Monday, February 22, 2010

The New New Old Rock House

Something amazing is happening in St Louis. Within the past few months we've gone from a city that many of the hottest bands seemingly avoid at all costs, to an unfettered hotbed of scheduled live shows. Now before you start checking TicketMaster for that Color Me Badd reunion tour you've been pining for, let's set some guidelines on what constitutes a "hot" band. First of all, I must like them. I mean, if I didn't this would be the worlds second most boring post right after this actual post. Secondly, they must have some sort of Independent Music buzz - the kind of bands that sell out small to mid-range venues like the Metro in Chicago. Thirdly, they can't be Jay-Z. You see, these aren't the types of bands you'd hear on the radio. Occasionally you'll catch one on Letterman, making their television debut, but they get most of their exposure from webmag's like Pitchfork and by general word-of-mouth.
Anyway, St. Louis often gets skipped by these types of bands. Two of the reasons are that so few people live downtown where most of the venues (Off Broadway, The Firebird) are located, that it's hard to bid on a popular band fearing a low draw. And, second, much of these band's target audience live in college towns. Sure, both Wash U and SLU pull in some great shows, but not the caliber or draw power of a band like, say, Midlake. Well, suddenly, that's all changed. There is a new venue muscling it's way onto the scene and it's name is Old Rock House (ORH).
It began with We Were Promised Jetpacks (WWPJ), a band all the way from Scotland, who's debut album was a real highlight for me last year. I kept searching the computer screen for some venue name that wasn't Old Rock House, but sure enough, on March 15, that is where they are playing. I thought it was an odd choice for WWPJ, but I'd enjoy seeing a band in a different venue. After all, I'd had drinks at ORH before and I found it to be an enjoyable experience. Then came a shocker...
Frightened Rabbit! A band (also coincidentally from Scotland) that is responsible for one of my fave albums of the past 5 years was playing in St Louis. And they were playing at ORH!?!? Frightened Rabbit had, just a year ago, shut me out from two shows in Chicago which sold out almost as quickly as they went on sale and now they were playing at a place that I recently considered "just a bar." It didn't stop there. Not long after that, the aforementioned and well regarded Texas Indie band, Midlake, booked there. Suddenly I realized what I was dealing with here is a NEW Old Rock House.
And that's where my boring music rant takes an interesting turn... Apparently, this new Old Rock House is new in another way too. Yes, there was originally another and very famous Old Rock House that previously stood near what is now the stairs going up from the river to the Arch. This older Old Rock House was one of the original stone buildings in St Louis. Built in 1818 out of rubble-stone by Manuel Lisa, the Old Rock House was originally a fur trade post at the corner of Chestnut and the river levy. It's most famous, however, for being the absolute best place on the Mississippi river to get a hangover and probably a few STD's.
In 1880 Old Rock House was turned into a saloon where one could enjoy a nice Ramos Gin Fizz with anyone from the riverboat captains to Mark Twain himself. It was a favorite of millionaires and warehouse workers alike. At some point during this time a mansard roof was added which gave it, as you can see in the pictures, a very unique, dare I say, awesomely ugly design. This addition gave the owners enough room to let their patrons rent a bed for the night, presumably so as not to drink and ride horseback.
Of course, the original old neighborhood fell on hard times as Mark Twain and horses were replaced by Ryan Seacrest and trains. With city planners looking for a way to clear an area they thought was a blight, plans for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial were drafted. Land and old buildings were soon bought up for clearing and demolition. Only three buildings were to be saved - the Old Cathedral, the Old Courthouse and, yes, the Old Rock House. I assume back then the first two were just called "Cathedral" and "Courthouse," otherwise, it seems to me it would be ridiculously easy to save your building by adding "Old" to the front of the name. Interestingly, it was reported that Franklin Roosevelt himself requested that the Old Rock House be saved. I knew that guy could party.
It wasn't until 1947 that submissions were taken for what the memorial itself would be. All the committee members agreed that Eero Saarinen, indeed, had the coolest name and should be awarded first place. Luckily, he had designed what we now know as the Arch. "But wait a second... I've been to St Louis and seen the Old Courthouse and Old Cathedral, but there is no Old Rock House on the Arch grounds." Yeah, well that's not the only thing that was supposed to be on the Arch Grounds... See Saarinen's 2nd draft below.
There are all sorts of things on this drawing that aren't on the Arch grounds; Frontier Village, Tea Pavilion, restaurants, even a TJ Maxx if I'm reading that map right. And what's that? Yep, the original design called for the Old Rock House to be the entrance into the Arch. Pretty sweet if you ask me. Unfortunately, as plans to begin construction edged closer, another issue appeared - Old Man Railroad (not be confused with buildings starting with "Old" referenced earlier in this post). At the time the country still relied heavily on railroads and the Old Rock House stood right in the path of least resistance. Congress refused to grant the building funds until the issue was resolved and boom went the dynamite.
Well, not literally. Actually the Old Rock House was dismantled with the promise of rebuilding at another site. The public, satisfied with getting a brand new shiny Arch, never questioned it and, slowly, it's memory faded. In 1965 an article ran reporting that more than half of the presumably stored Old Rock House was missing. Project leaders thought that only the original parts of the building were worth saving so they discarded anything that was added on in subsequent years. Pile on the fact that reconstruction was never budgeted and you have a recipe for Old Rock House failure.
As for where pieces of the Old Rock House now rest, there are apparently a few stones stored openly in the Old Courthouse, but after that there isn't much to go on. It's likely lost forever. Or is it???
Well, yes, it is. But now there's the New Old Rock House. Or, wait, the New New Old Rock House (NNORH). While I'm sure the owners of the NNORH probably use the name as a tribute to St Louis' drinking establishment past, I'm surprised not to find any history on their website about the original bar. I think that's bullshit... Ahhh, who am I kidding. I can't stay mad at you NNORH. You're making my band seeing dreams come true and I couldn't be happier to be seeing them in a place I'll try to pretend has a bed I can't rent upstairs.
Before this post ends, I'd like to to touch on all the historic building stock St Louis lost to the Arch grounds. Block upon block was razed with the Eads Bridge the only thing saving Laclede's Landing from a similar fate. Imagine a whole riverfront neighborhood with original cobblestone streets like the Landing. I imagine it would remind people a bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans. While the Arch may define us as a city, I can't help but consider the cost. Check out these sites for pictures and information about the Old Rock House and this lost part of the city. I gathered all of my info there.
Coincidentally, this year marks an impasse for the monument. Poor original design of the interstate system has cut downtown off from the Arch and Mississippi River for decades and the park surrounding the Arch is rarely used. After years of public input there is a new competition taking place to design a new park around the base of the monument that matches the Arch's grandeur. As designs are being slowly whittled down, there has been no word yet on what the best include, but most interested community members are hoping for a connection with downtown again. Completion of the project is due in 2015. Damn it, I hate when my posts get all serious.


ahd said...

Jim, a couple of weeks ago I saw an aging (but still awesome) Twin Cities rocker named Tim Mahoney at the Old Rock House. He told the crowd that he learned before his show started that Mark Twain used to own the building, and I am pretty sure he was serious!

Courtney said...

I love this post!!! Really interesting stuff. I can't believe the Old Rock House was on the original Arch plans. As the entrance. Oh, and guess what I clicked on ALL the links. And guess what else. I laughed multiple times.

Unknown said...

Jim- It is bullshit that we don't have more of the history on our site. Our goal was absolutely to pay tribute to this wonderful city's colorful past. We will correct the oversight ASAP.
Great article, by the way.

Anonymous said...

This got me excited about a few things: 1. Live music in STL. 2. Live music in historical buildings (sort of) in STL. 3. Laclede's Landing. 4. That one of your readers knows Twin Cities rocker Tim Mahoney...(much less excited when I recognized AHL). Nice work!

Jim Barnthouse said...

@Tim - I'd love to know how you decided on naming your establishment, Old Rock House. You obviously knew some of the history, right?

Court said...

Man, I love this city. And I grew up here! I feel like its exploding in historgasms all the time now. I mean that in the most positive way possible while still using a made-up word containing a "gasm".

Great post, Jim. @Tim, looking forward to visiting the Old Rock House for the first time! Have you gone to see the Sheila Harris exhibit at the Old Courthouse yet: With gratuitous Old Old Rock House (OORH) action!

Holmey_STL said...

Jim, great post. By far your best yet has a little something for everyone. Great job