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Building collapse another in long line of Lemp misfortunes

Building collapse another in long line of Lemp misfortunes

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It was built for booze, then used for shoes.

Now, the 155-year-old Lemp Brewery campus on the near South Side risks becoming just a pile of another St. Louis staple: red brick.

No one was injured when a portion of a six-story building on the site collapsed about 9 a.m. last Sunday at Cherokee and 18th streets.

The structure, designated as building No. 20, is part of a 29-building, 14-acre campus on a triangle formed by Cherokee Street, South Broadway and Lemp Avenue.

Last week, demolition crews and city building inspectors worked at the site, while questions arose about whether a plan brewed up 20 years ago by father-son owners Rao and Shashi Palamand to operate the site as a common ground for small businesses would ever become real.

“We still would love to see this become a little city within a city, a village of mom-and-pop businesses,” said Alderman Dan Guenther, D-9th Ward.

Guenther, who has represented the area since 2017 and has lived in the ward since 2002, said the rebirth of the Cherokee Street area has sparked interest in the site.

“These are some beautiful structures here and we want to save them,” he said. “It’s part of the heritage of brewing in south St. Louis.”

All in the family

If anyone wonders why the site still carries the Lemp name — even after the family sold it 100 years ago, and it spent more time as a shoe plant than as a brewery — the answer is simple:

Tragic tales and ghost stories never die — and the Lemps might be St. Louis’ leading family in both categories.

The brewing patriarch, grocer Johann Adam Lemp, founded the Western Brewery on South Second Street around 1840.

By 1864, the brewery had moved to the current site and was being run by Lemp’s son, William Lemp Sr., under the family name. The brewers chose the location because of its proximity to a network of limestone caves that provided cool storage for lager beer.

And by the time the Gilded Age peaked in the 1890s, the Lemps were local royalty and their top beer, Falstaff, was as popular as any in a beer-loving city.

In 1890, William Sr. built a 33-room family mansion across the street from the brewery, at 3322 South 13th Street, now DeMenil Place. The old mansion now houses a restaurant.

Then in 1897, one of William Sr.’s daughters, Hilda, married brewing heir Gustave Pabst of Milwaukee.

Two years later, William Lemp Jr. married Lillian Handlan, a railroad-supply heiress known as the “Lavender Lady” because she favored that color for everything, even the harnesses on her carriage horses.

In spite of financial success and social affluence, dark clouds began passing over the brewery in 1901, when Frederick Lemp, another of William Sr.’s sons, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 28.

The death threw Lemp Sr. into long bouts of depression and in 1904 he shot himself in the head in his second-floor bedroom at the mansion.

And the colorful marriage of Lemp Jr. and “Lavender Lady” Handlan fell apart in 1909, in splendid tabloid fashion. Their divorce was covered daily by the city’s four main newspapers.

But Prohibition proved to be the main catalyst for the family’s ensuing tragedies.

Shortly after the brewery was shut down in 1920 by the federal dry laws, Elsa Lemp Wright, a daughter of Lemp Sr., fatally shot herself at her Central West End home.

In the summer of 1922, William Jr. sold the site to International Shoe Co., which used it until 1992. Then he sold its Falstaff brand name, a beer that would remain a St. Louis favorite for decades, to Griesedieck Bros. Brewing Co.

Shortly after Christmas, William Jr. fatally shot himself in the chest while working in his office at the mansion. He was 55.

The last shoe dropped in 1949 when William Jr.’s brother, Charles Lemp, fatally shot himself in the room adjoining the one in which his brother preceded him in similar fashion.

For years, that tragic past has spawned ghost stories and Halloween attractions and haunted-house tours at the mansion and brewery.

Building condemned

Less concerned with history, and more with building-code issues, is St. Louis BWorks.

The Soulard-based nonprofit organization is best known for its Bicycle Works program, which gives youths a chance to earn a free bike, helmet, light and lock.

BWorks was storing about 700 bicycles and was the only tenant of the building, said Patrick Van Der Tuin, BWorks’ executive director.

But the organization had no idea that the collapsed property actually had been condemned seven years ago.

Van Der Tuin also said he had previously told Shashi Palamand about sections of loose bricks that had popped out of walls.

As for the buried bikes, Van Der Tuin said he still does not know how many were destroyed or damaged, because he can’t enter the area until some safety tests have been performed.

St. Louis Building Commissioner Frank Oswald said that Building No. 20 had been condemned in 2013 due to the need to “replace defective roof covering” and other issues. He said the owners never submitted repair plans with his office.

And using the building for any purpose is illegal because no occupancy permit was obtained, Oswald said.

Shashi Palamand told a reporter Sunday that he believes recent storms contributed to the collapse and that he had called in an engineer and a masonry company to look at it.

Palamand also said last week that he had spent $1 million about 10 years ago to replace the roof and strengthen the walls of No. 20.

More recently, Palamand has been unavailable for comment.

Guenther said demolition workers on the site last week told him they found reinforcement rods and other work pointing to stabilizing work having been done on the building.

The alderman said he is working with the city to get inspections of the other buildings in the complex.

He remains hopeful that the other buildings can be maintained, as well as the surviving portion of No. 20. He said that building is composed of three adjacent silo areas once used for drying grain.

“So I’ve been told it’s possible that the other two-thirds of that (same) building could be fine, that they can be saved,” Guenther said.

Higher times ahead?

When the Palamands bought the site in 1999, about one-third of it was filled. The tenants were small operators, such as artist studios, storage for theater groups and light manufacturers.

That still describes generally the types of tenants now in the various buildings, but some new tenants may soon arrive. In a nod to its intoxicating past, two cannabis businesses are getting facilities ready at the site, Guenther said.

In 2019, Blue Arrow Holdings LLC received a license to use a building to grow cannabis indoors. Guenther said cannabis grower BeLeaf Co. also has been working to establish a growing site there.

He said along with the small shops, he believes the site could use one major developer to serve as an anchor.

He added that city development officials have in the past set up several meetings with major investors, but they were called off by the Palamands.

In 2007, a Kansas City developer flirted with a $140 million project that would have featured more than 400 apartments and thousands of square feet of restaurants, stores and offices. Like several other rumblings over recent years, nothing came to pass.

Robert M. Lewis, an urban planning and development professor at St. Louis University, said the general plan for the site is a good one.

Lemp is something of a “mixed use,” though probably not in the sense that planners would use those words, he said, opting to describe it as “an industrial property catering to a wide range of uses we can broadly call industrial.”

“Artists are in many ways … like manufacturers. Lemp is great for them with all their equipment, messy supplies, need for production space and storage, and moving things in and out,” Lewis said.

He cautioned that mixed-use developments are difficult to finance.

Lenders are not sure how to blend the financial risks of diverse businesses such as restaurants, offices and manufacturing spaces at one site, he said. This makes it harder to prepare suitable rate-of-return analyses for potential lenders, he added.

Still, Lewis applauds the larger idea behind the plan.

“It’s kind of cool,” he said, “to reuse these old, historic structures so that they can continue to define their neighborhoods in distinctive ways.”

Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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