A Century of Gracious Living at the St. Regis
Sally S. Ward pens new book about historic CWE building
Originally published in the West End Word, Nov. 4, 2011
By Eileen P. Duggan
The party was a couple of years late, but current and former residents of the St. Regis Apartments celebrated the Central West End building’s 100th anniversary with a gathering on Sept. 25 at the Chase Hotel across the street. The participants also celebrated the release of a book, The St. Regis in St. Louis: 100 Years of Gracious Living, published by resident Sally S. Ward. The occasion also marked the 60th anniversary of the St. Regis’ conversion from rental apartments to a cooperative in 1951. It is believed to be one of only two “coop” buildings in St. Louis, sharing the designation with 801 S. Skinker Blvd. “The St. Regis was built as the most luxurious building west of New York,” said Ward, who came to St. Louis from the East Coast in 1966 with her husband, Richard, then a graduate student at Washington University. She is now retired as registrar of St. Louis University School of Medicine, and her husband is a prominent developer. “The builder got the permit in 1908, and it was ready for occupancy in spring of 1909.” The St. Regis, which has lived up to the promise of “luxury accommodations” for the past century, consists of three wings bearing the addresses 4944, 4950 and 4954 Lindell Blvd. The builder, Claude E. Vrooman, patterned many features, including doorknobs with raised St. Regis logos, after the St. Regis Hotel in New York. Each wing has eight floors, with two 2,700-square-foot apartments on each floor. Early advertisements touted the building’s “absolutely fireproof” concrete construction and separate servant’s quarters as desirable features. Monthly rents in 1909 ranged from $125 to $175. A threatened rent hike in 1920 of 50 to 75 percent riled a number of residents. By 1951, federally controlled rents were $158 to $189 per month when Vrooman, who had sold the building at one time and bought it back later, was ready to sell again. But a group of prospective buyers wanted to cut the apartments up into smaller units. Vrooman, also a resident at the time, offered to sell the building to the tenants, and 37 of them agreed to buy it for $600,000. They incorporated as St. Regis Apartments Inc. on July 2, 1951, with each unit’s tenant becoming the owner of a 1/48th share of the building. Although co-ops were routine on the East Coast, they were and still are unusual in the Midwest. Coops are regulated by state law, which guides the type of financing available and other factors. Unlike condo owners, who own only their own unit, coop members own a piece of the entire property. Each owner pays a monthly fee for maintenance, lawn care and repairs to common areas and systems. These days, St. Regis apartments sell for about $200,000 to $350,000, said realtor Paul Mittlestadt, who has handled the sale of several units. The St. Regis’ early residents, up to 1920, included high-level executives of businesses large and small, including International Shoe Co., Brown Shoe Co., Stifel-Nicolaus Investment Co. and the Sporting News Publishing Co., as well as banks, manufacturers and insurance companies. Among the past residents over the years were two St. Louis mayors. David R. Francis, mayor from 1885 to 1889 and Missouri governor from 1889 to 1893, lived in the St. Regis from 1918 to 1921. Chief promoter of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Francis went on to serve as Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland in 1916–17. John Poelker, who served as St. Louis mayor from 1973 to 1977, resided in the St. Regis from 1974 to 1980. When it opened in 1909, the St. Regis advertised that “families with one heir are welcomed.” However, after the second “stork visit,” residents were given 30 days notice to take their heirs and get out. In response, builder Simon Lederer dubbed his new 12-story apartment house at nearby Kingshighway and Parkview Place as the “Stork Apartments,” with no restrictions on children. Also banned at the St. Regis were musical instruments, phonographs and parrots. Presumably those restrictions have been lifted. Henry Palkes, a well-known local pianist who performed at the centennial party, has lived there since 1976 and had never heard of the rule, he said. Though the anti-stork rule likely lasted only a few years, the St. Regis is still popular with empty-nesters. The Wards moved there after their children were grown, and radio and television broadcaster Don Marsh and his wife, Julie, moved to the St. Regis in December to escape maintenance on their 60-year-old Webster Groves house. “I have to confess that when I see people raking or blowing leaves, it’s with a mixture of relief and perverse pleasure,” said Don Marsh, who hosts “St. Louis on the Air” on KWMU-FM. “We consider it a great move,” Marsh said. “It’s a complete lifestyle change. We love the local ambience — the restaurants, Chase movies and the diversity of the area. In a building like this, you can be as isolated as you choose, or as social as you like.” As residents own their apartments, they can do “pretty much anything they want to the unit,” Mittlestadt said. And indeed, some owners have. When Richard and Sally Ward bought their unit in 2008, they found that a closet, interior transoms and an exterior window had been covered over. In 1929, that unit and its neighbor were rented by the same owner, who later eliminated a common wall and turned them into one unit after the building became a coop. Eventually the two were split again, Sally Ward said. Ward’s research showed that only one of the building’s 48 units has never been renovated, she said. A few years ago, Ward’s next-door neighbor, Anne Cloar, presented the idea of a book, inspired by 39-year St. Regis resident Louise Jackson, and Ward volunteered to help. Later, Cloar moved to Florida, and Ward ended up taking over the project. Tom Grady, who moved out last year, found reverse directories and old phone books, so he and Ward were able to trace the ownership of each unit back to 1920 and publish the provenance in the book. For the period between 1909 and 1919, before the directories specified apartment numbers, the book lists the residents who lived at each address during those years. The St. Regis in St. Louis was published in September and includes photographs and a wealth of historical information about the city as well as the St. Regis. It is available for purchase online at http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2468601.
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