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Commentary: Keeping The Palladium Alive

Pokey LaFarge
Glenn Hall

Right on the edge of Grand Center, at 3618 Enright, near Sweetie Pie’s, stands one of the most important parts of St. Louis music history that you need to hear about: The Palladium. The stories the building could tell future generations paint a vivid scene of St. Louis music, but the building could soon be lost forever.

Appearing on the scene in the final days of ragtime and the earliest days of the jazz age, the Palladium was host to St. Louis’ early jazz bands. Continuing into the war years, it was the Club Plantation, St. Louis’ gangster-run jazz and swing night club, like the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. From its construction in 1913 through the early 1950s, the building was associated with important musicians involved in both local and national development of dance, jazz and swing music.

So why does the Veterans’ Administration want to demolish the Palladium? The VA claims it needs the space to expand the Cochran Hospital, but it could expand on its existing site or demolish buildings that aren’t rare links to our musical heritage. Especially as St. Louis is launching the National Blues Museum, we should be preserving our remaining music history sites. Thankfully, the VA doesn't own the Palladium — yet — but representatives have told reporters that the VA wants the site.

While the Veterans Administration is planning to remove a viable historic building, Grand Center is about to reopen the long-vacant Sun Theater one block south. The Missouri Theater building, recently home of the Department of Health, will follow with a multi-million-dollar renovation slated to start in this new year. Tearing down the Palladium while Grand Center is bouncing back to life makes no sense.

The archway on the north side of the building may be faded, but it reads “Palladium,” loud and clear. That entrance first led to a popular roller-skating rink, but by 1940 the building became the famous Plantation Club. The Plantation offered the best working conditions and wages for African-American musicians and a stage that showcased some of the 20th century’s finest black musicians.

The Palladium Building today
Credit Preservation Research Office
The Palladium Building today

The renowned Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, a local band that included Harry “Sweets” Edison and Clark Terry, was often the house band. The list of guest artists reads like a who’s who: Jimmie Lunceford, the Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, George Hudson played in conjunction with national dance acts and floor shows.

Music history flowed among the dancers on the floor. Jeter-Pillars Orchestra hired bassist Jimmy Blanton and guitarist Charlie Christian. In 1939, Duke Ellington dropped by the club and hired away Blanton who, more than anyone else in jazz, made the string bass a solo instrument. In September 1939, record producer John Hammond heard Christian playing with the Jeter-Pillars band and recommended him to Benny Goodman. Popular St. Louis bandleader Eddie Johnson talked about playing the Club Plantation alongside McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fate Marable, Ellington and others.

Club Plantation
Credit Provided by Preservation Research Office

The stories about what happened inside of the Palladium could go on and on — but not if the Veteran’s Administration uses our tax dollars to erase them. Alongside the cultural expressions seen and heard around Grand Center today, we should honor those that came long ago by finding a new life for the Palladium.

So I ask Marlene Davis, the citizens of Ward 19 and the citizens of St. Louis at large. What do we want to be remembered for? Do we want to be responsible for passing our history on to future generations? Or do we want to be to blamed for erasing it? Once you take it away you'll never get it back. So remember that, when you tear down a piece of our history, you're also risking losing your identity.

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