Gaslight Square, St. Louis

Gaslight Square was a popular arts and entertainment district in the St. Louis Central West End neighborhood whose heyday ran from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s. It was a three-block area near the intersection of Olive and Boyle, a mile or so north of what’s now the Cortex District. Today, suburban-style housing stands where the clubs and shops once stood. One business with a Gaslight Square connection remains, operating nearly three miles away.

Gaslight Square was a phenomenon, a widely cited example of urban redevelopment, born of a tornado, and extinguished by a highly publicized murder. Despite its best efforts, St. Louis has never replicated it.

The beginnings of Gaslight Square, St. Louis

Gaslight Square, St. Louis
The 1890s Victorian architecture, gas lights, neon signs, and cobblestone sidewalks are frequently imitated today. But the look grew organically in Gaslight Square. A lot of old St. Louis looked like this.

The area around Olive and Boyle was home to the Musical Arts Building, a landmark that had attracted famous patrons before they were stars like Helen Traubel, Betty Grable, and Vincent Price. The location convenient to some of St. Louis’ most exclusive private streets was good for business. But the area had its ups and downs. It became a notorious red light district in the 1930s. But by the 1940s, it started changing. Artists and antique dealers moved into the area, and the long road to a cultural renaissance began. The Adams Hotel, a hotel that would let Jackie Robinson and Roy Campenella stay before hotels were as integrated as Major League Baseball, was also there.

Greenwich Corners

Gaslight Square’s start came in 1953. Dick and Paul Mutrux bought the Musical Arts Building that year, and opened a saloon called The Gaslight, from which the district eventually got its name. Al Bayou opened a restaurant/night club in 1954 called Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace, at 4255 Olive. It reintroduced Greek cuisine to St. Louis, and contributed the columns that became the area’s most frequently photographed architectural feature.

Soon, various saloons and other restaurants opened nearby. One pivotal figure was Jimmy Massucci, who opened the Golden Eagle in November 1956, and later built and opened the Vanity Fair and Cellar Door. The buildings on both sides of the street, mostly built between 1894 and 1904, had an ornate Victorian style architecture, and the business owners salvaged chandeliers, stained glass, church pews, and other details from recently demolished buildings downtown to decorate the interiors. Much of it was the work of Massucci, but he wasn’t the only practitioner.

Becoming Gaslight Square

The name Gaslight Square was first used in early 1959, after the city installed old gaslights along the sidewalks. Patrons would come, whether on their way home from work or on Friday or Saturday, and wander from place to place, often carrying a drink. All the shop owners knew each other and would meet for lunch and brainstorm, and exchange the glasses patrons had wandered off with and left at the wrong venue. Gaslight Square’s success was in the way it grew up organically. It wasn’t planned.

The tornado that started the boom

Gaslight Square, St. Louis
The music was ecclectic in Gaslight Square, but so were the restaurants. You can see the columns in front of Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace near the center of the photo, and Bella Rosa, a place offering steaks and pizza across the street.

On February 10, 1959, a tornado tore through St. Louis, damaging the arena and toppling the KTVI tower. But the worst destruction happened at Olive Street, where it intersected with Boyle. It turned the Musical Arts Building into a three-sided building, and caused similar damage to other buildings on the street.

The damage drew tremendous publicity. Sightseers came to see the damage for themselves. Most weren’t expecting to see the businesses they found peeking out of the rubble. It seemed interesting enough that many of them came back.

When the influx of insurance money arrived, the business owners knew what they wanted to do. They’d been talking about it. They rebuilt, bigger and better than ever. Arguably the glory days of Gaslight Square began before 1959, but the funds from the tornado accelerated it. Soon it was St. Louis’ biggest attraction. The St. Louis Zoo even named its rhinoceroses Olive and Boyle, in a nod to it.

What Gaslight Square was like

Gaslight Square, St. Louis
The music venues and sit-down restaurants get the glory, but lots of other establishments complemented the larger venues, including Carl’s 2-cent Plain, a New York-style deli, and this ice cream parlor. Carl’s closed in 1968, though other locations in St. Louis survived until 2005. Jack Carl was known for insulting his regulars.

Gaslight Square wasn’t the same thing to everyone. It wasn’t just an entertainment district. Contemporary newspaper accounts called it a homeland to individualists and non-conformists.

Restaurants and antique shops gave the area its start. But the nightclubs gave it its claim to fame. What people talk about today is the diversity of live music it had. There were numerous jazz  and blues clubs. But there were also venues for show tunes, folk music, and even some of that relatively new thing called rock ‘n’ roll. Duane and Gregg Allman played here before they were famous. Ike and Tina Turner did too, though they are more closely associated with the Club Imperial, further north.

Themed nightclubs

The Crystal Palace, a cabaret and theater that moved to 4240 Gaslight Square in 1957, hosted various stars before they were stars. In 1961, the Smothers Brothers opened for Barbra Streisand. Jay and Fran Landesman, its owners, had a knack for spotting talent. Other performers who graced the Crystal Palace stage included Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, and Miles Davis.

The Opera House covered its facade in croquet balls and featured Dixieland jazz. Mr. D’s was a piano bar that featured Ceil Clayton. The Roaring Twenties was a speakeasy-themed bar that included a stage show, mock raids, and staged gangster fights. The Natchez Queen resembled a riverboat with live ragtime music inside. Peyton Place specialized in serving the LGBTQ community.

O’Connell’s Irish Pub was a traditional Irish pub, serving drinks and originally with two items on the menu, hamburgers and London Broil. It opened relatively late, in 1962, but is notable for providing a model for how Gaslight Square could have survived multiple generations rather than fading out.

In its heyday, Gaslight Square could attract a crowd of 10,000-20,000 people within its three-block stretch on a Friday or Saturday night. Patrick Schneider, the preservationist who tried to save the buildings starting in 1987, describes it as being like New Year’s Eve every night.

The bullet that was the beginning of the end

On the evening of December 30, 1964, 62-year-old Lillian Heller, a legal secretary and artist, was returning home from work. In the vestibule of Cumberland Apartments at 4254 Gaslight Square where she lived, she encountered George Henry Taylor, 23, who shot her in the chest at close range and robbed her. A neighbor heard her cries for help and found her at the bottom of the stairway. She died soon after. Taylor was convicted Oct 6, 1966 of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Violent crime was rare in the immediate three-block area of Gaslight Square. There were purse snatchings and car break-ins, of course, but the area was so busy it tended to deter violent crime. But the Heller murder was front page news the next morning. After that, any crime committed anywhere near Gaslight Square became big news and pinned on the area, even if it didn’t actually happen inside Gaslight Square. Even in 1964, fear of “downtown” was present, and the square was near the now-infamous Delmar Divide, so it didn’t take much to scare the suburbanites away.

There were signs even before the Heller murder that Gaslight Square was starting to lose momentum. As early as 1961, the pioneers of Gaslight Square were expressing concerns that it was overextending itself. Jimmy Massucci left later that year. The Crystal Palace fell on hard times after its bartender, Jack O’Neill, died in the spring of 1964. It closed later that year.

Others followed. Marty Bronson sold his club, Marty’s, in September 1965 for $5,000. In 1964, he had been offered $60,000. The original owners of O’Connell’s sold out to their bartender, Jack Parker, in 1965. The (unsubstantiated) rumor is they sold for $1, as long as they could drink for free as long as he stayed in business.

It was around then that the discotheques moved in. In 1964, there had been one. By 1965, there were several. Venues playing pre-recorded music instead of live music took much of the character out of the district. And in 1966, racier establishments started moving in.

The End of Gaslight Square in St. Louis

Gaslight Square map
This map shows the layout of Gaslight Square around 1965. There are 34 businesses on the map. By mid-1968, only 12 remained. The buildings on the north side were demolished in 1994. The south side fell in 2001 and 2003.

The decline was steep and rapid. In April 1967, the gaslights that gave the area its atmosphere, if not its name, shut off for two months as the bills to keep them lit went unpaid. A May 1968 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted there were only 12 clubs left operating and 22 vacancies. The Musical Arts Building burned under suspicious circumstances in December 1969, and Alex Bayou, the owner of Smokey Joe’s, died in August. That provided a symbolic end, if not technically the end. KDNA, a non-commercial community radio station on 102.5 FM, began broadcasting from Gaslight Square in February 1969 out of the old Islander restaurant at 4285 Olive. O’Connell’s Pub stayed at 454 Boyle in the square until 1972, when it moved to its present location at Kingshighway and Shaw. KDNA shut down in 1972.

Some people end the story at 1972, but that’s not quite fair. The Palace Lounge operated from at least 1973 to 1975, at 4243 Olive in the space that had been the Tiger’s Den, Gilded Cage, and 20 Grand clubs. The Adams Hotel changed ownership several times over the years but survived at least until 1975. It burned in 1978. Peyton Place shut down sometime between 1972 and 1974.

The final ember of Gaslight Square

It’s unclear when Luther Bonds purchased the building at 4239 to 4271 Olive, but he owned the building and operated the Prestige Lounge out of the former Smokey Joe’s space from 1978 until his death in 1990. The earliest reference I can find to it dates to a June 1982 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that stated that Gaslight Square was entirely vacant except for the Prestige Lounge and an apartment unit above it.

Bonds died without a will, so his estate was tied up in probate. In 1991, the city seized the building for nonpayment of property taxes.

O’Connell’s is the last business still operating with a connection to Gaslight Square.

Aftermath

Although there were holdouts, the square sat mostly vacant for three decades. Various plans to restore it, whether as an entertainment district or as a mixed-use area never went anywhere. Local preservationist Patrick Schneider began efforts in 1987 to protect and restore the buildings, but was never able to find the capital. He kept the buildings painted and chased away troublemakers, but had few options to stop the buildings from being demolished. Getting the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places might have helped, but the buildings were in too much disrepair to be eligible.

The last remaining buildings on the north side of Olive were demolished in 1994. The remaining buildings on the south side of Olive were demolished in 2001 and 2003.

Gaslight Square has been the subject of two books: Gaslight Square Illuminated, by Rich Fuegner and David Roth, two St. Louis natives who frequented the spot in its heyday; and Gaslight Square: An Oral History, by longtime Riverfront Times writer Thomas Crone.

Gaslight Square, St. Louis today

Gaslight Square, St. Louis
This engraving stands at the intersection of Boyle and Olive, at the heart of what used to be Gaslight Square, flanked by three columns.

There were plenty of advocates for preserving Gaslight Square in some form and reusing it, but as the years went on, the cost of doing so increased dramatically.

There was precedent for redeveloping what remained of Gaslight Square in place, in the form of Crown Square, in north St. Louis across from Crown Candy Kitchen. And an empty two-story storefront just a block or so west of Gaslight Square was converted into two large townhomes.

Only one building from the old Gaslight Square survives, the former Selkirk auction house at the southeast corner of Olive and Whittier. Once the Gaslight Square area was cleared, 9 homebuilders built modern residences on the site. A couple of markers on either end of Olive commemorate the history, including three columns. It’s unclear whether those were salvaged from outside Smokey Joe’s or are replicas. A few patches of cobblestone left in the street to serve as crosswalks and imitation gaslights add some atmosphere, but that’s all that distinguishes it from any other gentrification project.

O’Connell’s survives about two and a half miles south of Gaslight Square, still serving the same kind of fare and selling antiques on the second level. Parker explained that he started looking for a new location sometime around 1970, and unlike most of his former neighbors, his pub was all he had. Parker remained involved with O’Connell’s until his death in June 2020.

That insight from Parker explains why Gaslight Square couldn’t last forever. When times were good, there was every reason to stay. But when the press and public sentiment turned against it, most of the people who made Gaslight Square happen had other options.

Why Gaslight Square failed

Why Gaslight Square burned out is a complicated question. Just like there’s no definite beginning or end to it, multiple factors played into its demise.

Jack Parker, as the last proprietor from Gaslight Square’s glory days to leave and the owner of the last surviving business, got asked the question a lot. I think he knew the answer, but I’m not sure he knew he knew the answer, and he was too humble to say it.

Crime

Certainly the crime and rumors of crime played a big role. Fear is a huge motivator. St. Louis radio personality Ron Elz, in an interview with Kate Godfrey in the March 17, 1993 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said Gaslight Square became too popular, and it cut into the hotels’ lounge and dinner club business. So hotel owners pressured cab drivers to spread rumors that Gaslight Square wasn’t safe. The press picked up on the rumors, he said, and it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. When you read crime stories from the early 60s, the proximity to Gaslight Square frequently got mentioned.

Of course, every crime that could be pinned on Gaslight Square sold newspapers, but it was a short term gain with long term consequences. “Women in Gaslight Square Afraid to Keep Shop Doors Open” read one 1965 headline.

Crime wasn’t the only problem, but it certainly opened the door.

Greed

Greed is another factor that people who frequented the area bring up. The thirst for ever bigger crowds led to decisions and tenants that eventually caused Gaslight Square to self destruct. The Gaslight Square of 1960 was something that can’t happen just anywhere. It was an eclectic atmosphere that attracted interesting people, and the businesses there complemented one another, rather than directly competing with one another. Indeed, in a August 6, 1961 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about the future of Gaslight Square, Paul Mutrux pointed out the dangers of not planning, opening bars without regard for adequate parking, and not giving something unique.

The owners of the buildings forced out antique stores to make way for bars, because that increased property values. But there was nothing special about the venues that opened after 1965 or so. The post-1965 venues can happen anywhere that local ordinances allow it, and they competed directly with one another, all trying to be the destination rather than encouraging patrons to visit more than one place in a visit and stay longer. They pushed out the kinds of places that could thrive only in a place like Gaslight Square, and then when they moved on, there wasn’t much to replace them.

“Owners of the buildings don’t like antique shops because they don’t physically improve the property. A bar renovates the building. But if the area has only bars and night clubs, its future will be shaky,” said art gallery owner Jim Miller in that August 6, 1961 article. His words proved prophetic.

This was, once again, a case of shortsightedness causing a long-term loss. A few of the bars converted back to antique stores after they closed, but by the mid 1970s, the antique shops were gone too.

“Greed was the biggest factor,” Massucci told the Post-Dispatch in 1970. “You could go out there, spend four or five bucks and have an enjoyable evening. Then, when we started getting all the publicity… they started putting in two-drink minimums and admissions charges, and trying to figure out gimmicks to get all those people in off the sidewalks.”

Changing times

And at mid-decade, the times were changing. A new generation was coming of age and they were interested in different things. Gaslight Square thrived by appealing to Beatniks, the ’50s counterculture. But rather than transitioning to Hippie 60’s counterculture, it tried to go mainstream. And mainstream can happen anywhere. So instead of Hippies replacing the Beatniks, the owners were complaining by 1966 that the Beatniks had been replaced with rowdies.

To survive for the long haul, a place like Gaslight Square would need to reinvent itself every generation. More specifically, it would need to reinvent itself for each generation’s counterculture, to maintain that core it needed. Since the appeal was offering something different and interesting, there would have been a place for the previous generation’s counterculture too, but maintaining that cycle would have been key.

Other options

Ultimately, the reason these other problems weren’t solved was because the key people who made it happen could move on. When they did, all that was left was memories and empty buildings. Jay and Fran Landesman could have turned the Crystal Palace into a place like New York’s famed CBGB. They had the ability. But they had other options. So did the Mutrux brothers and Jimmy Massucci. Massucci went on to build a place in Chicago called The Second City. You might have heard of it. His final club was Cafe Louie, one of the first clubs on Laclede’s Landing. Sam Dietsch, the owner of several clubs, opened a club in San Francisco.

Ultimately, I think Gaslight Square in St. Louis failed because it was too reliant on talented rich people like the Landesmans, and there weren’t enough talented people of lesser means like Jack Parker to keep it going when people like the Landesmans, Mustruxes, and Massucci lost interest.

Parker was a bit player until 1965. He lived in the square and tended bar, first at The Opera House, and then at O’Connell’s. Then in 1965 he ended up owning O’Connell’s. He wasn’t the type who would start a nationally known movement like Gaslight Square became. But he was the ideal type of person to keep one going. Jack Parker didn’t have the ego to say it out loud, if the thought ever crossed his mind. But ultimately, Gaslight Square failed because it didn’t have enough people like Jack Parker.

And that’s not something you can plan. Like Gaslight Square itself, it has to happen organically.

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