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Memorabilia Memories: The St. Louis Arena

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You might recognize the "Memorabilia Memories" (formerly "Lighting the Lamp") feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Memorabilia Memoirs" will be featured every home game day.

Memorabilia Memories with Rick Ackerman

I hate driving downtown to the TradeStocks Center to see the Blues. Highway 40 is usually a mess and the lights are poorly timed on the Forest Park Expressway, especially at Skinker, where there is always a backup. Every time I finally get to Skinker, I curse the placement of the hockey rink downtown instead of on Oakland Avenue, where the Arena used to be. How much easier and quicker it would be for the Blues' fan base, which mostly lives in West County (with apologies to those who live downtown or in Illinois). A new "Hockeyrink Village" could have been built at the site of the Old Barn on Oakland, yet shortsighted civic leaders chose to sandwich the new rink downtown between the Post Office and City Jail on Clark St. instead.

Oh, how I miss the Old Barn...

The St. Louis Arena opened for business on October 11, 1929, after a year of construction at a cost of around $1.5 million ($20.5 million in 2014 dollars). It replaced the little known St. Louis Coliseum, located at the southwest corner of Jefferson Ave. and Washington Blvd. With no public funds available, a group of local businessmen raised private funds and hired architect Gustel R. Kiewitt, who designed a building with a lamella roof, supported by 20 cantilever steel trusses, eliminating the need for internal support pillars which would have blocked the view of patrons. Upon completion, the Arena was only behind Madison Square Garden as the largest indoor entertainment center in the United States. The first event at the new Arena was the National Dairy Show, a two-week meeting and exhibition by dairy people and cattle breeders from all over the country. Complete with two annexes (east and west of the main building) to house the animals, the Arena was designed specifically for the National Dairy Association's annual meetings.

Thankfully, the Arena was also a perfect venue for a hockey rink, and the minor league American Hockey Association St. Louis Flyers played there from 1929 to 1942. World War II interrupted St. Louis hockey and the Flyers joined the American Hockey League and played at the Arena from 1944 until 1953. Another hockey team that played at the Arena was the NHL St. Louis Eagles, relocated from Ottawa (the NHL's smallest market) for the 1934-35 season. A truly terrible team and poor attendance caused the NHL to purchase and disband the club after only one year.

In 1947, Chicago's American Furniture Mart purchased the Arena and surrounding grounds (around 63 acres) for a reported $ 1,800,000. The AFM was owned by business partners Arthur M. Wirtz (owner of the Chicago Blackhawks) and James D. Norris (owner of the Detroit Red Wings), who immediately set up the Arena Corporation to manage and run various events at the building. After the Flyers left St. Louis in 1953, there was no professional hockey in St. Louis for almost a decade until the Blackhawks relocated their farm team from Syracuse, New York, as the St. Louis Braves of the CPHL. The Arena was not well maintained and many repairs were made, especially after a February 1959 tornado severely damaged the roof. The renovations included the removal of fencing that enforced racial segregation, dating back to the 1930s.

The NHL doubled in size in 1967 and a franchise was granted to St. Louis, yet that was conditional upon the new owners, the father and son Salomons, purchasing the Arena from Wirtz and Norris. After almost two decades of neglect from out-of-town ownership, the run-down, antiquated Old Barn was but a pale reflection of her former grandeur and granting the Salomons an expansion team was a brilliant way of unloading a near-worthless relic from the past on a willing buyer. The final cost of the Blues franchise was $3,000,010, including a guarantee of $1 million for operating expenses and a $10,000 application fee. It cost roughly another $2 million to renovate the Arena, including a new state-of-the-art $60,000 score clock, bringing the total investment to over $7 million, including $2 million to Wirtz and Norris for the building and 16.3 acres of land. What a deal, eh?

In 1977, the Blues and the Arena were purchased by Ralston Purina, mostly due to the influence of chairman R. Hal Dean, who renamed the building the Checkerdome after RP's famous checkerboard logo. However, Dean retired in 1981, and the new chairman, William Stiritz, desperately wanted to unload the financially troubled franchise. After a bid by Saskatoon businessman Bill Hunter failed, the team was sold to Harry Ornest, a Los Angeles based businessman (vending machines and real estate). Ornest wisely changed the name back to the Arena. The Blues played their last regular season game at the Arena on April 14, 1994, a 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets. The very last game at the Arena during the playoffs in April was a loss to the Dallas Stars, who swept the Blues in the first round.