Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Wentzville Area Sings the Blues for Landmark Restaurant

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Wentzville Area Sings the Blues for Landmark Restaurant

Article excerpt

Sardi's it wasn't. Nor Tony's or Kemoll's.

But for nearly a half-century, the Southern Air Restaurant in Wentzville was the place for travelers between St. Louis and Columbia, Mo., to stop for food and drink.

Today, the restaurant is in shambles, its interior crumbling and defaced by vandals. Long gone are the days when it played host to the likes of James Michener, Loretta Lynn and a guy who knew good chicken when he tasted it, Col. Harlan Sanders.

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry bought the restaurant in 1988, giving promise that it would regain its popularity after a business decline in the mid-1980s. Late the next year, a female employee accused Berry of videotaping her as she and other women changed clothes or used the restroom at the restaurant.

About 60 women later joined in a class-action suit against Berry, making the same accusation. They said they were videotaped while using bathrooms at the Southern Air and at Berry's recreational complex three miles south of Wentzville.

Berry denied involvement in the videotaping, but last year he settled the suit for $1.2 million.

The Southern Air has remained closed since the suit, and Berry has tried in vain to sell it. He's reduced the price to $375,000 from $410,000, said Jim Pfitzinger, the agent trying to sell the property.

"The owner would take back the financing on it," he said.

The prospect that the state highway department will take part of the front parking lot when the intersection of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 61 is modified hasn't helped a sale, Pfitzinger said. The dilapidated condition of the building doesn't help either.

"The floor is littered with glass, kids have started little fires in the building, and they've painted a lot of satanic messages on the walls," said Pfitzinger.

Estimates for restoring the restaurant reach as high as $1 million, Pfitzinger said.

The building is at the southwest corner of Old Highway 61 and Pitman Avenue, formerly the junction of Highways 61 and 40 before Interstate 70 was completed in the early 1950s at the southern edge of Wentzville.

Some Wentzville residents have suggested that the Southern Air building could be remodeled for use as the city hall, a visitors center, a historic museum or a meeting place.

Wentzville city officials may have sounded the death knell for converting the building to public use when they refused to hire Jim Pona, a consultant who wanted to apply for a federal grant to help restore the building.

Wentzville Mayor Darrel Lackey has suggested to Berry that he might want to donate the 58-year-old building to the city. So far, Berry has not responded to the mayor.

The mayor expressed impatience with Berry's failure to maintain the property. Berry couldn't be reached for comment.

"We will aggressively seek to have the property cleaned or fixed up," Lackey said. …

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