Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Bel Air East - Loss of a Mid Century Modern Hotel

Last Saturday, I attended a picnic under highway 70 near where it crosses Washington Avenue, cutting of Downtown from Laclede's Landing and the Arch Grounds, creating a mile long dead zone. I was facing the lower levels of the Hampton Inn which fronts on Washington. After the picnic, a friend and I were walking up 4th Street and I was lamenting about how the Hampton Inn used to look when Trader Vic's was there and before the building was re-muddled and completely re-faced with Styrofoam and fake stucco.

The Bel Air from 4th Street. The cleared site behind the striped plywood wall
would soon be occupied by the Mansion House complex. Also in this photo are
St. Louis' old Granitoid street lights. A few years after this photo was taken
had the bright idea to replace all of these with the cobra heads that everyone hates. I have heard that the Granitoid poles were thrown in the river.

That night I searched online to see if I could find some images of what I remembered from childhood... and found these photos from an online forum about "classic & modern Polynesian Pop". Yes, such a forum actually does exist, and thankfully so. The building was much more stunning than I remembered. I remembered the base with Trader Vic's and that was about it. The Bel Air East, which was completed in late 1962 was a great example of the tower on a podium concept that was popular in the Modern era and executed in a manner unequaled anywhere in St. Louis. My friend commented that it looked like it was straight out of Florida, and with good reason, because there simply was nothing else like it here in St. Louis.
The Bel Air's brightly colored draperies brought a little South Beach to St. Louis

Sadly in 2001, the year which had been immortalized as the ultimate "future", the hotel was bought by an operator who lacked vision, who then hired an architect with even less vision. Instead of capitalizing upon what was there, they foolishly tried to take the building into the past, attempting to emulate the tripartite classical revival structures farther west on Washington such as the Renaissance (former Statler) and Renaissance Suites (former Lenox) hotels... and doing a poor job of it.
I could not find a good shot of the entrance to Trader Vic's on
Washington, but this menu is a good rendering of how it appeared

Even worse, they spent a lot of money to ruin this building, $14,000,000 according to the City's website. While in 2001 the Bel Air's age was only 39 years old, eleven short of the typical age of eligibility for listing on the National Register, a building can be eligible for listing if it is considered of "exceptional importance". In 2004 the brutalist style Pet Milk Building several blocks south of the Bel Air was listed on the National Register at the young age of 35. If the developers had chosen restoration, they could have been eligible for both state and federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits totaling 45% of eligible costs.
The interior of Trader Vic's which closed in 1985

Instead of creating a hip trendy hotel catering to the creative class, like say the soon to open Indigo Hotel on Lindell in what was the Bel Air West, we ended up with one that looks more like a place that over the hill conventioneers go to hibernate.
Unfortunately this rare example of Mid Century Modern was lost. Will we lose another one at Lindell & Taylor?


Michael R. Allen said...

The Bel Air East was the sister to the Bel Air at 4630 Lindell Boulevard, now the Indigo. Norman K. Probstein opened the Bel Air East in 1964. Probstein demolished the Norvel-Shapleigh Building to build the motel!

Brian said...

Wow, I only remember it as the Ramada - I had no idea it was so colorful!

That first picture shows a nice looking building on Laclede's Landing on what is now a surface parking lot.

cjbonar said...

Thank you for a great and great explication. Yes, many owners and architects lack the vision and courage to preserve great specimens of mid-century architecture! I seem to remember a lobby with a huge chandelier and a balcony overlooking it. does anyone remember this or have a postcard or photograph? Again, love your site!

Vanishing STL said...

Thanks. I never got a chance to go in the lobby or into Trader Vics. My parents might remember.

George said...

Worked at the hotel in the late 1960's as a bell hop supporting my way thru college. Great place to work and had a lot of fun. Norman was always nice to me when he came around. I met many famous people staying at the hotel including the Bidwell's of local fame or infamously. Frank Gifford was a character as well as Tiny Tim. Sorry to see it in the condition it is today. By the way Trader Vic's food was fantastic.

Anonymous said...

I stayed here in 1974. I have the best memories from that time. I loved Trader's Vic and the Miss Hulling's restaurant that had the best pies and where I learned how to order a steak (NOT well done). The food at both places was fantastic. I looked for Trader's Vic when I came through in later years and was disappointed to learn it was no longer there.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I have the picture postcard that is shown at the top as it was when I visited. It does not list the originator of this site as the photographer.

bzasada said...

I loved my stay in the 70's at the Bel Air East! The room and the food and that great pool is something I cherish fondly from my childhood. I'm very sorry to hear that it's gone!

Cwefan said...

The balconies are much better protected and sturdier than today but they still have the flimsy railings, don’t they? I can’t Believe that we sat out there and watched he fireworks every year.

Cwefan said...

I wouldn’t let my children do it now.

Kurt Hegle said...

I stayed here with a group in 2001. It was the Days Inn then. We were returning to northern MN from FL and decided to break up the trip and see the bowling museum and the arch (and let me sleep as I was doing almost all of the driving). It was starting to look a bit dated then but was immaculately clean and the staff couldn't have been nicer. (A young man valet parked my van w/ U-Haul trailer as he could see I couldn't keep my eyes open.) Seeing it then, it probably did need some help at that point... but the idea of stuccoing a tall building and topping it with a faux tile roof that belongs on a short bldg. in California... sucks!! They would've done much better to refurbish the former, much cleaner look.