Shaping an Iconic Stretch of St. Louis’ Skyline
The year was 1921, and real estate professional Isaac T. Cook was offering for sale a 175-by-350-by-330-foot triangle of land on the westernmost edge of St. Louis city. Famed St. Louis urban planner Harland Bartholomew, privy to plans for building an automobile service station at the site, advised the city to purchase the interestingly sized plot of land, then known as the Clayton Cutoff, in an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the area—and to retain control for handling traffic at Forest Park’s southwestern entrance.
Cook had eyes for the city as well, even offering a price reportedly thousands lower than the private offer already in hand. Alas, the city passed on buying the land.
The Amoco sign
A Standard station opened on the triangle in 1922—and in February 1923, work began on what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called perhaps the “biggest double-faced sign in the country.” It was situated on an intersection that W. F. Williamson—project manager of the sign’s installation—said at the time featured more passing motorists than any other in the city of St. Louis.
Sitting some estimated 600 feet east of the city’s western border, the 65-foot-high sign cost $50,000 to create and housed 5,260 incandescent bulbs. Aided in part by a seven-year stretch (1926-1933) of Route 66 passing through the intersection, the success of the station proved the sign to be a sound investment in an economically distressed period: for a time, the station sold more gas than any other Standard station in the Midwest.
The original filling station—sign and all—at 981 S. Skinker Blvd. was demolished in April 1931 in favor of a bigger, more modern and technologically advanced, Spanish-influenced build. The sign, now 45 feet wide by 60 feet tall, became even more grandiose, housing 5,800 bulbs, encompassing nearly 3,000 feet of neon tubing and weighing 44 tons. It is said the sign shone so brightly that pilots flying into St. Louis Lambert International Airport could use it as a point of reference on their approach. The sign didn’t read “Amoco” at the time; instead, it read “Standard Red Crown,” an advertisement for the “house” brand of gasoline sold by Standard.
The Spanish-inspired service station remained for more than a generation. In 1959, the second iteration of the station was demolished—yet again—in favor of—yet again—a more modern design that also replaced the sign. Featuring an updated company logo—now reading simply “Standard”—and translucent, solid plastic faces lit from within by fluorescent bulbs, the new, sleeker sign rose in the autumn of 1960 where it stands today.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the sign actually read “Amoco,” and it wasn’t until more than a decade later that the sign was considered a historic, protected landmark. In 1998, Amoco merged with BP, and though BP began replacing company signage across America, permission was obtained to keep the original Amoco sign alive, even though the Amoco brand was phased out.
In late 2017, BP announced the revival of the Amoco brand, and as of late 2018, there were more than 35 locations nationwide. In late October 2019, the BP service station at 981 S. Skinker Blvd. was converted back to an Amoco service station, matching the hallmark sign with its service station’s branding for the first time in more than 20 years.
Other Hi-Pointe neighborhood landmarks
Anchored by the 60-by-40-feet behemoth that is the Amoco sign, the intersection of Clayton Avenue, Clayton Road, Skinker Boulevard and McCausland and Oakland avenues also happens to be one of the highest topological points in the city of St. Louis. That the surrounding neighborhood became known as “Hi Pointe” suddenly makes all the more sense.
Sitting a block to the left of the sign is another neighborhood landmark also originally constructed in 1922: the Hi-Pointe Theatre. Unlike the variations of the Amoco sign throughout the years, the Hi-Pointe is the original construction. Continuity and authenticity are really the name of the game here. Owned by George and Georgia James since 1977, the Hi-Pointe, unlike other theaters, has always been intended to show the silver screen medium. The absolute opposite of pretension, the theater is a true, soulful relic of its time, as authentic as the moviegoing experience gets.
In May of 2015, Hi-Pointe added a second screen with the Hi-Pointe Backlot. Located just behind its big brother, the entire building that dates back to 1923 was gutted down to its brick and concrete for renovations. The second screen allows the resulting 48-seat theater to offer a variety of shows for longer periods of time.
Also sharing the Hi-Pointe moniker is the Hi-Pointe Drive-In, just a block south of the Hi-Pointe Theatre and Backlot. Built in 2016, this fast-casual joint offers the best in delicious, original burgers, sandwiches and shakes. Housed in a creative container-style building, it’s the perfect spot to drop in for a bite with friends or grab one of the best burgers in town to go.
It’s not often that you see British-inspired architecture in St. Louis, but the legendary Cheshire Inn, at Clayton Road and Skinker Boulevard, has offered St. Louis just that for nearly 100 years. With roots as a 1930s hamburger stand—Bill and Blossom Medart’s Olde Cheshire—The Cheshire offers traditional details alongside modern conveniences thanks to a tasteful renovation earlier in the decade. It’s as good a pick as any for a St. Louis staycation.
Boundary, the hotel’s swankiest dining addition—it replaced The Restaurant in 2016—serves standout new American fare. On the lower level is Basso, a sleek, rustic chic basement pub with an Italian accent and playful attitude that offers wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas. Rounding out the Cheshire’s dining options is The Fox and Hounds Tavern, a cozy pub that brings to mind traditional English gathering rooms, serving craft cocktails and small plates.
The nearby DeMun neighborhood
Just five or so blocks to the north of The Cheshire sits the historic DeMun neighborhood and its run of quaint businesses amidst 1920s architecture. Originally planned in 1917 and completed in 1923, the district embodies the “new town” philosophy of urban planning, including features such as curved streets to slow automobile traffic and an inward-facing neighborhood orientation. The topography was also taken into consideration: shorter buildings were placed at higher points of the land to create a visually harmonious landscape.
Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company launched in the neighborhood, opening its storefront on the corner of DeMun and Northwood avenues in October 1994. The flagship Sasha’s Wine Bar location sits nearby, just as stylish as the Shaw location and featuring a newly finished 800-square-foot, 50-seat rooftop deck. Clementine’s, known for both its naughty and nice ice cream, has its second of three St. Louis locations in the neighborhood. And tucked-away pizza palace Louie is perpetually lauded as a top local restaurant.
Across the street is the historic Concordia Seminary, the third oldest in the nation, with its current campus built in 1926. St. Mary’s Hospital, originally constructed in 1924 as the most modern hospital of its time, is situated on the other side of Clayton Road, its location chosen by the Sisters of St. Mary specifically because they believed a hospital placed upon the highest point of the city acted as a “crown” for all those in need. Its convent, built in 1928, was unfortunately vacated in 2010 and recently demolished.
This area of St. Louis looked a lot different in 1930 than it did just 10 years prior. The Hi-Pointe Theatre, original “Amoco” sign and DeMun were all completed between early 1922 and 1923; the hospital by 1924; the seminary by 1926; and The Cheshire by 1930. It’s fair to wonder how the neighborhood might have continued to grow had development not been halted by the Great Depression of 1929. Even so, the fruits of this period in St. Louis history provide the foundation for one of St. Louis’ greatest neighborhoods in 2019.
Featured image courtesy of Carmen Troesser.
This post has been brought to you in part by Downtown STL, Inc. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE and Guided growing.