Grand Center: Celebrating 30 Years of the Arts and Civic Leadership
We’ve recently completed a commemorative book on the history of Grand Center, Inc. If you would like to learn more about Grand Center, Inc. and our history, you can find Grand Center: Celebrating 30 Years of the Arts and Civic Leadership at the St. Louis County Library.
In the late 1800’s, the population of St. Louis begins moving west of Downtown, developing Grand Blvd. into a major thoroughfare that eventually leads to notable institutional addresses, such as Tower Grove Park, Shaw’s Garden, Saint Louis University and the area that is now known as Grand Center.
- Elegant mansions are built along and around Grand Blvd.
- Medical services and hospitals are developed in the neighborhood.
- Social and fraternal organizations build headquarters in the area.
- So many churches are built, the area became known as Piety Hill.
In the early 1900’s, theater and vaudeville houses are built, creating the basis for an indelible entertainment legacy in the district.
- Early in the century, five theater houses featuring both vaudeville shows and early motion pictures are built: Odeon (1904), Princess (1912), Victoria (1917), Grand Central (1913) and the Empress (1913).
- A stage set quality evolves along Grand with the creation of more ornate and decorated applied facades of the buildings, leaving the backs and sides of the buildings plain and creating a “stage” and “back stage” effect in the neighborhood.
- The area becomes known as the “great white way” due to all of the signature neon signs that light up the theaters.
Despite the Great Depression and World War II, the area continues to thrive.
- Grand Center becomes a hub for public transportation and a stop on major streetcar and bus routes.
- Major studio houses build or control large movie “palaces” in Grand Center that show “first run” movies — Three are built between 1922 and 1929 including the Missouri Theatre (1921); St. Louis Theatre (1926) and the Fox Theatre (1929).
Beginning in the 1950’s and continuing for close to 30 years, the area declines, as populations move to the suburbs, automobiles become the preferred method of transportation, theaters shut their doors and office and residential buildings become abandoned. Once known as a destination for those seeking the best in arts and entertainment, the area becomes desolate and a faded memory of grandeur.
- One of the few bright spots during this time occurs when the St. Louis Symphony Society purchases the former St. Louis Theatre, completes an elegant renovation and moves into its new home, renamed Powell Hall, in 1968. Powell Hall is the home of the St. Louis Symphony, which was founded in 1880, and is the second oldest orchestra in the nation.
In 1980, civic leaders launch a revitalization plan to begin to restore Grand Center to its former glory.
- Led by Fr. Paul Reinert, S.J. and Saint Louis University, along with Third Baptist Church, the Urban League, the Scottish Rite, local businessmen and two banks, the City Center Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC) is formed in 1981 to revitalize and redevelop an eight block area in Grand Center.
- Most of the buildings in Grand Center are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- In 1982, the area is officially branded as Grand Center.
- In September 1982, the restoration of the Fabulous Fox Theatre is completed, reopening as a Broadway show house and concert venue.
- In 1986, the Sheldon Concert Hall reopens in the acoustically-perfect former Ethical Society building (1912).
- In 1987, Grand Center, Inc. (GCI) is formed, established as a non-profit organization. GCI hires an executive director and begins the development of a plan to revitalize the district into an arts, entertainment and education district.
- In 1989, Phase I of the renovation project begins with a $2 million investment from the City of St. Louis to provide major public improvements, including new sidewalks, vintage lighting and parking facilities.
Redevelopment and restoration continues in the district.
- In 1992, GCI converts a derelict building on Grandel Square into the 470 seat Grandel Theater, home to the nationally-acclaimed Black Repertory Company.
- A critical mass of 25 arts and education organizations are established in Grand Center.
- In 1996, GCI helps to establish “Jazz at the Bistro,” both the organization (now called Jazz St. Louis) and the performance venue in Grand Center.
- Private investment begins to take place in the district.
- In 1997, GCI, along with the State, City, Saint Louis University, Jack Taylor (founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car) and Owen Development, assist in the pre-development financing of the restoration of the Continental Life Building, which reopens in 2002 with 107 apartments, three penthouses, first floor office space and a 192-car garage.
- In 1998, GCI demolishes a building and sells the property for $1 to Nine Network of Public Media (formerly KETC/Channel 9) to facilitate their move to the district.
Grand Center, Inc. accelerates the development in the district by developing financial tools to stimulate growth. The remaining architecturally significant buildings are restored and/or in development. New businesses, restaurants and residents begin to populate the district.
- In 2001, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is established and a new facility, designed by Tadao Ando, opens in Grand Center.
- In 2002, GCI, with the assistance of the City of St. Louis, creates a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. To date, $80 million in TIF financing has been re-invested in the district.
- In 2003, the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) opens a new 27,000 sq. ft. facility, designed by Brad Cloepfil.
- Cardinal Ritter College Prep opens their new facility in Grand Center in 2003, after GCI facilitated the 16.6 acre land assembly from multiple owners.
- The Centene Center for Arts & Education, an arts incubator office space for 18 non-profit arts organizations, along with master lessee, the Arts and Education Council, opens in the former Medinah Temple in 2006.
- Saint Louis University’s new Chaifetz Arena opens in 2006.
- In 2007, GCI raises $400,000 to renovate Strauss Park including new lighting, landscaping and patios for dining.
- Moto Museum opens in the former Hart Printing building in 2007 followed by the opening of Triumph Grill next door in 2008 and Moto Europa in 2011.
- The former Woolworth building is converted into the new home for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Kranzberg Arts Center in 2008.
- In 2009, GCI donates property to the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) to facilitate a new building in Grand Center that will open in 2012. The facility will serve as the home of St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 KWMU.
- In 2009, GCI secures corporate funding to install new signature neon lights on Jazz at the Bistro and Powell Hall.
- In 2010, Grand Center Arts Academy, the first visual/performing arts and academic charter school in Missouri, is established in temporary quarters in Third Baptist Church. In fall, 2011, the school relocates to the newly restored former Beaux Arts Building across from Powell Hall.
- The former Pedigo-Weber Shoe building is converted into 33 apartments with 4,000 sq. ft. of retail/restaurant space on the first floor in 2010. During the same year, the West Locust Lofts open which include 25 apartments and 1,900 sq. ft. of retail space.
- New restaurants open in 2010: KOTA Wood Fire Grill and City Diner at the Fox
- New restaurants open in 2011: Urban Chestnut Brewery, Field House and Dooley’s Beef n Brew House
- Saint Louis University’s boutique Hotel Ignacio featuring 49 rooms and two suites opens in 2011.
- A three-story, 27,000 square-foot facility housing 90.7 KWMU St. Louis Public Radio as well as academic and program space for UMSL opens in 2012
- The Metropolitan Artist Lofts opens in 2012, providing 72 residential lofts specifically for artists opens in 2012
The momentum continues with the final large redevelopment projects under way and some new neighbors on the horizon:
- 88.1 KDHX 3524 Washington Ave.
Community radio station 88.1 KDHX is moving to a new home in Grand Center in 2012. Named in honor of its long-time operations manager, the Larry J. Weir Center for Independent Media will be the home of KDHX and will feature a 125-seat music venue and café on the first floor.
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