66 Through St. Louis: Chase Park Plaza
This is the third in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.
When looking at a map of Route 66 through St. Louis, it seems like half the city’s major streets carried an alignment of Route 66 at one time or another. Travelers leaving downtown St. Louis via the road's first alignment along Lindell Boulevard drove past the crowning jewels of the Central West End: the enormous Chase and Park Plaza hotels.
The nine-story Chase was built in 1922 by Chase Ullman, with the enormous 28-story Park Plaza following close behind in 1929. The early years of the Chase were times of fine dining, uniformed bellhops, and luxury to spare . . . they were also times of illegal booze. It was the era of Prohibition, but within the walls of the Chase Hotel, the party never stopped. Underground tunnels between the two buildings, originally intended as service corridors, were used to store a cache of illegal liquor. (They also allowed some of St. Louis’s more prominent citizens to move discretely between the booze-filled parties.) Few places were better than the Chase’s luxurious Palm Room for a festively wet New Year’s party—that is, until the police showed up.
Just after midnight on January 1, 1923, federal agents burst into the Chase Hotel’s posh Palm Room for a whiskey raid. They were forced back by hundreds of furious party-goers who began pummeling the officers with chairs, plates, and silverware in an uncontrolled chaos. Soon gunshots rang out, and two men were wounded. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the scene:
About 10 tables had been searched when a woman screamed and her escort punched an enforcement agent’s face. . . . Almost immediately the dry agents were surrounded by about 200 men and women. Vigorous demands were made by some guests that the dry agents depart at once. The agents stood their ground. Words passed. Blows were struck. Glasses, plates, silverware and water were hurled through the air. The three agents, being the only ones in the demonstrative and surging group who were not in evening dress, were shining targets. . . . All the while the orchestra, under orders from the management, kept playing fast and loudly, in an effort to drown the noise of the excited, fighting, surging crowd 50 feet distant.
The officers claimed self-defense, but the irate public, including hotel owner Chase Ullman, claimed the officers' search warrants weren’t valid. The raid made front-page headlines in The New York Times, and two St. Louis agents had to be transferred to other cities.
Prohibition ended in 1933, but things never settled down at the hotels, which merged into the Chase Park Plaza in 1947. In May 1959, Harold Koplar’s KPLR Channel 11 debuted the television program Wrestling at the Chase, which featured live wrestling at the Chase every Saturday night, with repeats on Sunday mornings. The show, which ran for 24 years, often had more than 100,000 viewers per episode and is considered one of the pro-wrestling industry's most historic programs. Promoter Sam Muchnick brought in the top talent of the National Wrestling Alliance, including Ric Flair, Harley Race, Ted DiBiase, Lou Thesz, and “Cowboy” Bob Orton Jr.
The Chase Park Plaza welcomed presidents and celebrities, hosted the 1956 Miss America Pageant, and was even featured as a backdrop on an episode of the Route 66 TV show, but the hotel fell on hard times by the 1980s. The Park Plaza became an apartment complex, and the Chase closed in 1989. Fortunately, investors who recognized the Chase’s place in St. Louis history had it renovated and reopened in 1999. Today the Chase Park Plaza is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian