ST. LOUIS — Thousands of abandoned buildings in St. Louis continue to be an expensive, decades-long problem without an easy solution. One of those buildings,the 113-year old Sara Lou Cafe is getting the attention of two non-profits who hope to bring it back to life.
Since 1906, the Sara Lou Cafe has been a fixture at Sara and St. Louis Avenue in the historic Ville neighborhood, known for famous ex-residents like music superstars Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, and Josephine Baker, tennis great Arthur Ashe, boxing's Sonny Liston, and activist/comedian Dick Gregory. Who knows how many of them bought food or drink at the Sara Lou Cafe?
"This was the one place where you could be assured you would have good food, and especially the shrimp," said Michael Burns. "I moved into the neighborhood in 1963, a small, young child, and my mother would bring me here."
Burns interest in the Sara Lou Cafe is much more than nostalgic. As president of the Northside Community Housing non-profit, he hopes to be a catalyst in rehabbing the dilapidated structure. Northside Community Housing has an option to buy the building.
"The reason why it’s important is that this location is so historic to the African American community," said Burns. "This was a place of socialization. It’s where people would come after work, be able to buy food. This was before restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King and those particular locations were even accessible to a person who lived in a community like this who didn’t have access to transportation."
The Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation is also invested in rebuilding the Sara Lou Cafe.
"I think the structure has pretty good bones and I think it’s a pretty good candidate for rehab," said executive director Bill Hart.
Hart's preservation group creates an annual list of Places in Peril, Missouri buildings of historical significance that deserve to be preserved instead of torn down. The Sara Lou Cafe was included on the 2018 list.
"Our program started out as essentially a media campaign aimed at calling attention and increasing the visibility of historic Places in Peril. What we’re hoping to do by promoting it on our list of Places in Peril is to bring heightened awareness of the building," said Hart. "We improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. We contribute to saving historic resources and just in general create a better environment for the people in the city of St.Louis."
Saving old buildings always comes down to money and who's going to pay for rehab work. Hart said there are a variety of tax credits that could be attractive to someone with a large tax liability, willing to donate money to Northside Community Housing.
"If a non-profit wants to own it like Northside Community Housing, there are neighborhood assistance program credits offered through the Department of Economic Development and other programs that could benefit the re-use of the building," said Hart.
Hart estimates as much as 90 percent of a donation could go back in the donors pocket because of tax credits.