Automobile Industry

Placke Chevrolet and Other By-Gone Auto Dealers

Placke Chevrolet and Other By-Gone Auto Dealers

I was recently reminiscing about my first trips to St. Louis back in the 1990's delivering windshields to auto dealerships all over the bi-state region.

I was trying to find photos of some of these new car dealerships from the past. Turns out, it's pretty hard to find online history and photos of long gone businesses. I was looking for pictures of Hanna Oldsmobile when I starting finding hints on other auto dealerships.

The best bet is looking through Globe Democrat and Post-Dispatch ads on microfiche.

But, when I was researching St. Louis firehouses, I came across a book that had great photos of the city throughout the years, mainly related to catastrophic fires. It's called, St. Louis Fire Department: The First 150 Years of Service (1857-2007). It is a little hard to find, but can be referenced at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center at 225 South Skinker Boulevard.

New Life For A Former Auto Dealership in Fox Park

Walk up Jefferson Avenue, just north of Gravois in the Fox Park Neighborhood, and you may notice something new and exciting at the corner of South Jefferson and Victor Street. Most recently, the building at 2501 Jefferson housed a music club/performance space called "the Warehouse" which closed not too long ago. Per city data, 2501 Jefferson was built in 1921.

Here's an idea of what the building looked like during its "Warehouse" years.

screen capture from Google Streetview

You may not recognize the building if you looked at it today. There is a major storefront and interior renovation taking place that hearkens back to the building's days as an auto dealership for the Riefling-Vigar Automotive Company who sold Fords and later Nash Ramblers.

Frank Joseph Riefling became the president of Riefling Auto Company. He was born in St. Louis in 1877 and died in 1946. He was laid to rest in the Mount Hope Cemetery in the small town of Lemay, MO just south of St. Louis.

photo sourced from: "Find A Grave"

Per an advertisement in "The St. Louis Lumberman" from September 15, 1917, The Riefling - Vigar Automobile Company once occupied the 2333-2341 buildings along Jefferson (now a car wash and gas station/junk food shop):

And here's a billboard advertising the dealership:

But, back to 2501 Jefferson...the folks behind the current restoration are the Larson Financial Foundation (LFF), a 501(c)3 non-profit philanthropic entity under the Larson Financial Group, a financial adviser focusing on the needs of physicians.

One of the ventures of LFF was to convert this former Ford/Rambler showroom to house LFF offices as well as a cleaning company called Wellspring Cleaning (currently in Creve Coeur, MO) and a startup furniture and woodworking shop called Narrative Furniture:

Their's is a very interesting story:

"Narrative Furniture Inc. is the expression of a vision to reclaim and realize the power of story through custom furniture design and economic development. Our legacy quality furniture company is built upon the forgotten manufacturing roots of St. Louis.

St. Louis was once a major manufacturing hub back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Whether it was beer, carburetors, bricks, shoes, or Corvettes, St. Louis made it. Unfortunately, the Great Depression and the years to follow dealt a crushing blow to our budding town. While some industries were revitalized during the 1950’s, particularly the automobile industry, manufacturing in St. Louis had long since reached its peak.

But, we’ve got a legacy to uphold. We have planted our roots in a building that was once filled with Fords and Ramblers, in the historic Fox Park neighborhood, and we’re here to stay. We have seen the industrial spirit of our town thrive and die, and we could not be more thrilled to take part in remaking this spirit." (source)

As part of their vision, they are currently undergoing the expansive renovation of the building and a reclamation of the storefront to honor the Riefling - Vigar Auto Company history.  Here's the full story from the LFF website:

"Located on the city’s south side, South Jefferson Avenue was home to a thriving automobile industry in the first half of the 20th century. Like many of the older industries upon which St. Louis was built that have either moved on or closed down, the industry has left a number of large warehouse buildings as monuments of a previous era. One such building is located at 2501 S. Jefferson, built between 1919 and 1921 for Riefling-Vigar Automobile Co as a Ford dealership. During the post depression decades, Ford distribution was dramatically reduced in St. Louis, and Riefling-Vigar began selling and offering maintenance for the Nash Rambler automobile from the site. The building has served a number of purposes since the dealership went out of business over half a century ago, and now will serve as home base for LFF domestic initiatives in St. Louis City.

The 2501 S. Jefferson building is located on the southeastern edge of Fox Park, a historic neighborhood on the city’s south side that has seen a massive industry exodus in the decades following the Riefling-Vigar closure. LFF desires to be a part of the revitalization that is already taking root in the neighborhood. In addition to moving its offices to the building, LFF will move its two social enterprise ventures, Wellspring Cleaning and Narrative Furniture, into the building immediately. With plans to set up a full-scale wood shop in the basement, we hope to facilitate training and employment that will impact the surrounding community for the long term. LFF also plans to work with the Facade Program, part of the St. Louis Development Corporation, to restore the building to its historic architecture and aesthetic. In addition, LFF’s work with the Facade Program will create shared work and an incubation space for social enterprise in Fox Park, which we anticipate will evoke community pride in both the history and the potential innovation that is represented.

LFF closed on the building on August 13, 2014, has begun renovation work, and plans to move into the space in the fall of this year." (source)

To learn a little more about my new neighbors, I contacted John Peters and Andy Kim, directors of LFF to get their perspectives on the building and the work they've undertaken. They were kind enough to invite me to their offices and show me around.

The main level was the automotive showroom where cars were once driven in from street level off of Victor Street:

They exposed the original stained glass on the storefront and are keeping the amazing tile floor.

The brick walls were exposed and the fold out windows are fully functional, and in use on my visit, providing a pleasant cross breeze.

The basement is where the woodworking action will occur, with several saws, planers, etc. that will be used to create some of the most beautiful modern designs of furniture, kitchen cutting boards, succulent pots, etc. I've seen. Much of their offerings are created from reclaimed wood. More details will emerge on the work and offerings of Narrative as they approach launch and scale up of the business...right here in Fox Park. Here are some examples of their work:

photo source:

Narrative Furniture

                                  photo source: Narrative Furniture

Speaking of wood, the original freight elevator still exists in the building.  It's floor, walls and grates are all made of wood and are apparently still functional and will be maintained by the latest owners to keep the historical context alive.

The second floor is the real charmer. It was designed to house John and Andy's offices as well as meeting space and practical uses like storage and restrooms.

The skylights were freed up and restored to provide a tremendous amount of natural light and the modern glass and sleek lines of the furniture and hardware chosen to accent the offices adds a tremendously good vibe to the space.

nautical cleats formed as door handles

natural light from the restored skylights

Several relics from the automotive days were shared, including a numbering system painted on the 2nd floor which was most likely used for a parts inventory system, a section where spray painting and body work went down and an advertisements and paper weight from the Riefling-Vigor days.

Upon completion, Larson has offered their space to host neighborhood meetings and community gatherings and look forward to being part of the community and part of the city's bright future.

Here's to another historic brick building seeing a new chapter in its life, and a very intriguing and ambitious new neighborhood business in Fox Park.