Tuesday, October 21, 2008

History Lost: The Ambassador Theater

When it opened in 1926, the 17-story Ambassador Theater building was hailed as “the greatest event in St. Louis since the World’s Fair.” Six floors were dedicated to the theater while the 11 uppermost stories housed office space.

It was a building drawn from the minds of architects C.W. and George L. Rapp, among the nation’s most successful designers of “movie palaces.” It was one of two such movie houses they built in St. Louis.

Here it is in all its glory from an opening night brochure.
Fortunately, the St. Louis Theatre built in 1925 and reopened as Powell Symphony Hall (home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra) in the 1960s, survived talk of demolition. The building in mid-town has been lovingly restored and pays tribute to its opulent roots.

But downtown, the Ambassador did not fare so well.

Stand at 7th and Locust today and you will hear the rush of a fountain, almost an eerie mimicking shadow of the applause that once rose from the site. The theater featured live shows into the mid-1930s, when it shifted to motion pictures. It added Cinerama movie screens in the 1950s but was shuttered by 1960 when a new Cinerama theater was built in mid-town.
The owners tried to offer a combination of movies and live music well into the next decade.

During the 1970s, it became a venue for popular rock acts including Van Morrison and KISS. The theater closed for good in 1976. Office tenants, however, remained on site until the late 1980s. During this time, the first six floors were gutted of its many lavish fixtures, including its stairways, and they were auctioned off.

The Ambassador remained in a state of limbo and steady decline during the 1990s until the neighboring modern bank building began lobbying for a “plaza” where the theater stood. They won their argument and the Ambassador was demolished between 1995 and 1996. (In some justice, that bank was swallowed up by another bank shortly thereafter. What goes around comes around.)

There’s some great insight and photos on this blog that I happened upon, oddly, while working on this piece. And Vanishing St. Louis offers some tear-jerking views of before, during, and after the demolition. (You can still appreciate how gorgeous the stage area and accents throughout were, even 60+ years later.)

Take a closer look at some of the building shots on those sites. Now look at the plaza photo. Does
anything look familiar?
Maybe these?


I’m not sure what the intent was, maybe to immortalize the theater in some way, but these reliefs are now attached to the wall of a historic bank building adjacent to the theater site and on the edge of the plaza. (I can’t believe I go past these things all the time and never made the connection!) I'm glad they're there and glad to finally know that they are.

There’s a saying that “old St. Louis theaters don’t die – they become parking lots.” Perhaps a bit of prophecy lies therein where the Ambassador is concerned.
Currently, discussions are under way in which the “plaza,” which really serves no real function, may become, what else, but a parking garage.

4 comments:

Vicki said...

Beautiful building. Terrible that it's possibly going to end up as a parking lot. You don't know what you've got till it's gone...

Maggie, Dammit said...

What a beautiful old building. It's really too bad. Progress is not always progress, you know?

NV said...

V -- Yes, it was heartbreaking to see those demo photos. And now it's probably going to end up as parking space anyway. Sad.

Maggie -- You're absolutely right. Some of the downtown powers are realizing this too late. Or else, they just don't care to begin with.

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