Monthly Archives: May 2017

Compton Hill Water Tower

There’s an old water tower across the street from the Magic Chef Mansion in St. Louis. Once there were 500 water towers in the United States.  Now there are 7.  The most famous one is in Chicago.  It has been turned into a photographic gallery.   Two of the water towers in St Louis are in questionable neighborhoods, not well-preserved, and are not available for tours.  Our Compton Hill Water Tower host discouraged Ruth and me from trying to see them beyond a drive-by.  The 3rd, Compton Hill, can be toured twice a month.

As we climbed the 198 steps to its top, John Maxwell, President of the society that preserves it, told us that it was not unusual for 300 people to show up for tours each month and that only 25 at a time are allowed inside the tower.  The volunteers accommodate as many of the 300 as they can.  I questioned John as to what % of them might be visitors to St. Louis, and he said, maybe, 5%. Later, he graciously agreed to let me use his phone number to accommodate any blog readers who are driven to see Compton Hill like we did.  314 398 2519

If you want to see the best 360º view of this city through several openable windows 179 feet above a park with an altitude already above sea level, call John.  He will tell you about the tours given on the 1st Saturday of each month and on the night of the full moon. Because this water tower is HIS long-term project, he might even give you a personal off-time tour in the morning like he did for Ruth and me.

Harvey Ellis designed this French Romanesque tower in 1893.  It was completed in 1898.  I’ll leave the technical details concerning dangerous surges in water pressure making its construction necessary to John.  I’ll also let him tell you the funny story of the Naked Truth sculpture.  I’m not being prudish.  I didn’t learn about it until much later.  The Compton Hill Water Tower was impressive enough to be a star of the still-talked-about 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and end up on the National Register of Historic Places.

Harvey Ellis was something of a misfit and rebel.  Among the reasons why he was kicked out of West Point was his failure to keep his boots shined.  Even though he was a mostly self-taught architectural designer, Ellis got many commissions.  He went to work for Stickley Furniture as a designer about the time of the World’s Fair but died 6 months later.  Years of smoking and drinking caught up with him at the age of 51.  His decorated limestone, brick, and terra-cotta water tower still stands.






St. Louis’ Different Suburbs

As they’ve grown, all major U.S. cities have absorbed nearby small towns and satellite communities into their metro areas.    St. Louis is no exception.   However, there are 2 big differences.   St. Louis city and county remain governmentally separated.  St. Louis is also largely racially separated despite some progress.  Because they’re self-governing, many suburban communities retain a lot their original characters and are worth a visitor’s time. I know this because I lived there for so many years.  St. Louis’ 2017 Official Visitors Guide and Where magazine list some of its satellites among attractions but both tend to emphasize city neighborhoods and things to do there.

Both magazines list Webster Groves, which has 2 commercial districts.   The Visitor’s Guide calls WG enchanting and “Queen of the Suburbs”.  Both commercial areas are stuffed with restaurants and local shops, but Old Webster has more charm.    One of Ruth’s cousins suggested we gather for our annual reunion in Old Webster this year.  Old Webster probably has more interesting stores, but the other commercial area is closer to Webster University, which has one of the best and most popular theaters in the United States that will never win a Tony.  By the time its renowned Repertory Theater and opera seasons end their runs, this fine facility has been used almost year round. Conrad Hilton helped fund it long ago.  Webster Groves is not as old as St. Louis, but it has seen its hundredth birthday and is stocked with grand old homes.

Kirkwood, however, is my personal favorite for historic houses.  Where calls Kirkwood “St Louis’s first true suburb”.  It began as a railroad town in the 1850s and still is. You can still hop on a train to Kansas City and beyond here.   Tourists who find Kirkwood miss a lot if they don’t visit the classic Amtrak Station downtown.  It’s seldom-sell residents are often Kirkwood fanatics who consider their homes members of the family.   Kids love Kirkwood’s almost 40-year-old Magic House.

Where specifically mentions this city’s most notorious suburb, but the Visitors Guide doesn’t. In 2014 Ferguson erupted with a major killing and subsequent racial tension that made the national news. Local opinions about the lasting effects vary, but Where clearly sees Ferguson coming back.  The Visitors Guide lumps all of the north suburbs under a North St. Louis County umbrella and promotes only one attraction there, the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, now a state park.  It’s worth seeing.

Clayton is the area’s business center and a definite treat for tourists.  When we lived in St. Louis, Clayton had the best restaurants, and Ruth & I still go to Remy’s almost every time we ‘go home’.   Clayton also has some great hotels and high rises.  It’s a venerable ring community not too far from highly rated Washington University and a classy address adjacent to St. Louis’ Beverly Hills, Ladue.

Both magazines cite Maplewood as fun.  Some call it funky.  I spent a lot of time there when I was a teenager because it was the closest suburb to where I lived in the city.  When my parents finally decided to buy a house for their growing family, Maplewood was considered.  It was fading a bit back then but has come back a lot.  The fact that Schlafly Bottleworks, a brewery, located there has helped.

After you see The Arch, attend a Cardinal’s baseball game, and eat some fine Italian food, head for the suburbs.





Bosnians & Syrians


The neighborhood in St. Louis where I grew up has been transformed.  By 2013 there were 70,000 Bosnian immigrants living in the area.  This was the largest concentration of Bosnians outside Europe.

While there are almost 2 million Hispanics in Chicago, there aren’t too many in St. Louis. Why did Hispanics migrate to much colder Chicago instead of St. Louis?  I don’t know. Where Ruth and I live now, there are lots of Hispanics but also a large number of Asians. Asians, it seems, choose the West Coast in far greater numbers than the American Midwest.

St. Louis has always been a city of immigrants.  Between 1763 and the Louisiana Purchase, it was basically French.  Streets in my old neighborhood have names like Laclede and Chouteau.  Germans and the Irish arrived in large numbers in the 19th century.  My father was the former and my mother the latter.  Most of the Italians, who arrived in large numbers a bit later, lived on The Hill.  Three of my best high school friends were Italian, Austrian, and Polish.

Why did Bosnians choose to come and settle in my old neighborhood?  When Yugoslavia splintered in the 1990s, Bosnian refugees fled civil war.  Many came to St. Louis and lived near the intersection of Grand and Gravois.   This part of town became known as Little Bosnia.   When I was growing up, Gravois was not pronounced in the French way.  It was Gra-voy Street to me, the first syllable pronounced like the GRA in grass.  Early Bosnian settlers in the 1990s built smokehouses in their St. Louis backyards to spit-roast whole lambs.  This alarmed some locals.

Bosnians proved industrious.  The area they choose to live in centered around Bevo Mill, a long-time St. Louis restaurant.  The neighborhood improved. Bosnian shops and restaurants sprang up.  Bosnians started many successful businesses.   Zlatno Zito, Taft, and Iriskic Brothers are on Gravois.  The 1st two are restaurants and the 3rd is a grocery store.  Bosnians sent their kids to universities.  Their community had less unemployment than others and has already somewhat splintered.   Many of the mosques, restaurants, and Bosnians are in other places in the St. Louis area.


When I ask St. Louisans about Bosnians, most of them tell me that they’ve dined in their restaurants. Bevo Mill has recently reopened, but I don’t know its cuisine.  Grbic serves Bosnian food, is well-liked, and is still on Keokuk Street in the old neighborhood.

But Bosnians have begun to scatter. Berix, a Bosnian restaurant, is on Lemay Ferry Road relatively far from Little Bosnia.  So is the Bosnian Islamic Center of St. Louis.  Many Bosnians would like to see more Syrians settle here.

I took the photo below in a store window on Grand Avenue near where I once lived.




Safe Travels

There was a recent article in The New York Times weekend travel section that spoke directly to me.  It was called “Safeguarding Your Valuables on Vacation” by Shivani Vora, and it quoted Matt Dumpert, a senior director at a security consulting company.   Last December in Montevideo several locals approached me on the street and TOLD me to put my camera away.  A few years before that, Ruth and I were mugged in the Madrid subway system because I had taken pictures in a festive, busy square above it with a different camera.  Mr. Dumpert had his camera stolen on a trip to Brussels.  I had a bag stolen in a Brussels train station.

Mr. Dumpert reminds all travelers that we let our guard drop a bit while on the road and are vulnerable to theft as a result. To avoid trouble, he advised us not to bring valuables.   Kim Kardashian learned this lesson painfully in Paris last October.  If you have something with you that is personally valuable, Mr. Dumpert recommends buying a travel insurance policy to cover lost personal property during travel.  The article says in bold letters “Don’t Be Flashy”.  You might get away with flashiness in London but probably not in Capetown.  Mr. Dumpert reminds all that signs of perceived wealth make you a crime target.

I often wondered about this next one.  Don’t use the in-room safes. Maintenance and housekeeping staff can open them with a master combination.  If you have something with you that needs securing and are staying in a high-end property, it probably has a usable central safe.  Ask.

I knew this one.  In a neighborhood that looks a bit run-down or in an unfamiliar foreign country, walk with confidence down the middle of the street and avoid distractions.  I wish I had remembered this in Madrid.  Criminals are looking for victims who clearly don’t fit in and seem unaccustomed to their surroundings.  If you need to check a travel guide, say, or use a cell phone, step into a busy, well-lit shop.

The last is the hardest to understand and implement.  “Savvy criminals”, according to Mr. Dumpert, “monitor social media and even have the tools to pinpoint your exact geographic location.”  Because we can’t hide any longer, skip social media while traveling. Even posting photos might get you into trouble.

Hope this helps.



Uncommon Waco

There are some smaller cities in the United States that have so many fine attractions that they require repeat visits.   Charleston, South Carolina, Madison, Wisconsin, and Springfield, Illinois, come to mind.  Waco is among them.  Ruth and I recently returned there and found 3 sensational new pleasures, the Mayborn Museum, Mammoth National Monument, and the Homestead Craft Village.  Ruth & I coupled them with some excellent repeats. I’ve blogged about the 3 new attractions and some of the others.

Mastodons and mammoths once inhabited this area in large numbers.  Some bones that are 65,000 years old have been found locally as have the remains of a man who lived 10,000 years ago.  As early as 1719 European explorers in the area had contact with the Waco Indians, who lived in distinctive beehive-shaped huts.

By the Civil War, Waco was big enough to send 2,200 volunteers to fight for the Confederacy. After the war the Chisholm Trail and a unique new bridge sparked growth.  For a while Waco was known as Six Shooter Junction. It’s no wonder that the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame is here.  Thanks to the Brazos River, the area was fertile enough for Waco to become a cotton capital.

A bridge crossing the Brazos became necessary for growth.  This surprisingly robust river called “The Arms of God” by the first European Texans, was built by the same New York firm that created the Brooklyn Bridge.  Under construction by 1869 it became the longest single span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi when completed.  Still used daily, it attracts tourist attention. So do the interestingly lit twin bridges on I-35.  In 1953 a truly fierce tornado altered the local landscape, but the tallest building west of the Mississippi survived.  Now ALICO, it still exists too.  Waco also survived the Branch Davidian siege in the last decade of the 20th century, and is currently dealing with a sexual assault scandal involving Baylor students.

Waco’s attractions are certainly diverse.  Ruth and I again enjoyed the Armstrong Browning Library on the Baylor University campus, Cameron Park, and the Dr Pepper Museum, but we still haven’t seen the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, which surely has a tribute to Robert Griffin III.  In 2011 this quarterback became the first Baylor footballer to win the Heisman Trophy.

The largest population center between Dallas and Austin with about 130,000 residents, surprisingly sophisticated Waco is much more than a cow town.   A drive to the top of the Balcones escarpment makes me unsure that I’m in central Texas as I stare down at the Bosque and Brazos Rivers.