German House/St Louis House: The Earliest Years  1928-1942

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One can’t help but notice the large four story building lying dormant at 2345 Lafayette Avenue. Its boarded up windows give rather a blank countenance to what is, in fact, a fascinating place with a long and somewhat unfortunate history. It was originally called Das Deutsche Haus, or the German House. When all things German fell from favor with the onset of World War II, it was renamed the St Louis House. Join me for a journey back to its beginning. 

An unsuccessful revolt for unification among the 39 independent states that later became modern Germany resulted in exile for many and an influx of nearly 35,000 immigrants to St Louis between 1848 and 1850. As early as 1858, one out of every three of the total 135,000 St Louisans was born in Germany. Widespread use of the German language, adoption of the Lutheran faith and support from several influential newspapers nurtured the growth of German American culture and community on the city’s South Side. 

The Post Dispatch of January 20,1928 featured this headline: 

A group of German businessmen and community leaders planned to build a meeting and performance hall for the populous and prosperous German American community in St Louis. They began a subscription to raise funds for the development, and Mayor Victor Miller was one of the first dozen to contribute $500.00 to the efforts to raise $300,000. 

The facade of the proposed structure was to be modeled after a portion of Heidelberg Castle in Germany. It was planned to face the Union Club public hall at Jefferson and Lafayette Avenues. Land cleared for the German House once held the residence of Hulda Duestrow. Her father was a very wealthy silver mine speculator who had struck it rich in western Montana. When he died, she shared his fortune with her brother Arthur, a dissolute young man who killed his wife and infant son on the eve of Valentine’s Day, 1894. His ensuing trials and the tornado of 1896 effectively ruined the old man’s estate and Hulda moved from 2345 Lafayette Avenue to a home in Compton Heights. The house was listed for sale as early as 1914, a fourteen room residence with all modern conveniences that “can be sold for a very low price.” It was then occupied by Mr and Mrs Terrence Powell. In November of 1923, Mrs Powell was struck by an automobile at Lafayette and Missouri, striking her head on a curb, and died at City Hospital. The house, with a run of bad luck behind it, apparently sat unoccupied for the next five years. 

The original intent of the German board was to create 30 foot gardens on either side of a three-story, 115 foot wide building. A theater-auditorium seating 1140 guests was planned for the rear of the structure. This was to be a permanent home for the popular and peripatetic German Theater. The plans also included a restaurant, rathskeller, two banquet halls, ten meeting rooms, billiard room, and 12 bowling alleys.   

On May 13th, the cleared site hosted the Bremen Flyers, three German aviators who had crossed the Atlantic in a monoplane earlier that year. Quite an event, with the heroes greeted at the airport by Albert Lambert, and flown to the airfield at Forest Park to join Mayor Miller and an estimated crowd of 25,000, while 800 National Guardsmen and 400 City police officers kept order. They dined at the University Club as guests of the German consul, and slept at the swanky Hotel Jefferson, resting up for the following day. On day two they took part in a parade on the Lindell/Union route the earlier procession for Lindbergh followed. After a formal reception at City Hall, the group proceeded to the new German House site for a formal groundbreaking ceremony. Gold watches were presented from the German House board to each Flyer. They were then taken under the wing of August A Busch, who feted them at a banquet at the Chase. The principal address was made by former Secretary of Labor and Commerce, Lafayette Square’s own Charles Nagel. 

Having raised sufficient funds to proceed with construction, a cornerstone was laid in September of 1928. There was a parade of hundreds of St Louisans from the Park to the construction site. “Flags fluttered, a band played and a male chorus sang German songs” during the ceremony. A box with photos of the Bremen Flyers and newspaper accounts of progress toward the building was placed within the cornerstone. Former mayor and Lafayette Square resident Henry Kiel was chairman of the finance committee for the project. He proclaimed that $245,000 had already been raised, and that his goal was to open with no mortgage.

One hundred German organizations in St Louis coordinated their efforts to fully fund the building. A short year later, in September 1929, an estimated 3000 people “cheered, sang and danced” at the formal dedication of the new German House.  There were at least seven speeches, along with “choral singing, orchestral numbers and tableaux in costume depicting the German emigrants in Missouri art, industry and science, Columbia and Germania”. Three days of further celebration were scheduled. On the second day, more folk songs and dances, addresses by German societies and athletic exhibitions from the various turnvereins were presented. 

That same month, September 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Index peaked at 381.17. It would be 25 years before it regained this level. The London Stock Exchange crashed on September 20th, less than two weeks after the German House dedication. On October 24th, U.S. stocks lost 11% of their value, followed by another 12% on the 29th. By the end of November, the Dow stood at 198.60. The Great Depression was underway. 

In November, the bands, speeches and choirs had fallen more in line with the changing times. $0.65 frog legs dinner, anyone?  

It was almost fore-ordained that the German American community, with its fondness for beer and wine would run up against the Volstead Act, aka Prohibition, under which both were banned. The heavy concentration of Germans and frequent celebrations at the German House invited scrutiny, and the place received it. 

In July of 1930, fifty enthusiastic German Americans were participating in a Saturday night celebration of French withdrawal from the Rhineland at the German House. A raid by federal agents produced six gallons of whisky and 650 pints of beer and ale. The bartender and live-in manager of the building were charged. 

Six months later, this: 

The Star And Times newspaper reported that “merriment was running high” in the basement restaurant “when prohibition agents quietly raided the place”. Upstairs, two orchestras were playing and the dance floor was crowded, “but the agents did not molest the dancers.” The raid produced 71 tenth-pints of whisky, four gallons of wine, and 11 cases and 187 pints of beer. The proprietor, Herman Godfrey Otto Markwordt was arrested. 

In July of 1932, the German Theater suspended operations. Economic conditions amid the deepening Depression forced the German Theater Society to curtail its financial support. The theater marked its first St Louis appearance in 1842 in a German restaurant, and staged theatrical productions (except during the Civil War) on an uninterrupted basis over the next 90 years. It was seldom a break-even proposition, but financial shortfalls were made good by wealthy patrons of the society. A later version was run as an open-air theater in Arsenal Park, becoming a forerunner of the present Muni Theater. In 1890, it was housed in the Germania Theater, then the Olympic, and later, the Odeon, Jeffla Hall (at 2354 Lafayette Avenue), and the Victoria Theater. The German Theater then found its permanent home at the German House. It was a sad day for the performing arts in St Louis. 

The building could still host a rollicking good time. The third anniversary of The German House, in September of 1932 was a two-day affair featuring a carnival, concert and dance. The program went from 1:30pm to midnight on the first day, and included tableau by members of the Concordia Gymnastic Society, songs from the United Male Singing Society, a soprano solo by Mrs Emma Foehlich, and an address by the president of the Board of Aldermen, with orchestral pieces, followed by carnival, lunch, supper and dancing. At this time, 43 German society groups routinely met at the German House. It was a hub of German American culture in St Louis. 

In December 1933, the 21st amendment officially repealed the 18th amendment, and the sale and consumption of alcohol once again became legal. In the time between abolition and ratification of the new amendment, the Cullen Harrison Act allowed the sale of beer with 3.2% alcohol content. St Louis brewers got busy immediately, and the results appeared promising.  Initial reports from the German House were cheery. Imagine a thousand thirsty patrons after midnight:

There remained, technically, a “bone-dry” state law against alcohol, but the only one that seemed concerned was the Collector of Revenue, as the Post Dispatch reported that 400,000 gallons of whisky were stored in the city, awaiting Missouri state repeal. Additionally, Anheuser Busch had staged 45,000 cases and 3000 half barrels for shipment. The city prosecuting attorney said he would “view any violations of the state bone-dry act with an even more liberal attitude than I had previously assumed”. The judge of the Court of Criminal Corrections went one better by adding, “I absolutely will discharge every person coming before me with liquor law violation. I refuse to allow any citizen to be penalized because of the negligent governor and legislature.” Indeed, the Volstead Act in general had long been proven unenforceable, and speakeasies thrived during the 13 year dry period. With repeal, the federal government was able to shift a tax burden of $212 million onto legalized liquor, which provided some stimulus to the economy. 

On April 7th, at 12:01 a.m., the taps again flowed, and peace reigned throughout the land. 

Scene at the Hotel Jefferson downtown, just past midnight on April 7, 1933. 

Thirteen dry years had caused significant collateral damage to the local beerscape, as the number of brewers, even after extensive consolidation by Busch, Lemp and Griesedieck, declined from twenty to eight. It was the beginning of the mega breweries.  

Business, though slow, returned to the German House Rathskeller. This ad from 1934 is an open invitation for everyone who wishes a meal or a party to inquire within. The merchants lunch was a popular offering of many restaurants of the day, with inexpensive food tempting businessmen to enjoy a more profitable drink or two before returning to the grind. 

Upstairs, German leagues, or bunds met, in addition to local labor and fraternal orders. In 1935, the Order of Eagles initiated 500 new members there, and the Princeton Triangle Club staged its 44th presentation of “Fiesta”, a musical drama with “dancing between intermissions and after the performance”.

In 1936, the German House celebrated its sixth anniversary with the “native dances and national songs”of the New Bavarians. It was emphasized that this was their first appearance in St Louis, and that the band was composed of union musicians. Looks like the “Up With People” of its day. Oben Mit Menschen seems a little off for a name, so New Bavarians it is:

 

 And who could resist the Schuhplattler and yodeling of this “big dance”. Schuhplattler? Grab your lederhosen and practice along with this timely video:

https://vimeo.com/53494877

The ladies were part of the scene as well. The Missouri Pacific Women’s Club hosted a late harvest dance in November 1936, transforming the German House “to a barn-like setting”. A five month old Boston Terrier named Flash Agains Regard owned by Mrs. F. R. Walton won a competition among 34 puppies at the Boston Terrier Show in January 1938. Sometimes, the ladies were part of the draw. In early 1940, Elmer Diehl, the German House manager promised in a “startling announcement”, two gala floor shows, ten all-star acts and fifty beautiful girls.” Admission was 35 cents. 

Note the “DH” above the stage. It stood for Deutsche Haus, or German House.

The picture above, from the 1930s and courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, provides a remarkable glimpse at how the main stage appeared during the run of a play. This can be clicked on and enlarged for a good look, but you can see at a glance the unusual mixing of German and Native American cultures with what looks like a few Revolutionary War era soldiers, all against a backdrop of the Tyrolean Alps. That’s entertainment!

Alas, any sense of the German House pulling through the Great Depression on a song and a merchants lunch was obscured by the gathering pall from events back in the old country. Conflating German Americans with the Germany that a lot of the world went to war with in 1914 still caused friction in the 1930s. This was exacerbated by the push and pull of Nazi vs Communist, and labor vs management, amid the growing appearance that capitalism was shaky  and maybe failing. Factions formed, and there was a lot of ruckus, even in St. Louis.

In February of 1933, while Communists and Nazis, among others, vied for political power in Germany, fire destroyed the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin. Hitler had been sworn in as chancellor just a month earlier, in an attempt to form some viable government other than Communist. He used this event to consolidate power in Germany. Communists were blamed, and something akin to martial law was declared. A Communist round up began, including those just elected to government seats in the Reichstag. Reverberations were felt in America, and at the German House. In 1933, most Americans, indeed most Germans, were unsure of what Hitler intended, and it might have seemed benign enough to go along with his animated rhetoric, if the alternative was a Communist influenced one. The Communist party in America was then closely associated with labor walkouts and strikes, and largely blamed for the wave of anarchist activity of the early 1900s. After its defeat in World War I led to loss of territory and years of reparations, a deep economic slump dogged Germany. The promise by Hitler of a new Germany looked to many like a sunrise for the old homeland. So there was a pro-Nazi faction in St Louis, and empathy, if not outright enthusiasm for it at the German House.  

In April 1934, a meeting of approximately 300 Hitler government supporters at the German House was repeatedly interrupted by heckling. Police were called in to remove the instigators, but they lingered in the hallways, shaking fists at the attendees attempting to leave after the event. The Friends of the New Germany then planned another meeting for the following week, and an observance of Hitler’s birthday later in the month. 

in September 1937, an anti-Nazi group was barred from gathering at the German House, after complaints from the Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, an American pro-Nazi organization. Rent had been paid in advance, but the group was turned away at the door. The group then grudgingly crossed the street and held their meeting at Jeffla Hall. The speaker assailed fascism and the Volksbund, which he said had 30,000 members in the U.S. A resolution developed at this meeting that an anti-Nazi society should be formed. Speaker Fritz Frandt was quoted as saying, “It won’t do us any good just to talk, we’ve got to do something about it”. 

The management of the German House held an unenviable position in all this, as they were trying to walk a tightrope between their German orientation and the need to run a business during dire economic times.  Nevertheless, fairness seemed to dictate that they not be put into a position of political favoritism,  so they also barred the next pro-Nazi Volksbund meeting. The C.I.O. Industrial Union Council had passed a resolution to avoid anything to do with the German House due to a pending pro-Nazi convention. There was, read the resolution, “considerable agitation about the convention, and this has been gradually directed at the German House also”. The board concluded that, despite the German House’s commitment to free speech and allowing any German group use of the facilities, the barring was “in the best interest of all parties”. 

Seeking some acceptable middle ground, the German House announced the only U.S. showing of highlights from the 1937 Berlin Olympics:

 

Avoiding an extended run most likely minimized chances the movie would incite protest and confrontation. The building itself was becoming a lightning rod for the increasingly partisan sentiments of the community. Speakers would be banned, or appear and get heckled as protesters shouted outside the facility. The stories of various movement sympathizers and apologists, as well as outright instigators being banned or allowed at German House was a frequent topic in the St Louis Post Dispatch and Star-Times in the late 1930’s. 

Well, the storm clouds gathered, but we know the structure survives to this day, so it somehow muddled its way through the tough days leading up to another war. There are many good stories between 1937 and now, so stay tuned. We’ll pick this up again in another installment, and share the tales of other lives for this cool building. 

Note: I made reference to both the Union Club and Jeffla Hall as being opposite the German House, Each refers to the same building, at 2354 Lafayette Avenue. It was originally erected in 1893, and wrecked by the great tornado three years later. Quickly rebuilt, it then contained 23 offices, six meeting halls, and an auditorium that could seat 3000. It was used by the Liederkranz Club till 1914, when it was sold to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In 1934 it was sold at foreclosure, for $30,000, and then in 1938 to the A.F.L. Waitresses Union, which changed the name to Jeffla Hall. I suppose the alternative was Lafferson Hall, which would have been a good name for a vaudeville theater. It again sold in 1946, and continued to host union meetings, dog shows, magic acts, and travel presentations until it burned in May, 1955. It was then razed.

https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/volstead-act

https://www.stltoday.com/business/local/a-good-time-for-a-beer-years-after-the-end/article_239d4e16-54b3-11e0-933a-00127992bc8b.html Jeremiah McWilliams April 6 2018

Population data from Anzeiger Des Westens, October 21, 1858, from St Louis census of 1858. 

The German Settlement Of St Louis; Ernst Stadler; MidContinent American Studies; Spring, 1965

USA Diplomatic Mission To Germany; https://usa.usembassy.de/garelations8300.htm

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