The focal point of the park is a very large, bright blue tarp-like structure, measuring about 25’ in diameter. The awning is stretched tightly across four shiny green poles, placed in an elongated diamond pattern, forming the legs of the structure. The uppermost leg of the structure, on the east end of the structure, is probably 20’ high—easily twice as high as the other three legs—causing the awning to angle heavenward, somewhat reminiscent of a giant blue bird gracefully taking to flight. Undoubtedly, the shelter was built more with function and acoustics in mind than with any sort of intent to pay homage to St. Boniface Church, which sits in the immediate background; nonetheless, I found the vision as sacred as I did compelling.
Underneath the awning is a circular staging area, possibly 100’ in circumference, comprised of aggregate concrete, where concerts and other performances are held during the summer months. I have heard that the awning allows for outstanding acoustics. The shelter is surrounded by seven green lanterns, charming replicas of the old cast-iron gas lanterns that once graced our city streets at the turn of the 20th Century. Placed strategically around the periphery of the stage, they make it possible for parents to stretch out on their blankets and enjoy a summer concert while keeping lazy watch on their children who choose to ignore Gershwin in favor of playing tag.
Just inside the southwest corner of the park—near the intersection of Ivory and Schirmer—a wide sidewalk leads to a lovely circular sitting area, the centerpiece consisting of a large fountain, approximately 10’ in diameter. When I visited, the fountain had been turned off and boarded up for the season. Undeterred by this sure sign of winter’s approach, I sat down to enjoy the beautiful fall day on one of the four, 8’-long, green iron park benches that ring the area. Behind each of the benches are large old trees—mostly hackberries and ash—obviously tended to with great care through the years, perhaps by the good Sisters of St. Joseph themselves. Their thick foliage and long branches extend to provide a blessed spot of shade for the mothers and babies, the young lovers, and the weary older couples who stop for a rest, if only momentarily.
I shifted my position from bench to bench in order to get different perspectives of the park. Looking south and west, just catty-corner from the park in front of the Ivory Coast Bistro, I was surprised to see a second smaller park—basically just a grassy island carved out of the street. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that this park is a tribute to Albert “Red” Villa, former longtime Alderman of the 11th Ward and one-time close friend to Donald L. Fanetti. Remarkably, this park contains what appears to be an almost identical fountain. I have heard that the two fountains were designed to intentionally create the effect of visual and sound interplay, leaving one with the distinct impression of old friends exchanging their thoughts on the street corner where they once huddled and swapped stories so long ago.
Leaving the circular sitting area, the wide sidewalk meanders towards the imposing and magnificent structure of the old St. Boniface Church, now reborn as the Ivory Theatre. The sidewalk is built on a curve and allows for a generous-sized drop-off area along Schirmer Street, just to the west of the theatre. The drop-off area encompasses a beautifully-landscaped island containing an impressive row of “burning bushes” that have turned a fiery bright red in fall’s cool weather. I suspect that the drop-off area existed long before the theatre, hearkening back to the days when gentlemen dropped their wives and daughters at the front door of the Church to spare them the humiliation of getting their fine Sunday shoes muddy.
The old St. Boniface Church—now the Ivory Theatre—sits at the southeast corner of Fanetti Park. An architectural wonder by any measure, the building is noted for its Romanesque style, its twin towers that stand 100’ high, and its distinctive clock tower, its sweeping stone steps, its arced and recessed windows, and its rounded and semi-circular entrances. First established in 1861 as a parish to serve the growing German immigrant population of this area, St. Boniface actually was not finished until the north tower was finally completed and the large bell put into place in 1890. The Church continued to serve generations of Catholics—not only German, but also Irish, Spanish, Italian, and many others for 145 years until it was officially suppressed by Order of the Archdiocese in 2005.
In 2007, St. Boniface, the Grand Old Dame and “spiritual heart of Carondelet”, was given a new lease on life after undergoing an $800,000 conversion as a performing arts theatre. The Ivory Theatre, so-named for the street which runs in front of it on the west side of the park, hosts a diverse offering of musicals, dramas, comedies, concerts, cabaret performances, and other types of theatre performances geared to people of all ages.
Immediately to the north of the theatre, connected by a wide sidewalk that traverses the entire length of the park, north-to-south, is the old rectory. Built in 1921, the rectory used to have the distinction of being one of the most beautiful and stately mansions along Michigan. (Michigan Street was closed to traffic in 1979 to make way for the new park and pedestrian traffic.) Once the Church was shuttered, the condition of the rectory quickly deteriorated, almost as if the old building somehow understood that the lifeblood had been sucked out of Her. The brick gateposts at the entrance of the estate are badly in need of tuck pointing, although the ironwork of the surrounding fence has held up relatively well. Gone are the manicured lawns and flowering gardens shown in pictures of yesteryear. Now the entranceway is firmly locked, overgrown with brambly foliage, with the unmistakable appearance of having been cut back hastily to avoid the dismal look of total neglect. In spite of the locked front entrance, it is still possible to slip into the front yard through a gaping hole in the iron fence between the Church and side yard. I walked all the way up to the cloister walk, observing two massive piles of bricks stacked neatly against the side of the house and walkway, as if patiently waiting for someone to use them to repair the crumbling gateposts at the front and side entrances. The stone grotto at the back of the side yard, in the middle of the cloister walk, stands empty. I felt an overwhelming urge to kneel in this once-sacred place, and I wonder to whom people once prayed at this grotto: St. Boniface or the Blessed Virgin? As I turned to make my way back to the front sidewalk, I notice that a side window had been punched out; the room inside appears to have once been the grand dining room. The hole is the size of a brick.
The two-story brick rectory has absolutely stunning architectural features, and one is hard pressed to not be overcome by a mix of nostalgia and sadness. It seems a tremendous shame that some family with the financial means or at least the rehab know-how couldn’t be lured to take over this precious jewel and restore it to Her former glory. As I walk away, northward toward the school, I observe that the rectory roof has been sloppily patched in several places. The second story windows are slightly cracked, sure-as-St. Louis-weather, letting in all kinds of vermin and elements.
The old St. Boniface School, originally built in 1948, now houses the Carondelet Leadership Academy, a St. Louis City Charter School, kindergarten-fifth grade. The school has a curved, semi-circular driveway that runs to the north of it, directly off Steins Street, where I suppose parents and faculty used to park. On this particular day, most of the parents were parking on the street and lining up in front of the school building to pick up their children. The school sits directly in line with the rectory and theatre, in the northeast corner of Fanetti Park, at the intersection of Steins and Ivory. It is a large, sturdy-looking, two-story, brick rectangular building which, during the post-war years, probably housed close to 1,000 kids. I wonder how many attend the school now. There is nothing particularly architecturally significant about the building except for the classic Greek portico entranceway which extends all the way to the second floor, as well as the many large windows which run along both floors of the front and sides of the building. (I counted 18 sets of windows in the front of the building alone!) I’m sure these keep the rooms well illuminated, but given the age of the building, I can only imagine the cost of their gas and electric bills. There is a fallout shelter sign affixed to the exterior wall of the building, just to the left of the front entrance. I had to chuckle: I bet there isn’t a kid in that building who would understand the significance of that logo if you showed it to them.
Directly in front of the school, someone has planted a long single row of elephant ear plants, much in the same fashion as a row of corn, obviously with no eye for aesthetics. They look oddly out of place with the rest of the park’s landscaping which clearly has had much thought and money poured into its design. A long row of mature maples lines the park along Ivory. Other older trees—hackberries, ash, and honey locust, just to name a few—grace the grounds. Many newer trees have also been planted throughout the park, including a few pines, although the unrelenting heat of this past summer has decimated more than a few of them.
Although I did not have the opportunity to visit the park during the evening, it is obviously well illuminated. In addition to the lanterns that ring the stage area, there are a couple of other lanterns placed alongside the sidewalks. These, combined with the city street lights on Ivory, Shirmer and Steins. must keep the park brightly lit on even the darkest of nights. Somehow, this thought brings me great satisfaction as I conjure up pleasant visions of late night visitors walking confidently and securely along the park’s paths, happily making their way back to their cars and homes after a night at the theatre or downing a few beers at the Bistro.
Fanetti Plaza is notable for its wide aggregate concrete sidewalks that meander throughout the grounds, creating an inviting atmosphere to walk and enjoy all that the park has to offer. There is, of course, a sidewalk that runs the entire length of the park along Ivory; another stretches north-to-south from the school to the Church. There is the curved sidewalk that leads into the park from Schirmer and Ivory to the circular sitting area, meanders to the drop-off area, and ends at the Church. There is an external corridor walkway that runs along Schirmer and forms the boundary to the drop-off area. Halfway down Ivory, in the middle of the park, there is another sidewalk which curves back-and-forth toward the circular staging area, where it veers toward the right to join the aforementioned sidewalk leading to the drop-off area and Church. At the northwest corner of the park, at the intersection of Ivory and Steins, there is yet another sidewalk which also meanders through the grounds towards the staging area, eventually merging with the other sidewalks. I find it somehow fitting that all of the paths lead to St. Boniface Church: an inescapable tribute—at least from my perspective—to the hard-working immigrants who sacrificed so much to build this awesome church.
On Sunday, I come back to the park with my husband, Tony. The blue tarp has been taken down, packed away now for the winter. I show him the Church which he swears we attended at least once—was it a fish fry?—when the kids were still babies almost 30 years ago. I take him over to a boulder, roughly the size of a fat VW—probably hewn from the Mississippi Bluffs, not more than a mile from where we stand. The boulder is strategically placed in the middle of the park, just to the left and behind the staging area where it can be easily viewed from the driver’s window. I remember once reading a story about a boy who would travel to the past by moving a boulder and climbing down the long magical stairway that lay beneath. I can’t help but feel like I am opening a family album.
Tony and I run our fingers gently over the plaque’s engraving. My husband is deeply touched, not only by what he reads, but because his ancestors worked here too: quarrymen whose last name, “Pickel”, means “small pick” in German. Together, we read the inscription:
DONALD L. FANETTI
UNDER-EDITOR BUGLE NEWSPAPER
DEDICATED SEPTEMBER, 1979
JAMES F. CONWAY, MAYOR
My husband wonders aloud if his father, who also worked as a journalist, might have known Mr. Fanetti. Surely the two of them must have encountered one another at some point. We leave the park and walk down Ivory, past the Carondelet emblem painted onto the street, marking the boundary of the old City at the three-way intersection of Virginia, Courtois and Ivory.
I am on a mission.
Then I see it: a gray, two-story nondescript building on the corner of Primm and Ivory—7832 Ivory—“Bugle Printing Company: World’s Softest Newspaper”.
“What’s the ‘softest’ about?” my husband asks me.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “It’s a story waiting to be told.”