For a while now I’ve been thinking about doing a post on the huge boarded building on Lafayette Ave but I didn’t have time to do the research. Then I received a review copy of Jim Merkel’s new book: ‘Beer, Brats, and Baseball: St. Louis Germans‘ and there among the many stories was the history of the building.
Jim Merkel sent me the text from that story from the book to use as a preview for you here:
The Place for Gemuetlichkeit
In the years before America fought the Nazis and Japan, Das Deutsche Haus was the place for all things Gemuetlichkeit. Opened in 1929 after a campaign that included help from such German luminaries as former mayor Henry W. Kiel, it soon became the center of German-American life here. The four-story brick building at 2345 Lafayette Avenue was the home of seventy-six German societies within three years after it opened. Built for $380,000, it had meeting rooms and halls able to accommodate crowds from 40 to 1,200. The building was full of activity.
Carl Henne, a St. Louisan born in Germany, remembered those days in a 1972 article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. “It became the home Hall, which was right across the street,” he said. “We had balls, dances, concerts and Christmas parties there. Every Sunday night we used to always someone to talk to.” He liked it so much that he chose it as the place for his wedding breakfast.
Then came the war, or at least the events leading to the war. In January 1939, word got out that Colin Ross, an agent for a Nazi publishing house in Germany, wanted to give a speech at the German House about the German occupation of the Sudetenland. Groups ranging from labor groups to the VFW to the American Legion to the St. Louis Council for American Democracy protested. Seeing the uproar, the board of directors of the German House turned the request down. Later, when the war started, the name was changed to the St. Louis House. Otherwise, though, it remained a place for Germans.
When the war ended, the name reverted to the German House. But times were different. People were leaving the city and didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood. Poor finances almost forced the place to close. Still, it remained a popular place for local German groups to have their offices and for events. “We had 800 people at our affair last fall,” Henne, the president of the Schwaben Singing Society, said in a 1972 Globe-Democrat article. “If the neighborhood and parking get better again more German societies will go back — there’s no better place in town. The acoustics are great.” The acoustics were so good that the St. Louis Symphony recorded an album at the German House, produced by Columbia Records. But the place wasn’t good enough to survive just on Germans, and an owner said anyone who wanted to could use it. A Mexican bar and restaurant opened in the basement. The bowling alley closed. It was a matter of time before the place joined the ranks of shuttered German gathering places.
The German House was just one of the buildings Germans put up around St. Louis to gather for singing, dancing, exercising, arguing, or the theater. One was the Strassberger Music Conservatory. The three-story building at Grand Boulevard and Shenandoah Avenue once was a place to celebrate the city’s German music culture after it was built in 1904-05. Today it has a mix of upscale apartments, offices and stores.
Another building originally meant for a gathering place of Germans stands at 2930 North Twenty-first Street. In 1867, German settlers founded the Freie Gemeinde, or “Free Thinkers” Congregation. The building was home of a Gesangverein (choral club) and a library with three thousand books.
Some other buildings in the city formerly served as homes for Turner groups. They include the North Side Turnverein, 1925 Mallinckrodt Street, and the South St. Louis Turnverein, 1519 South Tenth Street. One building that is home to a still-active group is the Concordia Turners, 6432 Gravois Avenue. But that’s an exception. Almost all have a different purpose from the original German intent, and that includes the German House.
The end for the German House came in 1972, when the Gateway Temple of St. Louis, Inc. bought it for a church and school. In 2007, the Church of Scientology of Missouri bought the building for $1.6 million. Church officials plan to renovate the building, which would include a counseling area, classrooms, and an area for services. But for now, it’s unused.
The building doesn’t appear to be listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s included in the Lafayette Square Historic District (PDF of nomination).
The building was just a decade old when Germany invaded Poland, suddenly a bad time to be of German ancestry. Had WWII never taken place would the building still be open and filled with German societies? Would it have shuttered anyway due to the city’s population decline? Of course, we’ll never know the answers.
More relevant questions are in present time; does the Church of Scientology of Missouri still have plans to renovate and occupy the building? If so, would the public get a chance to see the interior at any point?
Pick up a copy of Jim Merkel’s new book for a fascinating look into the German part of St. Louis history.
– Steve Patterson