John and Mary Raniero have solid standing to be sentimental about the St. Louis Arena, which dominates the vista from their front stoop on Wise Avenue.
Born two years apart, they grew up in the Cheltenham neighborhood, a hodgepodge of small homes and industries built along the hillsides between The Arena and Manchester Avenue to the south. In 1955, their romance began at the old Arena Roller Rink, which was in part of the old west annex. He was a rolling usher on the floor; she was a coat-check girl.
They were married one year later and stayed in the neighborhood. They raised two sons and have lived for the past 38 years in a one-story home with white siding in the 5900 block of Wise. From the concrete pad outside their front door, The Arena is just to the northeast, its humped dome rising above the vast blacktopped parking lot.
With roof shingles falling off and weeds along the fence, The Arena may not be the shining community hall it once was. But it's part of what the Ranieros call home.
If Mayor Clarence Harmon gets his way, The Arena may be gone by summer. After all the years of talk about about an aquarium or an arts annex or high-rise apartments, the mayor wants to move quickly on the latest plan for an office park, with all of its potential for jobs and payroll taxes.
John Raniero, 62, would rather see The Arena saved.
"It's like an old friend," he said. "I know it's a sentimental thing, but that's what our neighborhood wants."
Just in case it isn't what Cheltenham gets, Raniero plans to participate in a city advisory committee that is supposed to monitor development plans. He helped found the Cheltenham Neighborhood Association in 1968 and has been its president again for the past six years.
"I suppose that if they tear the thing down, we'll all get over it," Raniero said. "What bothers me is there aren't any plans yet. We don't want truck docks and trash containers facing our houses. We mainly want them to do something good with that land.
"Almost anything besides keeping it vacant would be an improvement."
By Cheltenham standards, The Arena was always the new kid on the block. Many of the commuters who zip past The Arena on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) may not know it, but The Arena rises above a neighborhood that once was one of St. Louis' first suburbs.
The recorded history goes back to 1798 and Charles Gratiot, a leading Colonial-era merchant who married one of the daughters of Madam Marie Therese Chouteau, first lady of St. Louis and consort of its founder, Pierre Laclede. Gratiot bought 5,712 acres, known as Gratiot League Square, bounded roughly now by Forest Park to the north, Kingshighway to the east, Pernod Avenue to the south and Big Bend Boulevard to the west. Only Kingshighway was there at the time.
East of present-day Hampton Avenue was a small sulphur spring that bubbled up near the River Des Peres, which once meandered through its valley just south of present-day Manchester Avenue. During the 1830s, the spring attracted development of a Sulphur Springs Resort, as well as associated commerce and households. By 1852, it was enough of a settlement to become the first stop of the Pacific Railroad as it was being built westward to Kansas City.
The settlement got its name compliments of William Wible, who ran the resort in the years when the railroad was being built. Wible built a home on the hillside and named it after his hometown - Cheltenham, England.
The name stuck, but the quaint country resort setting didn't last. In 1844, the Laclede Christy Co. took a small fire-brick kiln near the spring and turned it into a major enterprise. Other brickworks followed, then other smoke-belching factories settled in the River Des Peres valley.
So did, briefly, a spinoff group from a French communal organization. The Missouri Icarians lived near the spring for about 10 years until 1864, when the area's industry drove them away.
That also was the year in which Confederate cavalrymen, taking part in the last serious raid near St. Louis, ransacked Augustus Muegge's store at Dale and Manchester avenues west of the spring. It had doubled as Cheltenham's first post office.
More houses, meanwhile, were built along the hillside north of the expanding river-bottom industrial area.
Development of the northern reaches of Cheltenham came later. Forest Park, the wilderness far west of the city streets, was created in 1874. Clayton Road was a country path that cut through the southeastern corner of the park. Expansion of the city to its current boundary in 1876 finally made Cheltenham part of St. Louis.
In 1896, a small brewery opened the Highlands Cottage Restaurant on Oakland Avenue. That suburban getaway was expanded into Forest Park Highlands, an amusement park that was a popular attraction for decades until its midway burned July 19, 1963. The empty trestles of the Comet, its last and fastest roller coaster, were demolished in 1966 to make way for Forest Park Community College.
By the 1920s, the Highlands was owned by Col. Ben Brinkman, a man with big ideas. He built The Arena for $1.5 million on land west of the Highlands. His dream was to make it a major livestock exhibition hall - a cow palace - and its first booking was the National Dairy Show in October 1929.
That month may ring a bell. The Depression quickly deflated Brinkman's plans. Two years later, The Arena had to sell off some chairs to satisfy a $1,681 debt. In 1934, the banks foreclosed on The Arena and the Highlands. City Hall briefly pondered buying The Arena. Both properties were sold to the Reorganization Investment Co., which operated The Arena until 1947.
Across Oakland, the first work on present-day Highway 40 began in 1934 with construction of the Express Highway, a four-lane roadway that eventually ran from Hi-Pointe at the city limit eastward three miles to Chouteau Avenue. It opened in 1937 and cost $3 million to build.
On Feb. 10, 1959, the city's most recent killer tornado tore away the northern part of The Arena's roof and knocked over one of two towers that graced its entrance. It also demolished the roller rink, which never was rebuilt.
The Salomon family bought The Arena in 1966, when they also won a National Hockey League franchise and named it the St. Louis Blues. The Blues played in The Arena - which was known as the Checkerdome from 1977 to 1983 - until 1994, when the team moved downtown to the new Kiel Center.
A city agency bought The Arena in December 1986 and still owns it.
Raniero, the lifelong Cheltenham resident, said any trace of the sulphur spring was long gone by the time he played in the vacant lots along the hillside during World War II. With plenty of vacant ground, Raniero said, the neighborhood had the feel of a small country town, even with all the urban commotion surrounding it.
Postwar home building filled up the empty spots. Today, Cheltenham's dozen square blocks are home to about 300 houses, most of them simple, single-story square frames or shotguns. Some are made of brick. Mingled among them are metal fabricators, an electrical-supply house, auto-body shops and the Little White House, the obligatory neighborhood tavern at West Park and Pierce avenues.
Raniero, like his father, was a lifelong member of Tile Layers Local 18. Raniero remembers the neighborhood as always having been blue-collar, as it is today. Traffic zips by on Highway 40, Hampton and Manchester, the railroads rumble past on the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines down in the valley, but Cheltenham remains its contentedly isolated self.
"We haven't changed much at all," he said. "We've got our little neighborhood and we want to keep it up. Like we like to tell people, we just don't want the secret to get out."
================================ Along with the story were some photos.
(1) Color Photo by CHRIS LEE / POST-DISPATCH - Mary and John Raniero in front of their Cheltenham neighborhood home across from the Arena. The couple met while working at The Arena site and will miss the landmark if it's razed for an office development.
(2) Color Map by the POST-DISPATCH - The Arena site PHOTO, MAP
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