive to Shell. The newly founded Lafayette Square Restoration Committee banded together with the Lafayette Square Neighborhood Association to oppose rezoning for any Shell development, and proved successful.. Local residents Peter Wunderlich and Bill Keyes were out front in the efforts to stop development and save the German House building.
The Globe Democrat in February of 1972 reported that the Lafayette Avenue location was hurting business, as “people have been unsure about going there after dark, or even in the daylight.” The bowling alleys in the basement were closed.
In late 1972, German House/St Louis House was sold to the Gateway Temple. The volume of other activity by then had dropped considerably. By 1975, the restaurant was done and the band Los Hermanos moved to Pepe’s down the street at 3400 Jefferson Avenue. Three years later, they again relocated to Ruiz Mexican Cuisine in Florissant.
Gateway Temple was a pentecostal church that operated successfully here for years. It was affiliated with the Gateway Christian School, which was at 1907 Lafayette Avenue since 1963, and held classes for 800 preschool through 12th grade students.
The St Louis House caught fire under “suspicious circumstances” in 1990. The blaze damaged the cafeteria, which had earlier been the grand auditorium of the German House. It finally closed in 2002.
In 2007, the Church of Scientology bought the 60,000 square foot behemoth for $1.9 million. It had been unoccupied for five years, and when thieves made off with the copper guttering and downspouts, water ruined the maple floors of the first level. A restoration of the entrance and auditorium was begun in 2010. The organization claimed to have raised $4 million for the rehab project. An update in the Post Dispatch in 2013 noted that little had changed on the exterior, although fund raising continued.
Work has since been done on tuck pointing of the brickwork and repairing the concrete entrance. Except for white plywood where windows used to be, the structure looks almost identical to its appearance when buttoned up over 15 years ago. On the inside, the auditorium renovation is terrific by all appearances: These photos from Anderson Building show the dramatic effects of their TLC.
Wandering the site recently, I wondered if there was any outside sign that would’ve tipped one off to the presence of a theater or restaurant. There are several west facing windows with pendants featuring the faces of composers. Beethoven was fairly easy to recognize, even through the mesh wire.
I also spotted this sign, with just a shadow of the word “BAR”; its neon tubes long gone, hanging semi-detached and forlorn near the west side entrance that once led downstairs. Ah, the Santacruz….I can still hear the mariachi calling!
The Church of Scientology has had to pull it back a bit over the past few years, and, from an auspicious beginning, scrap its efforts to bring back the 60,000 foot structure. It was reported in January 2019 that they are offering the building for bids, in hopes of recouping some of their investment. This may be the only way to move the old beauty forward again, but good to see it at least in play.
Old buildings are like books, and the German House is one of many chapters. Bowling, faith healing, pro wrestling, rallies, strikes, symphonic, latin and Bavarian music, and $1.75 lobster dinners – this one had a lot going on. Certain aspects of the building convey messages that interweave and conflict with one another. In the end, one is left with a rich panorama that spans most of the 20th century, in many forms. It’s been my goal to translate a bit of that richness, in hopes that it deepens your appreciation for historic architecture. We need to preserve these reminders of where we’ve collectively been as a community and a nation. It’s too easy to economically rationalize a great building’s neglect and destruction. The loss of the Clemens House never would have happened, had it been any place but where it unfortunately was. Even though the German House/St Louis House is one of the newest buildings in Lafayette Square, it is enclosed and presumably protected by the Lafayette Square national historic district. It was singled out for mention in the original proposal in 1985. Often knocked down but never out, this phoenix, so hard to kill over the decades, may yet rise again.
Thanks to research sources including:
The Guide To United States Popular Culture; Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne; University of Wisconsin Press; 2001
Anderson Building Company of St Louis for interior photos.
St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis Globe Democrat, St Louis Star-Times and South City Journal for various archival stories, photos and advertisements.