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Seventy Years In St. Louis

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At The Arena

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At approximately 5:45 PM Feb. 27, 1999, the lever was pushed and the structure on 5700 Oakland Avenue became the rubble at 5694, 5696, 5698, 5700, 5702, 5704 Oakland Avenue. The implosion became an event; as hundreds of curious on-lookers, and hordes of journalists watched and chronicled the festivities.

A couple of hundred people held a vigil for the old building. At the time of the blast, tears were shed by many in the crowd. Some people actually laid flowers in the area where the old building stood. I am surprised that someone did not contact Governor Carnahan or the Pope in last ditch effort for clemency.

Built in 1929 at a cost of two million dollars, the Arena was once thought of as the best indoor sports venue in the country. Designed by George Holcombe, the Arena was 475 feet long, 276 feet wide, 1,175 feet around and 135 feet from the floor to the roof. The wood roof was supported by steel cantilever trusses. The ice plant was installed in 1931.

The first hockey game was on October 28, 1931, when the St. Louis Flyers and Shrimp McPherson, the first player to score a goal in the Arena, played the first game. The Flyers were members of the American Hockey Association. The building had it's share of problems over the years, remembering the 5 or 6 years it was called "The Checkerdome" in homage to the bail out from Ralston-Purina (of Checkerboard Square).

It's been the home of many sights, from rodeos and cattle shows to tractor pulls and circuses. From Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti to Jethro Tull and Aerosmith. From the St. Louis Eagles Hockey Club to the St. Louis Braves Hockey Club to the St. Louis Blues Hockey Club, with a little basketball thrown in.

The Arena is now nothing but pictures in scrapbooks and memories in the minds of sports fans, rock fans, car show fans, and many more people who have visted exhibitions there over the years. It was the venerable St. Louis Arena, and it's fate was demolition.

The Monday Night Miracle in May, 1986, The NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four in 1973, when Bill Walton poured in 44 points to help UCLA beat Memphis State 87 - 66, Wayne Gretzky scoring five goals in a game in December, 1984, Mario Lemieux three goals and three assists in the 1988 All Star Game, St. Louis University Basketball and Hockey, the Spirits of St. Louis, Steamers Indoor Soccer, Missouri-Illinois Basketball, and hundreds of other memories. BIGFOOT. The truck debuted at the St. Louis Arena on January 31, 1992, captured the 1992 World Championship of Monster Truck Racing in the Special Events Penda Points Series. In 1993 BIGFOOT took 2nd Place in the Series. Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, Chicago, Alice Cooper, Elton John, and others in concert at the Old Barn.


The Arena shook to Ernie Hays' organ. In '91 he was asked to cut back because the folks in the Blue seats thought that taped music would be better. It Wasn't. SportsJam

The Arena was home to the St. Louis Hawks for some of their time in St. Louis (They also played games at the old Kiel Expo Hall), and also hosted St. Louis "alternative" pro basketball team, the St. Louis Spirits. This team is notable for having whacky players like James "Fly" Williams, as well as for launching one Bobby Costas on a career of broadcast stardom. In 1978, the Final Four returned with Kentucky besting Duke, 94 - 88. The Arena also saw the debut of "Spoonball", as Charlie Spoonhour traveled upstate from Springfield to take the helm at St. Louis University. The Billikens played their first season under Spoon at the old Arena.

In the end, the city sold the 26-acre site for $9 million to a company that plans an office park. For those who played in the Arena, the reaction is more sadness than outrage. Bernie Federko, the Blues' career leading scorer, has nothing but fond memories. "The old Chicago Stadium and the Boston Garden were awesome, but there was nothing like our building," said Federko, now a radio analyst for the Blues. "I think that's why it was so much fun to play there all the time. I hate to see it knocked down. Progress, I guess. We have the suites and everything here (Kiel), but it's going to be a shame to see it go down."

The memories came flooding back last weekend when the Blues' "Monday Night Miracle" game, their comeback from a 5-2 third-period deficit to beat Calgary in the 1986 playoffs was aired on a classic sports channel. Fans were closer to the action than they are in modern buildings. "It's amazing how you can hear the noise, even on TV," Federko said. "You don't hear that kind of noise in the new buildings. It's unreal."

The Calgary playoff game was the first in the NHL career of Cliff Ronning, a diminutive center who now plays for the Nashville Predators. He, too, mentioned the special setting. "The sound just echoed in that building," Ronning said. "It was an upbeat, happy atmosphere. The boards made a big, big crash when you got hit into them. I feel fortunate to be a baby Blue. That's where it all started for me."

The completion in 1994 of Kiel Arena downtown may have sealed the fate for the Oakland Avenue landmark. After a sale offering fixtures and mementos, the City locked the doors at the Arena and advertised the 26-acre site as a prime redevelopment opportunity. Will the Keil Center ever gain a moniker as familiar as "The Barn"? It seems unlikely; for all its slick modern wrappings, the new facility seems little more than a machine for watching sports, and machines are harder to love than places.

The Barn was a place, a recognizable and cherishable focal point of the city... one that was brutally scraped away in the name of 'progress'. In the ebb and flow of urban existance, buildings come and go; they are built, age, remodeled, age once again, and many eventually are destroyed in favor of new construction. This is perhaps how it should be... but a few buildings, at least, are special. Whether they are physical landmarks, public gathering places, or enhancers of civic beauty, certain select structures are worth more than their marketplace value. They should be treated as sacred, and held as immune to the vagaries of economics.

The old Arena was one such building. With its commanding hilltop position, the Arena helped shaped and gave form to an entire section of the city. Its loss erases part of the city's identity, nudges it a visible step closer to anonymity. It was more than just a building; it was part of history, a part of our lives -- a part of what made St. Louis's personality, part of what gives the city its unique character.

The public's interest in preserving this landmark structure as part of the city's identity, history, and shared experience should have outweighed purely economic concerns. The destruction of the Arena is nothing less than a crime against the city, a denegration of its civic vitality, and evidence that something is still very much amiss among the city's leaders. It makes one wonder why something worth recalling was destroyed in the first place.

For St. Louis, it was the end of an era, the end of a landmark. The Arena, a city icon and a familiar sight for thousands of city dwellers and motorists, was destroyed in a 30-second implosion. The Arena's bad plumbing, lack of restrooms, leaky roof, sticky floors, and lousy parking.

Ah, yes; I remember it well!!

I'm gonna miss that place!



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