A CITY WITH SPIRITS

I paid $105 to spend the night in Lemp Mansion. The ghost of Charles Lempstayed for free. Not that I saw him, you understand. It's just that therecould be a lot of reasons he didn't visit me that Saturday night in thisfamously haunted house, in the second-floor bedroom that once belonged to him.

Maybe it was the Donna Summer/Barry Manilow set the wedding party wasplaying on the patio below. Maybe it was the Tom Jones tunes bellowing fromthe bar in the first-floor parlor. Maybe it was the episode of "Walker, TexasRanger" I fell asleep to -- which I had left on just for company. Just incase.

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 fromany direction. But at a distance, it only feels really right to view it fromthe East, from across the Mississippi River on whose banks it stands. Allowyourself to be drawn to it, then, from Illinois. For the arch is what itclaims 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 tobuild this 43,000-ton flash of silver; but for $6 you can watch a film aboutthe construction in one of two theaters under, and I mean really under, thearch.

Underground, there's a complex of buried treasure: the theaters Imentioned, a gift-quality souvenir shop that doesn't charge sales tax and theMuseum of Westward Expansion. The museum is a history of the advancingAmerican frontier, told through covered wagons, stuffed bison, animatronichistorians and Indian peace treaty medallions, the whole laid out like theever-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 thesubject of Thomas Jefferson, this is as good a time as any to note that thearch, its landscaped grounds and ponds, the museum and the nearby (and aboveground) Old Courthouse are all part of the Jefferson National ExpansionMemorial, run by the National Park Service.

In this subterranean center, you can buy a $6 ticket for the four-minuteride 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 outthe arch's tiny glass windows -- at the Mississippi River and Illinois to theeast; all of St. Louis and the sunset to the west. They say there's usually noperceptible movement up here, but I know I felt something. That might beattributed to the heat in close quarters: the arch was having trouble with itsair-conditioning system during my visit. Or, who knows, maybe the arch ishaunted.

This is, if you remember your history, the city whose spirit possessed thestrength to fly Charles Augustus Lindbergh across the Atlantic. It ought tohave powerful ghosts. But even the Summer Blues -- a blue margarita, more orless -- 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 apedal-boat pond at Union Station, St. Louis' once-palatial train depot. Thepond and restaurants are shaded by the vast canopy that protected the boardingplatforms and travelers of a bygone era from the elements. Central Station wasbuilt in 1894 and operated until 1978, when the last train departed. Now, itsmain building has become a shopping mall, where cooking demonstrations at TheFudgery 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 Hyatthotel, that flaunts a 65-foot barrel vaulted ceiling and a symphony ofRomanesque arches, stained-glass windows and gold leaf.

With its gabled roof, turrets and clock tower, Union Station's facade is apopular 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 passengersa day, an allegory of what this parcel of earth has long done. For it was fromSt. Louis that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their two-yearerrand for Thomas Jefferson. People have been following their example eversince. It's the most natural feeling in the world to be heading west fromhere, especially when you have a full tank, a good air conditioner and a clearlane in front of you. It feels good to leave.

And it feels good to return; there's still so much to draw you back: freeadmission to the St. Louis Art Museum, a jewel box with a world-classcollection, 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'sLanding, 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, offresh-cut flowers and ripe fruit mingle in the humidity with people sounds:There are questions about prices, the rustle of paper sacks being filled, andthe insistent slapping of a man's palm against the cool green skins of hislast three watermelons, trying to close a sale. You can buy a whole dressedhog here for $100, a Busta Rhymes T-shirt for $10 or Vidalia onions fivepounds 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'smulti-paned windows. Go to the Old Courthouse, also downtown, and you'll seewhere the Dred Scott trial took place. Go to Bellefontaine Cemetery, north ofdowntown, and you can find the monumental grave of explorer William Clark andthe austere Lemp family crypt.

But still no ghosts.

It's too bad about the Lemp family. They built their fortune on the brewingempire that originated, then sold, the Falstaff label, endured a Victorian-eradivorce scandal and suffered many untimely deaths, several by suicide. CharlesLemp, whose room I stayed in at what is now a bed-and-breakfast andrestaurant, was the last family member to live in the house, until he took hisown life in the mansion in 1949.

No one at my table talked about him over dinner, though. One entire diningroom of the Lemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn was engaged in solving the case ofthe "Hawaiian Corporate Corpse," one of the murder mysteries that takes placein the house every Friday and Saturday night. When talk did turn to themansion and its hauntings, it was to discuss the chances of seeing the"Lavender Lady," one of the most flamboyant Lemps and purported ghostlymistress.

If houses were women, then Lemp Mansion was the one that pulled her hairtightly 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 belooking at you instead of the other way around. The roof leaks, the stairscreak, there's something sinister about the attic.

If you don't spend the night, you can come for lunch or dinner, the murdermystery dinner theater or simply take one of the $3 house tours. However, ifthe house doesn't scare you, maybe the abandoned corpse of the nearby LempBrewery, with its dark, red-brick towers and broken windows, will.

Perhaps the most haunting thing about St. Louis is the restlessness itinspires. Go away, come closer. Head west, stay awhile. Maybe the ghost ofCharles Lemp felt that strange pull to leave. Perhaps his soul, like so manybefore 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 SearsTower to St. Louis' Gateway Arch, a straight shot down Interstate Highway 55,not counting pit stops.

LODGING

If you want to pay New York prices in the Heartland, try the Hyatt CentralStation (800-233-1234). Its lobby, which you can see for free, was once theGrand Hall of St. Louis' showpiece train depot. Rack rates start at $205, butthe hotel advertised a "Getaway Next Weekend" special on its Web site offeringrooms for $150 or less for the weekend I would be in town. However, when Itried, 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 theCourtyard Marriott (800-321-2211), where I got a room for $69 plus tax. TheEarth City-Bridgeton area is just across the Missouri River from the historicriverfront town of St. Charles, where there is much boutique shopping to bedone.

St. Louis has a tempting assortment of B&Bs. For my Saturday night, I choseLemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn because it is said to be haunted. For $105, Istayed in a room overlooking Interstate Highway 55 and the mansion's patio. Ashared bathroom was across the hall. Don't come expecting a cooked breakfastor chatty camaraderie; the innkeepers don't live here, and breakfast -- abasket of muffins, fruit, canned juice and individual-sized wine -- is in yourroom when you arrive. Check in is after 5 p.m., when the staff is rushing towelcome, seat and serve its dinner guests. (314-664-8024)

- DINING

I had hoped to make Friday-night dinner reservations at Patty Long's NinthStreet Abbey, located in a former church. Unfortunately, a private party hadreserved the stained-glass sanctuary, which was the sole reason I wanted toeat there, so I passed. Maybe you'll have better luck. (314-621-9598)

Lemp Mansion Restaurant and Inn has a three-hour murder mystery dinnertheater on weekends for $40. The price covers hot hors d'oeuvres, salad, achoice of three entrees, dessert, wine and non-alcoholic beverages. Thetheatrical side of the evening is conducted by Murders, Games & More!, whichassigns each guest a role to play. You can ham it up or be a wallflower. Thechicken I had was good, but not memorable, and the service was slow. You can'tbeat this place for spooky atmosphere, though. (314-664-8024)

St. Louis Bread Co. is a sandwich-pastry-bread-and-coffee bistro withlocations all over town. The Grind Diner appeared to be the only establishmentopen -- or still open -- on Sunday morning in Laclede's Landing. For $4.90, Igot eggs, pancakes, hash browns, juice and coffee.

- INFORMATION

St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-916-0040;www.explorestlouis.com

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Toni Stroud's e-mail address is tstroud@tribune.com.

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