[11 Most Endangered] Echoes of Jazz at the St. Louis Palladium Building

Posted on: July 21st, 2014 by David Robert Weible

St. Louis’ contributions to American music reveal a legacy greater and more significant than previously understood, and the Palladium is a central part of this story. Credit: Paul Sableman
St. Louis’ contributions to American music reveal a legacy greater and more significant than previously understood, and the Palladium is a central part of this story.

"There are only three things America will be remembered for 2,000 years from now -- the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball," said renowned essayist and American culture critic Gerald Early in the 1994 Ken Burns documentary Baseball. "Those are the three most beautiful things this culture’s ever created."

If his belief proves true, it’ll be an excellent legacy. And if we take the Washington University in St. Louis faculty member’s adopted hometown as an example -- with the Constitution in relative safety and the hometown Cardinals a perennial World Series contender -- it seems we’d do well by our stars to focus on jazz a little bit.

Enter the St. Louis Palladium Building.

With the demolition of Castle Ballroom, the Palladium is perhaps St. Louis’s last remaining building with a link to the city’s significant jazz history. Credit: Michael Allen
With the demolition of Castle Ballroom, the Palladium (above) is perhaps St. Louis’ last remaining building with a link to the city’s significant jazz history.

It may not look like much now, but once the 1914 structure was converted into the Plantation Club in 1940, it became the place in St. Louis to grab a gimlet and sway with some of the best jazz and swing musicians out there.

As was so often the case during that era, the joint was “whites only,” but African-American artists like Billy Eckstine, Noble Sissle and His Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Benny Carter made nightly appearances at the reportedly mob-run nightclub.

“I think [the Palladium Building] is nationally significant to the history of jazz, and so it’s obviously very important to the history of jazz in St. Louis,” says Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. “It’s basically the last building that has a strong association with an African-American musical tradition that was once very strong in the city.”

And it’s because of that importance, and the current threat to the structure, that the Palladium Building was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2014 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The VA has publicly stated that plans to demolish the building are off the table, but, according to sources, is quietly continuing to state its interest to the building’s owners. Credit: Michael Allen
The VA has publicly stated that plans to demolish the building are off the table, but, according to sources, is quietly continuing to state its interest to the building’s owners.

The building has sat vacant for longer than some people can remember, and, as a result, is suffering from deferred maintenance, general neglect, and deterioration. On top of that, it sits in one of the four (out of 28 total) wards of the city of St. Louis that are not subject to the city’s preservation ordinance, nor is it recognized as a local landmark or listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thus the Palladium Building is not protected from arbitrary demolition without historic review.

This is all not to mention a potentially more immediate threat.

Until a Section 106 review last fall that deemed the Palladium Building eligible for landmark designation, the local VA hospital was considering purchasing and demolishing the structure as part of an expansion project. Since then, the organization has publicly stated that plans to demolish the building are off the table, but, according to sources, is quietly continuing to state its interest to the building’s owners.

Making the situation more complicated is the owners’ hesitancy to sell the building outright. Though they support the idea of preserving the structure, they haven’t ruled out any potential buyers or partnerships. For their part, preservationists like the Friends of the Palladium Building group continue to advocate for the structure, while the Landmarks Association of St. Louis is attempting to connect potential developers with the owners.

In the meantime, we’ll all have to watch and wait. Whether or not Early’s prediction comes true, it’d be nice to have the Palladium Building around.

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

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