Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Life For A Former Auto Dealership in Fox Park

Walk up Jefferson Avenue, just north of Gravois in the Fox Park Neighborhood, and you may notice something new and exciting at the corner of South Jefferson and Victor Street. Most recently, the building at 2501 Jefferson housed a music club/performance space called "the Warehouse" which closed not too long ago. Per city data, 2501 Jefferson was built in 1921.

Here's an idea of what the building looked like during its "Warehouse" years.

screen capture from Google Streetview

You may not recognize the building if you looked at it today. There is a major storefront and interior renovation taking place that hearkens back to the building's days as an auto dealership for the Riefling-Vigar Automotive Company who sold Fords and later Nash Ramblers.

Frank Joseph Riefling became the president of Riefling Auto Company. He was born in St. Louis in 1877 and died in 1946. He was laid to rest in the Mount Hope Cemetery in the small town of Lemay, MO just south of St. Louis.

photo sourced from: "Find A Grave"

Per an advertisement in "The St. Louis Lumberman" from September 15, 1917, The Riefling - Vigar Automobile Company once occupied the 2333-2341 buildings along Jefferson (now a car wash and gas station/junk food shop):

And here's a billboard advertising the dealership:

But, back to 2501 Jefferson...the folks behind the current restoration are the Larson Financial Foundation (LFF), a 501(c)3 non-profit philanthropic entity under the Larson Financial Group, a financial adviser focusing on the needs of physicians.

One of the ventures of LFF was to convert this former Ford/Rambler showroom to house LFF offices as well as a cleaning company called Wellspring Cleaning (currently in Creve Coeur, MO) and a startup furniture and woodworking shop called Narrative Furniture:

Their's is a very interesting story:
"Narrative Furniture Inc. is the expression of a vision to reclaim and realize the power of story through custom furniture design and economic development. Our legacy quality furniture company is built upon the forgotten manufacturing roots of St. Louis. 
St. Louis was once a major manufacturing hub back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Whether it was beer, carburetors, bricks, shoes, or Corvettes, St. Louis made it. Unfortunately, the Great Depression and the years to follow dealt a crushing blow to our budding town. While some industries were revitalized during the 1950’s, particularly the automobile industry, manufacturing in St. Louis had long since reached its peak. 
But, we’ve got a legacy to uphold. We have planted our roots in a building that was once filled with Fords and Ramblers, in the historic Fox Park neighborhood, and we’re here to stay. We have seen the industrial spirit of our town thrive and die, and we could not be more thrilled to take part in remaking this spirit." (source)

As part of their vision, they are currently undergoing the expansive renovation of the building and a reclamation of the storefront to honor the Riefling - Vigar Auto Company history.  Here's the full story from the LFF website:
"Located on the city’s south side, South Jefferson Avenue was home to a thriving automobile industry in the first half of the 20th century. Like many of the older industries upon which St. Louis was built that have either moved on or closed down, the industry has left a number of large warehouse buildings as monuments of a previous era. One such building is located at 2501 S. Jefferson, built between 1919 and 1921 for Riefling-Vigar Automobile Co as a Ford dealership. During the post depression decades, Ford distribution was dramatically reduced in St. Louis, and Riefling-Vigar began selling and offering maintenance for the Nash Rambler automobile from the site. The building has served a number of purposes since the dealership went out of business over half a century ago, and now will serve as home base for LFF domestic initiatives in St. Louis City. 
The 2501 S. Jefferson building is located on the southeastern edge of Fox Park, a historic neighborhood on the city’s south side that has seen a massive industry exodus in the decades following the Riefling-Vigar closure. LFF desires to be a part of the revitalization that is already taking root in the neighborhood. In addition to moving its offices to the building, LFF will move its two social enterprise ventures, Wellspring Cleaning and Narrative Furniture, into the building immediately. With plans to set up a full-scale wood shop in the basement, we hope to facilitate training and employment that will impact the surrounding community for the long term. LFF also plans to work with the Facade Program, part of the St. Louis Development Corporation, to restore the building to its historic architecture and aesthetic. In addition, LFF’s work with the Facade Program will create shared work and an incubation space for social enterprise in Fox Park, which we anticipate will evoke community pride in both the history and the potential innovation that is represented. 
LFF closed on the building on August 13, 2014, has begun renovation work, and plans to move into the space in the fall of this year." (source)
To learn a little more about my new neighbors, I contacted John Peters and Andy Kim, directors of LFF to get their perspectives on the building and the work they've undertaken. They were kind enough to invite me to their offices and show me around.

The main level was the automotive showroom where cars were once driven in from street level off of Victor Street:

They exposed the original stained glass on the storefront and are keeping the amazing tile floor.

The brick walls were exposed and the fold out windows are fully functional, and in use on my visit, providing a pleasant cross breeze.

The basement is where the woodworking action will occur, with several saws, planers, etc. that will be used to create some of the most beautiful modern designs of furniture, kitchen cutting boards, succulent pots, etc. I've seen. Much of their offerings are created from reclaimed wood. More details will emerge on the work and offerings of Narrative as they approach launch and scale up of the business...right here in Fox Park. Here are some examples of their work:

photo source: Narrative Furniture

                                  photo source: Narrative Furniture

Speaking of wood, the original freight elevator still exists in the building.  It's floor, walls and grates are all made of wood and are apparently still functional and will be maintained by the latest owners to keep the historical context alive.

The second floor is the real charmer. It was designed to house John and Andy's offices as well as meeting space and practical uses like storage and restrooms.

The skylights were freed up and restored to provide a tremendous amount of natural light and the modern glass and sleek lines of the furniture and hardware chosen to accent the offices adds a tremendously good vibe to the space.

 nautical cleats formed as door handles

natural light from the restored skylights

Several relics from the automotive days were shared, including a numbering system painted on the 2nd floor which was most likely used for a parts inventory system, a section where spray painting and body work went down and an advertisements and paper weight from the Riefling-Vigor days.

Upon completion, Larson has offered their space to host neighborhood meetings and community gatherings and look forward to being part of the community and part of the city's bright future.

Here's to another historic brick building seeing a new chapter in its life, and a very intriguing and ambitious new neighborhood business in Fox Park.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bob Reuter - Tales Of A Talking Dog

I regret never meeting local musician, artist and writer Bob Reuter who died tragically on August 3, 2013 in an elevator shaft accident in a downtown loft. 

But in typical St. Louis fashion, happenstance brought a couple connections. As a teenager, I was in University City, MO at Vintage Vinyl and I made a flip purchase of one of Bob's records. When the clerk checking me out saw it, he gave me a weird, gruff stare and voiced toward the back of the store: "Hey Bob, this guy wants one of your records, should I sell it to him?" I turned around and saw the look on (who I presume was) Bob Reuter's face and he just kind of stared back at us like he was either slightly pissed or utterly disinterested. I felt like I had to justify why I was buying this record and it was memorable (albeit insignificant) and it stuck with me. As a young suburban kid from Illinois this deviance from buying music at a Camelot/Musicland mall situation proved a serious pull to the west across the Mississippi River.

The other brush with Bob was, of course, listening to his "Bob's Scratchy Records" show on KDHX. The music was typically solid off kilter stuff from Carl Perkins to Neil Young to Dick Hell. Really, it was his on-air personality that made the show standout. I've always liked the more off-centered, regionally grounded stuff that KDHX brings and Bob's show fell into that bucket...a real St. Louis original.

Fast forward to Bob's untimely death in August, 2013 when I started to read a lot of personal tributes, eulogies and kindest of words from friends/acquaintances on Facebook and other media sources saying beautifully nice things about Bob and his impact on their lives and the friendship he brought to many in the St. Louis arts and DIY/Lo-Fi community.

I wish I'd met this guy, more now than ever after having read his book "Tales of a Talking Dog" available at the Central Library at 1301 Olive Street.

The book is hard to find, but you can get one with some persistence. I'm hesitant to put the contact info on here so as not to inundate the kind soul who has helped me out with gaining copies in the past.  I will offer to give it to you if you are so inclined, just send me a note.

Here's the story on the publishing of "Tales of a Talking Dog":

Reuter's memoir of his life in St. Louis (and small towns in North County) from the 1950's up until his death in 2013 tells a sometimes tear jerking, sometimes hilarious but always unflinchingly honest recount of what it was like to be a fringe white guy coming of age in the fading industrial north St. Louis post-Civil Rights Era.  You trust his perspective and his accounts of racial stories because he always gravitated toward people who were not racist trash; he talks of befriending a black guy in his teenage years and how this had a calming effect on his life, they eventually became roommates in 1969. His stories are largely centered on his upbringing in North City, but pass through the then new suburbs in North County, west St. Louis near the DeBaliviere Neighborhood, a brief time in Syracuse, NY, and then finally settling into a bona-fide artists life in south St. Louis until his untimely death.

The book is a page-turner. A rapid, well written, zig-zag through his life...mostly with the tragically less-documented 1960-1980s St. Louis as the backdrop. If you share a deep interest and quest for understanding of how North City turned from a dense, fully operational healthy group of industrial working class/European-immigrant neighborhoods to the current state of decay and abandonment, then this book is an essential document to take in the stories and settings of the real working-class Northside. Some of Reuter's stories are foreshadowing for why white people disappeared in droves starting in the 1950s...and the bleeding of residents continues today.

He describes his upbringing in North City in great detail and usually accompanied with an occurrence either humorous or tragic enough to make a lasting impression, all the while keeping you glued to his story, always with St. Louis as the backdrop. It paints a familiar yet still distant time when white people still lived in North City is equal numbers to blacks and what it felt like to become a numerical minority as a kid in your neighborhood.

Bob's voice is one that you can't help but trust because he's so honestly portrayed himself in his youth and adult years as well. You want to hear his take on growing up in North City at 2909 Bailey Avenue in the Fairground Park Neighborhood in a violent, transitional, weird time in St. Louis' history.

You'll read first hand accounts and faded memories of a place with Arkansas 3-leg chicken and chop suey joints, hillbilly chanties "never meant to last", Southern Pentacostal Church girls in storefront churches who's dads moved north to work in paint factories by the river.

You'll hear of when North City was still integrated with whites and blacks and how one of the last remaining Catholic schools Bob attended had to chain the door from the inside during school hours and the schools with white students were forced to stagger the time they let school out so the kids would have a chance to get home before the black schools let out and the brutal beat downs would occur.

Bob describes a time in ~1966 when black people started marking their turf and how the mid-60's were becoming inhospitable for even open minded cool white people with roots in the neighborhood:

"Well, 'round about then, the black folk started moving in and marking out their new turf. Seemed like they'd move in during the winter, but you wouldn't really notice 'til it got warm out. Civil rights was heatin' up and the streets were a war zone. I kept spending more and more time at the band house down off Broadway near the river, and only touched down back home on occasion."
And then in 1969 walking home from school:
"My senior year in high school, I'd walk the two long blocks from the school to the bus stop to get home. It was the only Catholic high school on the Northside. This wasn't no place to be white, and the worst thing a teacher could do to you was keep you after school long enough to miss your bus and have to get home alone. They staggered our schedule to let us out twenty minutes before the all-Black public schools in the area, so as to limit confrontations. So this one night, there we were, a handful of white and black Catholic school guys, all just tryin' to get home. Too early for trouble...or so we thought. 
I stood there with five or six others and noticed this one sad kid, some sophomore misfit leaning 'gainst the corner lamp post alone. Then, as if out of nowhere, a black kid gang surrounded him, moving in quickly. Piranhas come to mind. 
I watched in slow motion. He was there and then not, lost in a sea of throwing black hands. Then just as suddenly, they pulled back and I saw him, now covered in blood, slide slowly down the pole to the ground. He had no facial features, just streams of blood. The boys who'd jumped him swung wildly as they fled. One hit me in the mouth as he passed. I spun, scared to death, out into the street with nowhere to run-no safe direction-just as the bus pulled up, just slowly with doors open."
Stories of when the city used to hose down the streets to wash all the trash into the sewers, and a recount of the established rules in place for swimming in Fairground Park post the horrible 1949 race riot that took place there. Stories of being strung out and living in a 17-room abandoned house just north and west of Forest Park in the hedonistic 1970s. Bob describes living among thieves and drug addicts and racists and tales of friends getting rid of old wrecked cars by driving them into the Mississippi River.

His tales of a musician and artist are equally fascinating with memories of working on the set of "White Palace" and describing the 1970s St. Louis underground rock scene when the "St. Louis Outlaw" paper was published and rocking out with the Dinosaurs, one of the first DIY bands of the time. How he was listening to Iggy Pop and the Stooges eating canned stew smeared on Wonder bread, practicing in basements in the industrial zones off Broadway by the river and "rockin' and rollin' on the lowest possible level". He describes when musicians would do popup shows on "Hippie Hill" in Forest Park by the World's Fair Pavilion.

The book also provides insight on the juxtaposition of St. Louis and neighboring suburbs in North County. The entry on page two reads:
"When I was growing up in North City, we hated anybody who lived in the suburbs. They hardly knew we were even there (you mean people LIVE down there?)."
And how living in the working class city made him an alien in the "new suburban life" out by Lambert Airport where we recounts a tale where he was dropping a friend off at his house in a then wealthy suburb after a night of drinking and needing to drain his bladder in the worst of ways. He went in to a place where he wasn't welcomed during the day, where his friend's mom called him "Icky Boy".  After a night of drinking, here's how he describes that drop off:
"So I'm in the bathroom trying to pee. I gotta go but it's hard to concentrate cause I'm blind drunk and can hear her (friends' mom) lecturing him. I'm standing there over the toilet, supporting myself with a hand on the wall, and I'm looking around at the bright red shag carpeting on the floor and the frosted glass shower doors with etched little fishes swimming 'cross wiggly waves....All of a sudden, I just get this wild hair and start pissing all over everything-the carpet, the fuzzy toilet seat cover, the frosted fishy shower doors (I never ever lived anywhere with a shower). 
When I finished, I surveyed my work and saw that it was good. I slipped out the side door and on out to the car like I'd just knocked over a gas station. The whole way home to the city, I felt this warm glow of satisfaction: I'd done what I'd done for my people, for my class...and 'cause I just figured it was the kind of thing that a guy named "Icky Boy" would probably do."
Again, the soul of the book is Bob's heartrendingly honest accounts of growing up without a dad and being raised in a place where he wasn't always welcome and had a complicated relationship with his family. Admitting to being a broken man at times, but how redemption of art and plodding through kept him going. There is an uplifting recount of a time playing the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, MO and having a cherished interaction with a kid in the audience that'll bring a tear to the eye of any dad or childless guy alike.

Then, a memorable story about one of Bob's favorite guitar players, Gene Edlen, from North County. He describes Gene's showman-like, yet legit playing and songwriting that he admired from afar as Gene and he were from different parts of town (City v County) and those folks typically "didn't mix". He tells a story about one day Gene was called for his draft physical during the Vietnam war; he showed up and proceeded to go through the motions of the physicial when he found himself standing in a line and just decided to say 'fuck all' and took off running down Market Street in nothing but his underwear and shoes to escape the draft processes. Gene became a fugitive and was laying low playing in biker bars and hanging out in North County. Gene died and here's how Reuter recounts his passing:

"So when did Gene die? I don't know, late 80s, early 90s. Go on out to the Charlack Pub and ask, they'll tell ya. 
I heard that shortly before the time of his death, he was playing 4 AM shows over on the East Side. 
How'd he die? I suspect it was written up as "death by misadventure." I didn't really know Gene. I know he at least knew who I was...but goddamn it. You can't even believe how much you're missed, brother. You did leave you mark."
Bob Reuter, I didn't really know you either, but I miss you, brother. Thanks for telling your stories in book form. As a result, we have one of the best personal accounts of the 1960s/70s St. Louis rock scene and growing up in North City in its most transitional era.