"Around and Around": St. Louis Community Hopes to Restore Chuck Berry's House
The one-story red brick house at 3137 Whittier Street in St. Louis looks much like the other rundown homes in the area. Even the initial B on the metal awning hanging over the narrow front does not give much of a clue of what happened here. But in this modest house from 1952 to 1958, Chuck Berry created rock ‘n’ roll.
No less of an authority than John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Following Berry’s death earlier in 2017 at age 90, the city of St. Louis is soliciting proposals to restore the house, build a cultural center, and revitalize the neighborhood.
Chuck Berry and his wife bought the three-room house in 1950 for $4,500 after the legal barriers of restrictive covenants barring sales to minorities were struck down by the Supreme Court. He later remembered that his white neighbors welcomed his family, sending over spaghetti right after they moved in.
The following year he bought his first electric guitar. Soon he was playing blues and country music in the area before hooking up with the Sir John’s Trio at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Berry set up a studio in his basement with a crude tape recorder.
There, beginning in 1952, he wrote songs such as “Ida Bell” (later named “Maybelline”), “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Day,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and the classic “Johnny B. Goode” along with others.
In 1958 his young family, now with two children, moved to a bigger house not far away. He continued to own the house for years, letting one of his employees live in it. Eventually he sold it and the house passed through several owners before being purchased by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority in 2010.
By now the house, which was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, had badly deteriorated. Chuck Berry was known to occasionally drive by his old house, remembering the birth of rock ‘n’ roll he conceived and delivered in the basement.
The house is in the part of St. Louis known as The Greater Ville or just The Ville. Once the neighborhood of the black middle class—including comedians Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx, dancer and singer Josephine Baker, tennis champ Arthur Ashe, singer Tina Turner, and heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston—The Greater Ville is now one the most distressed parts of the city.
The proposed Chuck Berry Cultural District would be a lifeline to a dying and depopulating neighborhood. Along with rehabbing the house to its appearance in the 1950s, developers must build a museum attached to or next to the house with exhibition space, a café, gift shop and other facilities along with parking spaces. The district will be tied into the planned extension of the Metro Link mass transit and the future Fair Station near the house.
As a condition of the project developers must improve two streets in the district including improvements to sidewalks, planting trees, fixing curbs, and installing new streetlights. In addition, the city requires the creation of an open public space that may be used as a small park, concert space, garden or some other amenity to improve the neighborhood.
Berry never left the St. Louis area. Not far from his house is a statue of him performing during his early success in the 1950s, the time when British teenagers Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and others heard the sounds that changed their lives. Just down the street is Blueberry Hill where he played well into his eighties, and the owner maintains a small shrine in tribute.
But Chuck Berry was more than a St. Louis icon; he was a musical force throughout the world. Every kid who picks up a guitar and starts playing it a garage, every band that takes the stage, and everyone who loves and lives for music is part of Chuck Berry’s most enduring monument.
St. Louis-based Greg Bailey is a journalist, history writer, and author of the forthcoming The Herrin Massacre.