The American Hotel and Theatre Building
619 Market Street
Architect: Frederick C. Bonsack
The American Theatre and Hotel was a 13-story mixed-use structure, long famous as "the place downtown to see Broadway shows" and St. Louis's only "legitimate theater" (ie, no moving pictures!) The building began life as the project of American Theatrical Company and Louis Cella, and was owned by the Southern Real Estate & Financial Company. It was managed by the Cella family for the entire duration of its short life. Originally a Vaudeville venue, it briefly operated as a regular movie house, but soon became the primary place in town to see traveling Broadway shows, or "legitimate" theater. The hotel portion of the building contained 275 rooms, each with a private bath - a relatively new luxury for the traveling public. The hotel was considered a leader in developing its stretch of Market Street. Harry Truman stayed there in 1912; his room would have run him around $1. After running $2.50 to $5 in the 1920s, rates plumeted back to $1.50 during the Depression.
The American Hotel's overall massing and composition were exceedingly odd. The first 8 stories were a solid block, containing the towering theater section to the east and hotel rooms on the west. Above the 8th floor, a light court was introduced on the Market Street side, as five more floors of hotel rooms rose above the theater. This strange arrangment, as well as the rather unresolved facade composition, might give the impression of a building tha went up in unplanned ad-hoc stages - as if the theater were a separate building with the hotel later built around it (program guides even show the theater as a free-standing structure!), or an 8 story building later expanded to 13.
The true story, however is that the entire building was designed and built as a complete whole. The theater's design accounts for its position at the base of a high-rise, with 7-foot deep box girders weighing 100,000 pounds each required to carry the weight of the floors over the cavernous 8-story theater and its three towering balconies.
In 1909, an addition to the hotel was considered, but not constructed; it would have expanded the hotel to fill the entire 600 block of Market Street. A separate annex building was constructed across Market Street in 1912, in conjuction with the rebuilding of the St. Louis Grand Opera House; the American Annex Hotel opened in 1913.
The American Theatre followed the "tradition" of the day with racially segregated seating; blacks were only allowed in the top balcony. Despite sporadic protests from 1946 onward, the theater did not desegregate until 1952 - only a year before it closed.
In 1948, radio station KSTL began broadcasting from the hotel's mezzanine level at 690 AM.
The American Hotel was only 45 years old when a 1953 newspaper article announced its impending demolition to make way for a parking garage. Closing night at the theater was May 2, 1953; the wreckers closed in soon after. The development company responsible stated that "the decision to erect a big garage expresses [the] company's confindence in the future of downtown St. Louis" - a most ironic statement considering the devastating effect parking garages have had on downtown since that time. The garage does not appear to have ever been built; the site was a parking lot 10 years later, and is now incorporated into the Gateway Mall.
The repetoire of the American Theater - and the "American" name - was shifted to another theater in Midtown, then moved back downtown to the former Orpheum Theater a few blocks north in 1960.
Finally, as the reader may discern from the Google-savvy name variations I have used on this page, nobody seems to have a final word on this building's name. Whether it was a Theater or Theatre, and whether it was the "Hotel and Theater" or "Theater and Hotel", seems to have depended more on the writer's mood than any consistency of fact.
Description of the construction
History of the theater
The American Hotel as built. Image from the building files of the St. Louis Public Library.
Detail of the theater entrance, from the previous photo.
Colorized postcard, showing the building's 7th Street facade
Colorized 1930s postcard with the hotel's Rathskeller (basement bar/restaurant).
A fanciful drawing from a program guide omits the rest of the building. Program guide from a 1939 production of "Tobacco Road".
The American Hotel as it appeared after World War 2 -- nearly unchanged except for an updated marquee and the loss of its cornice (presumably in the same 1947 campaign by the city that claimed many others.) Image from the Globe-Democrat, 1953.
The building's site in 2008, as part of Keiner Plaza.