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Just blocks from its 1800s Main Street district, this city said goodbye Wednesday to a landmark of more recent vintage — the 40-year-old Noah's Ark building.

Several hundred people showed up outside the long-vacant restaurant for a "demolition party" marking the start of its razing to make way for a $385 million commercial and residential complex.

Many grabbed last peeks inside of the partly gutted building at South Fifth Street and Interstate 70.

Later, many took photos, some with cell phones, as a CAT excavator took its first ceremonial whacks at the side of the building shortly after 7 p.m. The heavy demolition work will begin Tuesday.

Many in the crowd said they came because of fond memories of special occasions at the restaurant, known across the metro area for its eccentric design and the large fake animals outside.

"My wife and I had our first date here," said Bruce Edwards, 58, a retired autoworker from St. Charles. "She was 18, and I was 25. This was a nice place back then."

Kathy Conley, 55, the city's information technology director, remembered going to the ark after her high school prom.

Ronald Pohlman, 53, of St. Charles, said he and his wife got engaged at the restaurant on Halloween in 1974 "and we returned here every year after that for the clam chowder."

Ah, the clam chowder. Various people cited that Noah's Ark staple, a version of which was served Wednesday by the sponsors of the ceremonial start of the demolition.

Former employees also were scattered throughout the crowd.

"I spent 30 years of my life here," said Eve Noakes, 70, of St. Charles, who was a bookkeeper at the restaurant. "My whole family was involved at one point or another" in other jobs, she added.

Lisa Middleton, 44, of O'Fallon, Mo., said her late father, Gene Willen, helped manage the construction of the building and did other work there over the years.

"I'm sad; I could cry," she said after pointing out a table built by her dad.

Nearby was Middleton's uncle, Gus Willen, 70, of Bridgeton, who also helped supervise the construction project. "I thought it would be here forever," he said.

The ark opened in 1967, the brainchild of David Flavan, an Eastern Air Lines pilot looking to start a sideline business for him and his family. It closed about seven years ago, two years before its more nondescript neighbor — the Noah's Ark motel — shut down.

Flavan, who was at the party, said he first planned to call it the Galway Bay Steamship Co. but then switched to the Noah's Ark theme.

Wednesday's event was sponsored by Cullinan Properties, the Peoria, Ill.-based company overseeing the new development, and the nonprofit ShowMe Aquatics and Fitness organization.

ShowMe plans a $25 million pool and exercise center accessible to disabled people as part of the new complex. Raffle tickets were sold for $10 apiece to help raise money for ShowMe.

The winner, Heather Ordner, 27, of St. Peters, got to climb into the cab of the excavating machine to direct its first jabs at the building.

Cullinan's president, Jeff Giebelhausen, said the entire site - which also includes some nearby homes - is expected to be ready for grading by December.

The new Plaza at Noah's Ark project, aided by a $55 million tax-increment financing subsidy from the city, is to open in 2010.

Mayor Patti York told the crowd that the new complex was "a dream come true for me and this city."

"Many of you have memories here - a million memories with this building, " York said. "We just hope there's going to be a million memories to come."

Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.