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I paid $105 to spend the night in Lemp Mansion. The ghost of Charles Lemp stayed for free. Not that I saw him, you understand. It's just that there could be a lot of reasons he didn't visit me that Saturday night in this famously haunted house, in the second-floor bedroom that once belonged to him.
Maybe it was the Donna Summer/Barry Manilow set the wedding party was playing on the patio below. Maybe it was the Tom Jones tunes bellowing from the bar in the first-floor parlor. Maybe it was the episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger" I fell asleep to -- which I had left on just for company. Just in case.
Well, after all, I did want to see the rest of St. Louis in the morning.
Seeing St. Louis means seeing the arch first and everything else second. That's the Gateway Arch, by proper name, 630 feet high and hard to miss from any direction. But at a distance, it only feels really right to view it from the East, from across the Mississippi River on whose banks it stands. Allow yourself to be drawn to it, then, from Illinois. For the arch is what it claims to be, a gateway to the West.
Once you're at the arch, you'll have to look up, up -- no, higher than that -- to catch its graceful leap into the sky. Like a teenager flouting parents, it defies gravity -- and gets away with it. You'd never guess what it took to build this 43,000-ton flash of silver; but for $6 you can watch a film about the construction in one of two theaters under, and I mean really under, the arch.
Underground, there's a complex of buried treasure: the theaters I mentioned, a gift-quality souvenir shop that doesn't charge sales tax and the Museum of Westward Expansion. The museum is a history of the advancing American frontier, told through covered wagons, stuffed bison, animatronic historians and Indian peace treaty medallions, the whole laid out like the ever-widening ripples of a pond, with a statue of Thomas Jefferson being the "rock" that sets the waves of history in motion. And since I've raised the subject of Thomas Jefferson, this is as good a time as any to note that the arch, its landscaped grounds and ponds, the museum and the nearby (and above ground) Old Courthouse are all part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, run by the National Park Service.
In this subterranean center, you can buy a $6 ticket for the four-minute ride to the top of the arch, by means of a cramped, five-person conveyance -- they describe it as a capsule -- that will inspire "2001: A Space Odyssey" movie buffs to repeat, "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
At the top, you'll stand on a narrow, steeply arched floor beneath a low, steeply arched ceiling. You'll lean outward against carpeted bays to peer out the arch's tiny glass windows -- at the Mississippi River and Illinois to the east; all of St. Louis and the sunset to the west. They say there's usually no perceptible movement up here, but I know I felt something. That might be attributed to the heat in close quarters: the arch was having trouble with its air-conditioning system during my visit. Or, who knows, maybe the arch is haunted.
This is, if you remember your history, the city whose spirit possessed the strength to fly Charles Augustus Lindbergh across the Atlantic. It ought to have powerful ghosts. But even the Summer Blues -- a blue margarita, more or less -- I drank during lunch at Landry's Seafood House didn't help me see any.
Landry's is one of several chain restaurants that share the banks of a pedal-boat pond at Union Station, St. Louis' once-palatial train depot. The pond and restaurants are shaded by the vast canopy that protected the boarding platforms and travelers of a bygone era from the elements. Central Station was built in 1894 and operated until 1978, when the last train departed. Now, its main building has become a shopping mall, where cooking demonstrations at The Fudgery perfume the air with chocolate and draw a crowd three onlookers deep. The showpiece, though, was and is the Grand Hall, now the lobby of the Hyatt hotel, that flaunts a 65-foot barrel vaulted ceiling and a symphony of Romanesque arches, stained-glass windows and gold leaf.
With its gabled roof, turrets and clock tower, Union Station's facade is a popular photo op, best framed with the block-long "The Meeting of the Waters" fountain across the street spewing in the foreground.
During the 1940s, Union Station welcomed and sent forth 100,000 passengers a day, an allegory of what this parcel of earth has long done. For it was from St. Louis that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their two-year errand for Thomas Jefferson. People have been following their example ever since. It's the most natural feeling in the world to be heading west from here, especially when you have a full tank, a good air conditioner and a clear lane in front of you. It feels good to leave.
And it feels good to return; there's still so much to draw you back: free admission to the St. Louis Art Museum, a jewel box with a world-class collection, and the St. Louis Zoo, from which hailed the late Marlin Perkins; free tours of the Budweiser Brewery and a flight exhibit at The Boeing Co.; pay-as-you-go bar and restaurant hopping over the cobblestones of Laclede's Landing, a riverfront entertainment district.
Among the stalls of the Soulard neighborhood's historic Farmers Market, just south of downtown, the earthy scents of soil and leafy vegetables, of fresh-cut flowers and ripe fruit mingle in the humidity with people sounds: There are questions about prices, the rustle of paper sacks being filled, and the insistent slapping of a man's palm against the cool green skins of his last three watermelons, trying to close a sale. You can buy a whole dressed hog here for $100, a Busta Rhymes T-shirt for $10 or Vidalia onions five pounds for $2.
Go downtown to the Old Cathedral, officially the Basilica of St. Louis, King, and you'll get a unique view of the arch through the church's multi-paned windows. Go to the Old Courthouse, also downtown, and you'll see where the Dred Scott trial took place. Go to Bellefontaine Cemetery, north of downtown, and you can find the monumental grave of explorer William Clark and the austere Lemp family crypt.
But still no ghosts.
It's too bad about the Lemp family. They built their fortune on the brewing empire that originated, then sold, the Falstaff label, endured a Victorian-era divorce scandal and suffered many untimely deaths, several by suicide. Charles Lemp, whose room I stayed in at what is now a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant, was the last family member to live in the house, until he took his own life in the mansion in 1949.
No one at my table talked about him over dinner, though. One entire dining room of the Lemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn was engaged in solving the case of the "Hawaiian Corporate Corpse," one of the murder mysteries that takes place in the house every Friday and Saturday night. When talk did turn to the mansion and its hauntings, it was to discuss the chances of seeing the "Lavender Lady," one of the most flamboyant Lemps and purported ghostly mistress.
If houses were women, then Lemp Mansion was the one that pulled her hair tightly into a bun at a time when all the other ladies were wearing ringlets. Its rooms are dark, despite the cheerful decor. Family portraits seem to be looking at you instead of the other way around. The roof leaks, the stairs creak, there's something sinister about the attic.
If you don't spend the night, you can come for lunch or dinner, the murder mystery dinner theater or simply take one of the $3 house tours. However, if the house doesn't scare you, maybe the abandoned corpse of the nearby Lemp Brewery, with its dark, red-brick towers and broken windows, will.
Perhaps the most haunting thing about St. Louis is the restlessness it inspires. Go away, come closer. Head west, stay awhile. Maybe the ghost of Charles Lemp felt that strange pull to leave. Perhaps his soul, like so many before him, went in search of the sunset. I'd like to think he's found it.
But I bet he'll come back.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for one:
Lodging (two nights) ........... $184
Meals .......................... $67
Dinner theater ................. $40
Snacks, etc. ................... $8
Gas ............................ $38
Admissions ..................... $12
Parking ........................ $10
Gifts & souvenirs .............. $53
Film & developing .............. $27
Total .......................... $439
IF YOU GO
- GETTING THERE
Tallest landmark to tallest landmark, it's 295 miles from Chicago's Sears Tower to St. Louis' Gateway Arch, a straight shot down Interstate Highway 55, not counting pit stops.
If you want to pay New York prices in the Heartland, try the Hyatt Central Station (800-233-1234). Its lobby, which you can see for free, was once the Grand Hall of St. Louis' showpiece train depot. Rack rates start at $205, but the hotel advertised a "Getaway Next Weekend" special on its Web site offering rooms for $150 or less for the weekend I would be in town. However, when I tried, on numerous occasions, to book a room there, the lowest rate was $185.
So, I spent my Friday night in the Earth City-Bridgeton suburbs at the Courtyard Marriott (800-321-2211), where I got a room for $69 plus tax. The Earth City-Bridgeton area is just across the Missouri River from the historic riverfront town of St. Charles, where there is much boutique shopping to be done.
St. Louis has a tempting assortment of B&Bs. For my Saturday night, I chose Lemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn because it is said to be haunted. For $105, I stayed in a room overlooking Interstate Highway 55 and the mansion's patio. A shared bathroom was across the hall. Don't come expecting a cooked breakfast or chatty camaraderie; the innkeepers don't live here, and breakfast -- a basket of muffins, fruit, canned juice and individual-sized wine -- is in your room when you arrive. Check in is after 5 p.m., when the staff is rushing to welcome, seat and serve its dinner guests. (314-664-8024)
I had hoped to make Friday-night dinner reservations at Patty Long's Ninth Street Abbey, located in a former church. Unfortunately, a private party had reserved the stained-glass sanctuary, which was the sole reason I wanted to eat there, so I passed. Maybe you'll have better luck. (314-621-9598)
Lemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn has a three-hour murder mystery dinner theater on weekends for $40. The price covers hot hors d'oeuvres, salad, a choice of three entrees, dessert, wine and non-alcoholic beverages. The theatrical side of the evening is conducted by Murders, Games & More!, which assigns each guest a role to play. You can ham it up or be a wallflower. The chicken I had was good, but not memorable, and the service was slow. You can't beat this place for spooky atmosphere, though. (314-664-8024)
St. Louis Bread Co. is a sandwich-pastry-bread-and-coffee bistro with locations all over town. The Grind Diner appeared to be the only establishment open -- or still open -- on Sunday morning in Laclede's Landing. For $4.90, I got eggs, pancakes, hash browns, juice and coffee.
St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-916-0040; www.explorestlouis.com
Toni Stroud's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.