While enjoying the shopping, lunch spots, coffee houses, nightlife, and all of the other things that attract us all to Main Street in St. Charles, often times the more buildings we enter, see, or otherwise pass on our journey the more questions might arise. What exactly is happening in the parts of these buildings most of us never get in to? What’s up there?
As it turns out, it’s not exactly a big secret. There is no Elvis/Graceland conspiracy going on. It’s actually pretty simple – many of the buildings on Main Street that house the establishments we all like to visit have either businesses up there – or in many cases, residents, who are renting spaces – all kinds of spaces – from various landlords.
“Typically second and third floors have offices or apartments in them,” said Penny Pitman, who owns Iron Star, Inc., which specializes in restoring (and renting out) properties on Main Street in St. Charles. “We started doing this in 1975 and over the years we’ve restored 12 properties. We specialize in the buildings that are the largest and in the worst shape.”
Her passion for the charm and history of Main Street actually started back in 1970 when she purchased her first house in the area. “I bought an old house at Fourth and McDonough and that got me interested,” said Pitman. “The first restoration I did was at 416 S. Main.”
Now home to Riverside Sweets and Blue Bird Yoga, 416 S. Main serves as a prime example of where businesses reside downstairs and there are apartments on the upper floors. Unfortunately, though, it’s not always too easy to figure out where to go to rent in the area. “No, there is no one place to stop to get information on renting an apartment on Main Street,” said Pitman. “That would sure be helpful to people, though.”
Sharlotte Worthington, who has been working on Main Street for over 47 years, noted that the idea of people living above the businesses on there is not a new concept.
“Oh yes, people do live on Main Street. A number of buildings have second floor residential units and further south, some properties are entirely residential,” she said. “But the concept of ‘live work buildings’ is not new, it just has a contemporary name. Many buildings started out with shops on the ground floor and owners living quarters above. Other buildings have offices on the second floor and that was often times their original use.”
Worthington would certainly have a good understanding of both the present and the past on Main Street, having spent her nearly five decades there helping to redevelop the area.
“During the 1970’s I was a city employee at the Redevelopment Authority – an agency that worked on the redevelopment of Main Street and the surrounding neighborhood doing public improvements and assisting in private rehabilitation and redevelopment of individually owned properties,” she said. “This program built Frontier Park, Kister Park and Berthold Square, Riverside Drive and the off-street parking areas, rebuilt streets, sidewalk sewers, placed a lot of utilities underground through the area, and restored several large buildings.”
In other words, Mrs. Worthington knows her stuff – and to this day she continues to rehab buildings on Main Street.
“In 1980 my husband and I went into the stove and fireplace business and in 1983 we bought the Central Building and moved our business there,” she said. “Through the time we’ve owned that building we’ve done several major rehabilitation projects from the interior ground floor spaces, the front facade, and the first rehab of the upstairs that we did in 1986. In 2017 we spent most of the year doing another rehabilitation of the upstairs and converted the space back to office use appropriate for modern office users but still retaining the original 1906 architectural features. We have new tenants in over half of the space. This is probably the largest building on Main Street with 7,000 square feet on each floor. “
With such a strong background in both Main Street history and the ability to put tenants in buildings, people like Penny Pitman and Sharlotte Worthington are a big reason for the success and constant revitalization of the neighborhood. A lot of people both live and work on Main Street.
“Why would people not want to spend their days here?” asked Worthington. “The buildings have interesting architecture, they have spaces which vary in size and are adaptable to many uses, which are attractive because of the interesting shopping, varying types of restaurants, interesting public spaces, varying special events and activities.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“There is the history and sense of community – and the aesthetics are unmatched. You have the Missouri River, the parks, the Katy Trail… the open natural environment is available alongside the built-up established community including nearby residential areas,” said Worthington. “Then there are the people – shop and business owners, residents, customers and visitors – it’s exciting. And among the residents and business folks there are friendships, a strong welcoming, supportive environment; and sense of pride in community and commitment to the neighborhood.”
“People are attracted to Main Street,” said Pitman. “A lot of people work to keep the area manageable, understandable, interesting, and have an entrepreneurial attitude – people who like to walk down the street and take people to lunch.”
Among the types of businesses that seem to be especially attracted to Main Street in recent years are those in the tech industry, including quite a few in the Old Post Office, which is run by a company called OPO Startups.
“Yes, there is a growing strong group of tech related businesses who have chosen their home here for all of the above reasons,” added Worthington. “They like community, diversity, active environments, and many obviously favor older buildings with interesting architectural interiors that have been updated to support modern technology needs.”
OPO Startups operates not just out of the Old Post Office, but is now in seven buildings in the 100 block of South Main. OPO Startups owner and founder Randy Schilling is perhaps the biggest reason Main Street has become such a hotbed of tech companies.
“Because of my background in technology with Quilogy and later BoardPaq, we have specially targeted technology companies to OPO,” he said. “It’s really becoming a technology innovation district. We have been very deliberate in recruiting a mix of technology startups as well as freelance or small service firms such as social marketers, graphic designers, website developers, etc. We are also beginning to see remote corporate employees working at OPO. It’s become a great community that is very supportive of the ecosystem here as well as in St. Louis.”
Upstairs, downstairs, in the Old Post Office, and all over Main Street, life continues to evolve. Be it an antique shop, a restaurant, or a bevy or tech startups, Main Street has for a long time – and continues to be – a destination spot to live, work, and play. The history and the present have given the area a strong and positive reputation.
“St. Charles is well known in the Midwest and has an aggressive tourism effort to reach visitors,” said Worthington
“I think most who decide to relocate and live or work here do so because they have visited the area and are drawn to be part of what they see and experience here.”