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