Though it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.
The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.
Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.
The Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.
Slum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.
According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)
Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.
Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.
From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.
There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).
Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
The more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.
Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.
Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013
9 responses to “Dining by gaslight”
I have an original gas light from gaslight square. Does anyone know how I can find value?
I suggest contacting an antiques dealer in St. Louis.
Die Lorelei must have been a german theme restaurant, don’t you think?
The name suggests that it was but everything in Gaslight Square was such an amalgam that I can’t be certain.
Indeed, a very nice Historical read! I’ve often wondered about that term “gaslight”. It has many meaning, i.e. in the 1944 film “Gaslight”, ing was added_ thus_”gaslighting” which describes a pattern of psychological abuse in which the victim is gradually manipulated into doubting his or her own reality, or the more obvious used here_”light produced by burning piped illuminating gas”. It was also an automobile manufactured in Detroit, Michigan by the Gaslight Motors Company from 1960-c.1961. For “Foodies” the reference to Gaslight means a real neighborhood restaurant, ornate, roomy, good food & thoroughly bourgeois (Food Lovers Guide to Boston by Harris & Lyon 2012)! And, God forbid how the “present” generation may use it! QUERY_ While NOT comparative to another closely recognized term “red-light districts”_ what is your opinion as to why these fabulous restaurants became known as “Gaslight Districts” eateries_ when the connotation of that word dating back to 1880’s suggest a foggy, mysterious, lower class, psychological abused setting in London?
Excellent question and it touches on a post I have planned for the future on the brothel style of interior that was so popular in 1960s restaurants (pre-hippie 1960s). I haven’t really thought it all out yet, but in the case of St. Louis’ Gaslight entertainment area, I have two thoughts: 1) it was largely created by people who were affected by and marginally part of the beatnik movement. So for them mysteriousness, low class status, and dubious respectability had a lot of charm; 2) the historical gaslight era was seen as a key time in St. Louis history which Gaslight Square wanted to evoke, namely the decades in which paddlewheelers full of gamblers, prostitutes, and grifters were active on the Mississippi River. (So it is not associated with London or fog.) The remaining question is, of course, why all this was appealing to upscale suburbanites and business people. I would say it is the “pretend” aspect of entertainment. Hopefully I’ll have more brilliant thoughts later.
Thanks for the insight, makes sense…can’t wait to read your continuing “brilliant thoughts” on the subject matter. I’m enthralled with the writings of Jack Kerouac’s Era _”The Beatnik Generation”_ on my Summer Reading_ listed on my Blog. Read The Dharma Bums…decided to read all his work this Summer. Reading “The Subterraneans”, presently! Some of the interiors for their poetic verse venues in San Francisco….alludes to that “Brothel-like Interiors” which perhaps did morph like Kafka into gaslight eateries…Pre-Hippie…of which I’m PROUD to say I was of that Era! Great time to grow-up…lots of CHANGES!
Sounds like great summer reading!