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Showing off our crowning glories

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2012 - Ted Pettus, one of my oldest, best and most talented friends, was in town this weekend with his splendid new family in tow, and he was eager to show them the place where he grew up and of which he has fond memories. Although he bailed out on us years ago, and has lived in New York for decades, he nevertheless is a proud St. Louisan and a member of a family with deep roots in the soil and the culture of the region.

He was interested in an urban St. Louis refresher for himself and an introduction to his home town for his wife, Lisa Wolfson, and her daughter, Francesca Hess, 14. Because this was to be a quick trip, we hit the high spots, all of which were influenced entirely, of course, by my cultural and culinary preferences.

We started out in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood, home to some of the most appealing housing stock in the city. It was well on the way to bottoming out when my friend went East to school and never really came back. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Pantheon Corp., led by the late Leon Strauss, initiated a massive and quite successful redevelopment effort that has proved sustainable. One of its current glories is the home of America's best butterscotch pudding -- Atlas Restaurant on Pershing in the heart of DeBaliviere Place. Atlas was the first stop on our bricks and butter tour.

On Saturday, we continued the visit in Grand Center. There we saw the "Reflections of the Buddha" exhibit in the Pulitzer Foundation building. From that extraordinary sublimity, we progressed to the exuberance and magic of the Judy Pfaff show across the street at the Bruno David Gallery. The Pfaff show, in turn, provided a riotous visual bridge to the City Museum, where flux is king and the more things change the more they very much are not the same. 

To put a cherry on top of the Saturday sundae, we went to Crown Candy Kitchen, peerless, as far as I am concerned, in the American soda fountain tradition.

From Crown's corner, 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue, you can see the Arch, and we headed there from Old North, travelling south on Broadway, eventually picking up Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, the better to pass directly through one of the muscular arches holding up the Eads Bridge on the Missouri side of the river. The bridge, so important and monumental in its aesthetics and its engineering, is a noble companion to its neighbor, Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch. Both broke ground in their modernity. Both refer back to our relationship with Rome.

Sunday was Lisa's, Chesca's and Ted's departure day, and we had an entirely satisfying brunch at Cafe Osage. That superstar restaurant is tucked scrumptiously in the midst of the Bowood Farms garden center, a commercial venture with an educational component that demonstrates how, when a well-planned, well-financed venture takes root (no pun intended) an entire neighborhood takes on added luster and value. The lessons to be learned from the Bowood Farms development are significant and compelling.

From Bowood/Osage, the tour headed downtown for a magnificent finale, wandering through Citygarden, which once again proved spellbinding in its beauty and its visual and botanical responses to all seasons. The Wainwright Building, Louis Henri Sullivan's great architectural gift not only to St. Louis but also to history, is across the street. Paying homage to it is a cultural obligation as well as a thrill.

Thus, in the space of 36 hours, our visitors could see five of America's greatest architectural landmarks: the Pulitzer, Eads Bridge, the Arch, Citygarden and the Wainwright Building. Sometimes it seems almost too much to absorb. And so it is; we are so fortunate that way, owning this embarrassment of riches. Whenever the griping about St. Louis starts heating up, it is appropriate and responsible to reckon with what we have - and what we must protect. We need to sell that observation to ourselves as to visitors.

Thus, an aside:

As much as I love showing visitors our rich above-ground legacy, I wish I could show them, without having to go jump through a series of hoops, our underground world, and I don't mean the old Cuckoo Gang headquarters.

In addition to, and resting beneath natural and built resources of St. Louis, there is a treasure of subterranean spaces, once put to good use for commerce and for entertainment. Caves were important to the brewing industry here, and thus of significance to the early economic development of the city, because these natural refrigerators provided brewers near-ideal temperatures for storing their beer. The caves also provided cool refuges for a population suffering from the punishing heat of St. Louis summers.

The grandpappy of all of these gathering places was Uhrig's Cave, which first was used in the mid-19th century as a lagering and storage facility for the Camp Springs Brewery and eventually became a major entertainment complex, combining an auditorium and a beer garden, with components of it below ground and at grade. The cave is beneath what is now the intersection of Washington and Jefferson avenues, and every time I walk or ride over that particular patch of asphalt I think of what the mystery land beneath must have looked like then, and wonder what remains down there now.

When access to the cave was filled in early in the 20th century, and the old Coliseum was built on the site, Uhrig's Cave became an exotic underground memory, existing in its magnificent emptiness under Jefferson Avenue, tantalizing those of us who find the St. Louis cave systems a subject of fascination.

There is one above-ground successor to Uhrig's Cave, however, a building at 2839-45 Olive Street in Midtown, a few blocks east of the Beacon's office. In 1908, the year Uhrig's Cave ceased to be accessible, Cave Hall opened in the Olive Street building as a dance hall and dancing school, and like Uhrig's Cave it continued to operate under a series of owners. The Uhrig's Cave Orchestra was on the bandstand when it opened. It was called first the Cave Ballroom and eventually became the Castle Ballroom and finally was the Mocambo, which lasted for three years in the early 1950s. The hall has been closed since.

The Landmarks Association of St. Louis hopes the music has been simply suspended, not stopped forever, and that new life will be breathed into the Castle Ballroom. To help that effort along, the organization has organized tours of the Castle Ballroom for the public. The second of them is Saturday afternoon, Feb. 4, at 1 o'clock, and Landmark's new director, Andrew Weil, said a few places remain. Fair warning: No heat. Hot chocolate is part of the ticket price ($10 for members and $15 for non-members), but if the weather is chilly you're advised to dress warmly. Call 314-421-6474 to see if there is space for you on the tour's dance card so you can waltz in with the group.

The Landmarks Association provided much of the information about the caves and the ballroom for this blogpost. For more, go to http://tiny.cc/hlks2 .

Disclaimer: Beacon associate editor Robert W. Duffy is a former counselor of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.