The Fluer-De-Lis

The first time I saw the building, I was convinced we had lost our minds. The Old brick building on the Corner of Olive and Boyle Street’s in St. Louis had seen better days. The windows all covered with cheap plywood. Weed’s growing from every crack in the city street had begun to climb the exterior. The wrought iron gate to the entry way now rusted and leaning to one side, framed the name of the building that had been etched in the concrete.

Clearly the” Fleur- de-Lis” had been a jewel in its day. The three story brick building housed two retail locations on the ground floor, split by a magnificent foyer. The top two stories were dedicated to apartment space. Even in its dilapidated condition, there was a stately appearance and feel to the building. My Friend Jack and I had just bought it at auction. He looked on starry eyed and said “Mark my words Kevin, this building has good bones. “All I could think were the bones were badly broken and in need of a good orthopedic surgeon. But hey, I was just a friend and investor who came along for the ride, and would help where I could, as he was determined to tackle a renovation of this monster with, or without my help. Jack had made quite a living flipping real estate; I trusted his judgments, for the most part.

The Building was in an area known as Gaslight Square, a remarkable place of St. Louis entertainment history. In it’s prime of the 1950’s and 60’s, It housed club’s and café’s like Jorge’s, Smokey Joe’s, The old Palace theatre, The Grecian Terrace etc. Big name act’s and performers like Barbara Streisand, Miles Davis, Woody Allen, Etc. Blues clubs and Beatnik’s. Now a victim of urban blight and decay, but the area was in the middle of a renaissance of sort’s, and based on this speculation Jack bought the building sight unseen at the city auction. I hoped this investment would pay off, but had my doubts. We took a crowbar and the key’s from his truck, and went to the plywood covering the entranceway. It was time for a first look at the interior of the Fleur-de-lis.

 The symbol Fleur-de-lis meant flower or Lilly; it was a widely used symbol common in St. Louis to honor the cities French heritage. I remembered it was also the name of a debutante’s ball for the cities affluent young ladies.

As the plywood was peeled back, a beautiful set of mahogany doors framed the glass that let the first light in years filter through to the magnificent marble floor of the grand entry foyer. The foyer was floor to ceiling 3 stories, there were magnificent wall sconces and a chandelier that hung from the ceiling and looked to weigh thousands of pounds. I could see Jack smile in the dim light. Looking straight back an elevator with a gold door came in to view. As you walked in to the foyer, walls of glass on both sides revealed two distinctly separate retail spaces. Accessible by twin sets of French doors that opened to the foyer. We turned on our high beam flashlights to see more clearly. On the left side of the foyer, A bar was visible through the glass, tables and chairs sat as though it could open for business any minute. It had the eerie feeling of being frozen in time. The bar itself a work of art with its ornately carved moldings and matching wood frame on the mirror behind it, that ran the length of the bar. Back to the front of the building sat a wall of windows that once the plywood was removed, would make the entire bar visible from the street. Near the wall of windows and the back wall sat a slightly elevated stage. I could picture a jazz, or blues band playing even now. I shined my flashlight slightly to the right to reveal an old Steinway Baby grand piano. I didn’t need light to know Jack was smiling broadly behind me.

We marveled at our luck for a minute or two before continuing our tour. In the foyer and bar alone Jack estimated salvage prices that exceeded the price we had just paid for the building. Though we both knew that moment, The Fleur-de-lis would live on. We pointed our flashlights forward and continued the dark tour. The other side of the foyers retail space looked to have been a coffee shop. Tables and chairs in the same positions as the bar. And what looked to be an old newspaper /magazine stand that had sold tobacco products as well. Empty cigar boxes and a cigar store Indian stood beside the stand .I could see the Indian could be wheeled outside during business hours to lure street traffic. We estimated the bar and the café each at 3000 square ft. of retail space. If it could be rented, Jack knew we had a financial winner. His smile grew wider by the moment.

We made our way past the elevator and its shiny brass door, in search of the staircase. We climbed the 3 floors and started at the top of the building or the Penthouse. It was a magnificent old apartment. There were high nine foot ceilings, stained glass windows, hardwood floors and beautiful woodwork. There were fireplaces in the living room, dining room, and master bedroom. The two bathrooms were done in an ornate tile. The old kitchen, badly in need of updating, was the only visible flaw. We checked the ceilings in each room and could find only one small area that had water damage.

Jack and I continued down stairs to the other 3 apartments. All were similar to the penthouse in grandeur, only smaller versions. All of them seemed in very good condition. The kitchens would of course need to be updated, and a fresh coat of paint. But otherwise it was as though the old building had held up well to the years.  I was impressed with both the Trash and laundry shoots in each apartment. Features long ago discontinued in construction.

We ended our first visit with a tour of the old basement. Again we found it to be in great shape. The old foundation showed no visible cracks, no standing water. It was almost too good to be true, I thought. There was an old central boiler that heated the entire building. It took up 600 square foot, and would have to be replaced. There was more than enough room for storage and laundry facilities for each apartment as well as for the retail spaces to store goods and supplies.

We completed our tour and replaced the plywood over the door to the entrance. Jack perhaps elated or delirious from our good fortune offered to buy dinner.

We drove the two blocks to the Eat- Rite diner. Jack wasn’t frivolous after all. Sat down and ordered coffee and dinner. The owner a man in his 70’s worked furiously at the greasy looking grill. He delivered our Orders and introduced himself as Lee. We knew we would likely be eating many meals here until a kitchen could be renovated. Jack and I introduced ourselves, and we chatted with Lee as business had hit a lull for the moment.

“You bought Lilly’s old building? Well I will be damned, welcome to the neighborhood.” Lee said as he hustled back to the grill as another customer entered.

Jack and I went back to our conversation regarding next steps for the building. A legion of experts and contractors/tradesmen were lined up to inspect and outline repairs and quotes. We decided to set up an office in the bar of course. A great place to meet and coordinate work schedules and negotiate prices.

The next day the renovation commenced. Jack had 3 to 5 contractors lined up to bid on the various projects; I admired his business acumen, and would come to admire his negotiating tactics. He had Bought Donuts and coffee for the morning shift, and a bottle each of Scotch, Jack Daniels & Vodka, he displayed them on top of the bar.

The Electrician and the City Building Inspector were the first to arrive. And so began the race between renovation and bankruptcy. Most of the building would need to be rewired to meet current code. A hundred dollar bill slipped to the inspector bought us a two week window that would allow the electric to be turned on until the electricians complied with code. The first electrician set the mark we needed to beat with a bid of $26,000.00. The commercial space, a potential windfall, also required expensive upgrades to accommodate new restaurant equipment and technology.

The day progressed with similar results as the Plumbing inspection and the plumbers convened on us. Upgrades to meet commercial code were the chief culprit; the high bid was $13,000.00. The water was turned on after additional cash dispersal to a public servant. The unspoken and unwritten, cost of code compliance in the city at the time.

Meanwhile I oversaw the commercial cleaning crew we had lined up to make the building presentable.

They removed 20 or 30 years of dust and grime.  The plywood came off the windows and doors, the windows were cleaned, the old building was showing signs of life and its original grandeur. This effort alone was a huge effort. A roll off dumpster was filled with the plywood from over 40 windows and doors. I was beginning to understand the magnitude of the job as I watched a crew of 15 go through the building inside and out.

One of the crew brought me a box filled with framed photos most old black & whites. Many autographed in the frame. I recognized several old Musicians and actors.  These would be great cleaned and hung in the bar I thought. I set them aside to go through when time allowed.

The day ended with a mixed bag of emotions. While the building looked great cleaned and lit up . The mood in the bar was a solemn one as Jack went over the latest folly. The roof, which we thought were sound had to be replaced. Had it not been caught now, the roofer assured us it would likely cave in with the first heavy snowfall.  The old flat-roof, with tar paper and sealed with tar, had not been maintained and had simply outlived its lifespan, a $31,000.00 nightmare.

Jack sat at a table, we opened the bottle of Jack Daniels and did shots as we totaled up and sorted through the various estimates. We awaited the final contractor of the day R & H Heating and cooling. We were fearful of the price tag on replacing the buildings largest major components.

The spreadsheet showed a total of $118,000.00 before touching the HVAC. We did several more shots, our available credit line for renovation was $175,000.00. Jack did another shot, under his breath I heard him mumble; it was either a prayer or a curse, perhaps both.

That is when we met Rufus Jones. He wandered in the building and found us in the bar.” Looks the same he said,” Startling both Jack and I. He walked in and introduced himself.

“I put the boiler in this building some 40 odd years ago, brings back good memories he said looking around. Are you two going to reopen the Voodoo lounge? This place was happening back in the day, I saw some of the great’s right there. He pointed to the stage. I remember watching Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday., all the great one’s loved the Voodoo he said as he walked around. But mostly I remember Miss Lilly.” “So you boy’s going to resurrect the Fluer-De-Lis are you?’ He chuckled then said, “Miss Lilly would like that.” She loved this old building it was her life.

Well….He said looking at us sitting at the table, let’s have a look, he motioned us to follow him to the basement. We followed him without question. Rufus had that way about him; you just did as he asked seemingly without question.

“Well looky there.  Rufus giggled. She lives, he said pointing to the old boiler. “He commenced walking around the monstrosity, checking the cast iron I suspected for cracks. Then he pulled open the door on the front and stuck his head inside to inspect it. After 10 minutes of grunting, ooh’s and ahhh’s, Rufus spoke. “Gentlemen, I need to run out to my truck, I have cold beers there, I noticed you had some Jack Daniels on the bar. I suggest we sit down at the bar and NEEEEgotiate.” We liked Rufus immediately.

We sat at the table nearest the bar, Rufus laid out our options. But not before insisting we have boilermakers first. “We is discussing a boiler gentlemen.”  He cackled and laughed at his own joke. We joined in, Rufus had a way of making you laugh, even as he was about to deliver expensive news.

“See here, he pointed to a brochure. Most folk want the latest most efficient unit on the market. I can do that for you, or I can get the old boiler running and carry you through till you can replace it. Meantime we can work on the Air conditioner system. You got to run vent work all through the building. Winter is a good time for me and I can give you a big discount, provided you keep that bar stocked he giggled again.”

“So you’re saying the old boiler still works Jack asked?” That would save us a great deal until we could get some tenants in the building. “

”Not only am I saying so, I’m guaranteeing it.” Rufus cackled and downed his drink.

 I questioned if the Jack Daniel’s may add up to more than a new HVAC system. None the less given our current budget, we took the gamble.

Over the next several months the Fluer- de-Lis underwent a facelift. Jack and I scraped, plaster patched, caulked and painted ourselves. The contractors did their thing and the building was coming together nicely. Rufus was in and out fine tuning radiators, bleeding lines and providing heat from the ancient boiler as he promised. He also provided many evenings of comic relief and storytelling at the bar. He had a remarkable constitution for drink, and a penchant for storytelling. Both suited him.

He told us all about the city of old, our building, and the now legendary Miss Lilly. She was as Rufus told it, a beautiful woman with the voice of an angel. A creole from Louisiana, of mixed race, color neutral and able to move among both races in a society that at the time was less than welcoming to blacks in this city. A trained pianist, she was recruited to play in the symphony. She played Powell hall and as a sideline every juke joint in St. Louis. She could switch from classical to blues piano in a split second. She did so in order to build this building according to Rufus.

“Of course she also attracted money men “Rufus said. Somebody was always courting Miss Lilly, from the Mayor to the Porter’s at old Union station, everybody loved her. She was smart; she built this building with her own home, and a club and restaurant that made her a fine living, as you boys can see now, he said waving his arms around. That is until things turned bad, but that is a story for another night. Rufus downed his drink and headed home.

By this time Jack and I had each taken one of the second floor apartments as expenses mounted on the building. We paid our corporation a fair rent and used the money.to keep going each month. We had promises of a restaurant tenant once we had the place in order, and had several prospective tenants for the penthouse apartment. Leasing those two parts of the building would put us in the black with a positive cash flow. Then we planned to keep the bar and operate it ourselves, or sell the entire property once we maximized the revenues.

That day was still months away, so we continued our work with an eye to the future, and a prayer Rufus could keep the old boiler going a few more months. Rufus continued his pesky drilling of walls and cutting through floors to run vent’s that would carry both heat and air conditioning soon.

It was about this time I sensed Jack were more nervous than he let on. Late at night I could hear him in the bar, pounding on the old piano keys, and hear the sounds of his glass on the bar. I assumed once Rufus closed in the system, the vents would carry air and not noise.

Fall turned in to winter, the kitchens were renovated the second floor and the penthouse were painted and more than beautiful. The old radiators did indeed provide warmth, and provided a wonderful place to lay out your next day’s clothing, or keep your coffee warm as you dressed for the day. The unfinished ventilation system carried noises, Jack continued his late night piano playing and admittedly he was quite good. I was a bit perturbed to hear his arguing with the women he had over on occasion carry their heated voices via the vents. But I supposed he heard mine as well. We were business partners, not relationship coaches.

Rufus kept us entertained in December and January with tales of the voodoo lounge and Miss Lilly. We went through and hung the old framed photos the cleaning crew had found. The bar was taking shape.

We had our first tenant for the Penthouse scheduled to move in within a month. We were about ready to sign a lease with old Lee from the Eat-Rite diner to operate a Grill/Coffee house in the Retail space across from the Bar. I had even nearly completed the restoration and painting of the old cigar store Indian. Things were good. And Jack had taken to playing more jazzy tunes in the evening. I assumed we were both sleeping better.

Rufus was nearing the end of the send floor vent work and had begun running vent work to the penthouse. We had some more late night history lessons. He told us how Miss Lilly had hooked up with the no good womanizing guitar player Otis Mayberry. Apparently it was a volatile relationship and one that started the rumors of Miss Lilly being a voodoo queen. It seemed that Miss Lilly found out Otis was strumming more than her strings on the nights his band wasn’t booked at the Voodoo lounge. Legend had it Miss Lilly put a curse on him. He began to lose weight, and his career ended with people calling him Slim. His luster with the ladies ended and he up and disappeared one day. Never to be heard from again. Rufus laughed and downed a shot. He was animated when he told his stories, his arms flailing in the air as a demonstrative gesture to Otis disappearing.

“Don’t you boys ever wonder why this building wasn’t looted for cooper or the fixtures? It’s because the folks around here don’t mess with Voodoo. They think this building is cursed! See you some lucky young men.” Rufus cackled for good measure .Miss Lilly always said this building was a testament to her life, not evil Rufus said seriously.

We all drank a toast to life and the fact we were nearing completion of a long renovation. Late that night I could hear Jack playing a nice jazz tune on the piano.

It was in mid-February when the boiler died. We awoke to frost on the windows; I could see my breath in the apartment. Rufus confirmed it and pronounced the boiler dead. The air valve and hot water expansion tank had burst. The basement floor was 2 inches deep with water. Rufus set up sump pumps and made arrangements to get the new unit delivered to the building. We hired a contracting company to dismantle and haul the old furnace/boiler out through the old coal slide in pieces. Rufus was too old for heavy construction. He oversaw the project.

Jack and I sat at the bar near a fireplace trying to stay warm. We opened the bottle early that day. We were effectively broke as a corporation now. This would cost each of us an additional 10 grand each out of pocket. We swigged Jack Daniels and cursed our misfortune.

“Well Jack, on the positive side I guess when the furnace goes in I won’t have to hear you playing the piano all damn night I laughed loudly.”

“What the hell, I don’t play the piano. I thought that was you he said.” His face was showing confusion.

Just then Rufus came in to the bar. “Come with me”, you got to see this he said. He was motioning us to follow him to the basement. We did so as we always did as Rufus directed.

The contractors had pulled up a long box from the hole dug for the new gas line. It looked like an old rifle box. Rufus pointed and said to Jack, “Go ahead open it up.”

 Jack did as instructed. He recoiled and said “what the hell kind of joke is this Rufus?”

“Aint no joke boys.”  Inside was a skinny skeleton dressed in a suit holding an old Gibson guitar. We all assumed (correctly according to the coroner later) We had just discovered what became of old Otis “Slim” Mayberry.

Jack stepped away and called the police with his cell phone. Rufus laughed and handed Me a small box. Inside was a legal document. I opened it and read it aloud.

“L.I.F.E….. The Lilly Iris Flowers Estate.  A trust exempt from probate. Administered by the Boatman’s Bank and Trust of St. Louis Mo.

It read “I Lilly Iris Flowers, being of sound mind, hereby bequeath my entire estate to the legal owner of the Fleur de-Lis building located at 5190 Olive Street road. Whoever hold’s title to said building at the time of this discovery, is the sole beneficiary of my estate held by Boatman’s Bank and Trust company. Signed: Lilly Iris Flowers. This 10th day of April 1957.

Enclosed with the legal document was a bank statement showing a balance as of March 31st 1957 of $987,000.00.

We contacted our corporate attorney via cell phone. Dealt with the police report, the forensics squad, and watched stunned as Rufus and the crew continued to install the new furnace.

The old Gibson guitar was handed to us by the paramedics. It too apparently belonged to us as there would be no evidentiary value 65 years later. We sat it on the stage.

Jack and I sat at the bar, sipping Jack Daniels as the heat from the new furnace came on. Right before nightfall and the temperature drop. We were joined by Rufus. We drank in silence. Our attorney called with the news, the Account was held in trust, Boatmen’s bank and its assets had been sold 4 times since the legal document were signed. Now Bank of America, The account Value was just under 3.2 Million dollars.

We sat silently doing shots. Rufus broke the ice by saying “you know I aint financing that furnace don’t you boys?”

Later that night the piano was accompanied by the crisp sound of a Gibson guitar, I swear I heard Billie Holliday Sing.

© jkdark  onthedarkside.wordpress.com

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~ by onthedarkside on February 22, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Fluer-De-Lis”

  1. Wow! A new favorite. I bet it’s a place my Grandmother or my Aunt Betty would go to. My grandmother always talked about having “Balls, Parties and Picnics” in Gaslight Square. You made it come alive!

  2. You have outdone yourself. Feels like I was there. Maybe in a past life I was.

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