Think about art for a moment. What comes to mind?
For some, it may be museum galleries lined with marble statues, impressionist oil paintings or modern pop art. To others, it might be the vocals of a Broadway musical or the seat-shaking orchestral score delivered from a curtain-adorned stage. It may even evoke images of precise preparation and plating for a new culinary masterpiece.
Whatever one’s definition of art is, it has a home within St. Louis’ very own Grand Center Arts District, a designated Midtown St. Louis Historic District between Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue that has a history of artistic success dating back over a century.
Whether it’s under or behind the spotlight, local flair never leaves the block.
A grand history
In the 1900s, the Grand Center Arts District was known as the Grand White Way of Midtown, named in homage of the bright lights from the six-story signs that graced movie palaces and vaudeville venues.
The 1904 World’s Fair put the city on the map, and entertainment venues flooded into the city. Theaters like the American, Garrick, Shubert, Empress, Missouri and more popped up across the city.
The area became a destination for arts and culture alongside the rising fame of the one and only Fabulous Fox Theatre and its winning combination of Hollywood films, distinct Siamese Byzantine architecture and air conditioning.
In 1968, the St. Louis Symphony renovated Powell Hall, formerly the St. Louis Theatre, another Grand Center staple, and world-renowned theater productions replaced movies at the Fox Theatre.
In the mid 1900s, Grand Center fell into jeopardy. The blow came after a rise of de-industrialization caused citizens to leave the city. Many popular theaters such as the New Grand Central theatre were razed in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1980s, a leaky roof and worn furniture mandated the Fox Theatre’s repair. St. Louisians Leon Strauss, Robert Baudendistel, Dennis McDaniel and Harvey Harris came together under Fox Associates, LLC to privately purchase the institution. Leon’s wife, Mary, served as director of restoration, and one year later, the $2 million program got the theater up and running.
“Grand Center just blossomed since 1981, because that’s when they restored the Fox,” Judith Cullen, executive director of the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, said.
Mary Strauss, a St. Louis native, remains active in the local scene as president of the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation Board of Directors.
“She is just an amazing woman,” Cullen said. “Every year she tries to do more.”
Robert’s daughters, Lisa Baudendistel-Suntrup and Julie Baudendistel-Noonan, currently serve on the Grand Center Arts District’s board of directors.
The restoration of the Fox Theatre often is credited with returning the area to its glory.
“They really got the ball rolling,” Cullen said.
Today, Grand Center includes over 60 arts and cultural organizations, 16 theaters, 17 museums, 10 music venues, 18 event space rentals and 22 restaurants. Jazz St. Louis’ Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz and Jazz at the Bistro sit within the heart of the district, adding to its “something for everyone” philosophy.
Grand Center is one of the region’s few historic communities that continues to expand annually. Cullen, a St. Charles native and Lindenwood University alum, has a theory about that.
While she spent 12 years with Broadway productions in New York – after cutting her theatrical teeth at the Westport Playhouse and STAGES St. Louis – something about Grand Center called her back home.
“There are a lot of wonderful people here, and we’re all connected,” Cullen said.
A living gallery
The Grand Center neighborhood is also home to an array of art galleries and exhibits as well as historic churches, hotels and educational institutions such as the Grand Center Arts Academy.
The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis [CAM], 3750 Washington Blvd., contains galleries of modern art alongside educational programming. The International Photography Hall of Fame, 3415 Olive St., serves as a gallery and museum showcasing the science and art of photography. The High Low is a new venue for writers-in-residence at 3301 Washington Ave. The two-story complex includes a library featuring rotating collections of books, magazines, newspapers and articles curated by local literary arts professionals and institutions.
The High Low will house KAF’s forthcoming Writers-in-Residence program designed to support local writers and attract national and international writers, while also offering space for other turnkey arts organizations.
According to Hansen, the inspiration for the project was an outcry from the community and local universities regarding literary programs.
“For all of our properties and all of our projects, the first measurement is: Are we responding to a legitimate need in the arts community?” Hansen said. “We are listening at all times, and we’ve had many, many people over the years approach us about noninstitutional landscapes for the literary arts.”
The facility will include multifaceted uses such as a gallery and performance space, and a library/café featuring Blueprint Coffee, which frequenters of the Delmar Loop will recognize.
According to Hansen, the goal of many venues within Grand Center is the incorporation of multiuse areas that are available to residents and visitors alike.
“There are a lot of great thinkers and visionaries throughout the world that are very intentional with the way they curate space. They build community and culture. I think we do it uniquely well in the Grand Center Arts District,” Hansen said. “We have great collaborators.”
A tasteful affair
For those not in the mood for a quiet café, there are plenty of other places to find entertainment for any taste, literally and figuratively. Included among the dozens of restaurants worth exploring is the newly opened Bulrush, 3307 Washington Blvd. It’s headed by James Beard Best Chef-Southwest semi-finalist Rob Connoley, a St. Louis native who returned home after 30 years to open the contemporary Ozark restaurant.
The Dark Room at The Grandel is located inside its namesake theater and offers fine wine and artisan cuisine alongside live music performances. Rise Café serves breakfast and snacks from inside CAM. Stage Left Grille, 541 N. Grand Blvd., offers pre-show dining options and extended hours for Fox theatergoers. The Curtain Call Lounge, also adjacent to the Fox Theatre, is the city’s first-ever champagne bar. It bases its schedule on theatrical show times, including matinées. Meanwhile, Sophie’s Artist Lounge & Cocktail Club, located on the second floor of the .ZACK building, serves as a gathering place for local artists, musicians and arts patrons.
“It’s a really great hang before a show or after a show,” Hansen said.
One common thread ties the community together – the desire to make local entertainment an unforgettable experience. As for what the future holds, well, everyone loves an encore.
“It doesn’t just stop after a day,” Cullen said. “There’s a wonderful community spirit around arts organizations.
“St. Louis [is] a wonderful place with wonderful art, wonderful creativity, a music scene, a jazz scene, a theater scene, a dance scene. There’s so many amazing things going on, and we, as local St. Louisians, want to [celebrate] that pride.”