Maplewood History: Night of the Cobras

A photograph sent by a reader, Michele, started me thinking about how we traded our original old streetlights for the modern (at the time) cobra heads.  Then how our taste flipped and we gratefully deep sixed the cobra heads only to replace them with guess what?  Faithful reproductions of the originals.  

Then I started to think about some of the really wonderful streetlights that I’ve seen in Europe and I wondered have they kept them all along?  If they have how is it that they’re smarter than us?

We seem unable to prevent mind bogglingly stupid losses of our historic inventory, (I’m thinking of the cabinetry of our historic Harper’s Pharmacy) I am especially impressed when I travel to places that apparently have figured out what we have not. There are cities, districts, and areas that have discovered ways to preserve the best of their architecture and civic structures.  Why are there some who still want to destroy the very best that humans have been able to build?   I don’t get it.  Never will.

The more enlightened ones realize the value of these things and the thought and craftsmanship that went into them.  Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.  Two excellent local examples are Lafayette Square and Soulard.  Both adopted stringent historic preservation codes for their separate districts.  What happened?  The decay was completely turned around and the housing prices went into the stratosphere.  That’s not good for everyone I know but it saved these two districts that were once considered lost.

Traveling in Europe can be a good balm for those who are irritated by the obtuseness that results in things like our Harper’s Pharmacy destruction.  My wife and I have been fortunate to be able to travel to Europe and have many favorite places as a result.  Some we’ll return to again and again. Like Rome or Paris or Barcelona.  Those three cities have largely preserved their historic cores.  Folks like us come from all over the world to experience them.

In Europe the small cities and towns are just as hip.  I remember once in Lucca, Italy sticking my head into a small pharmacy with some amazing old cabinetry and thinking that we were very lucky in Maplewood to have something similar.  Not any more.

Perhaps sometime in the future someone smarter than us will restore or recreate and reinstall the Harper’s Pharmacy cabinetry and wonder how could they ever have been so stupid to destroy something that beautiful?

This is a very low quality image I made from a photocopy in the collection of the Maplewood Public Library. There was no explanation with it so I assumed some sort of a street celebration was taking place.  The location is the 7300 block of Manchester.  Followers of this space know that the Katz drugstore was on the NW corner of Sutton and Manchester.  The building survives and is nearly restored which is very nice although the owner shows no sign of acknowledging its past history such as calling it the Big Kat as has been suggested in this space.

Here is a better copy of the same photograph which ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was emailed to me by Michele. Compare it to the previous one. You’ll notice that the previous one has been cropped at the top. What do you think is happening here?  The explanation follows.

Just as we suspected it was a celebration. They were dancing in the street under their new cobra head streetlights! How funny. Many of us have always regarded them as hideous. Calm down mid-century modern folks, I’d bet somewhere some of you are right now fighting to preserve your cobra heads.  And you’re right to do it but they don’t belong in our early 20th century streetscape.  Note that the very first photograph had cropped off the cobra head which was actually the subject of the photo.

This got me to wondering just what did our early streetlights look like? The answer was easily obtained from some of our earliest photos. There weren’t any.  This is a composite photo that I had put together for an earlier display.  All images are from the collection of the Maplewood Public Library.

Here is what the early streetlights looked like. They were privately owned. This one is at 7326 Manchester on the building that most recently held J and E Office Supply. I’m not sure if there is a new tenant yet for J and E’s space but the Boardwalk Waffles and Ice Cream shop in the same building is doing well. If you haven’t tried that yet, get on down there.

The Dreiling Shoe Palace had their own streetlight as well. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

From the rear of the prior photo.

This is one of the earliest images I could find with a streetlight in it. Judging by the cars the year is in the mid 1930’s. The location is the NW corner of Hazel and Sutton. The building with the gable end has not survived. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

This image also from the 1930’s shows a streetlight as well. The dates I have on this are 1934 or 5. Mrs. Bode’s recollection which follows is a bit different. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

So what do our streetlights look like today? To the credit of whoever ordered them they look a lot like the originals. Gone from downtown are the cobra heads.

20 thoughts on “Maplewood History: Night of the Cobras

  1. Loved Katz as a child! “Night of the Cobras” sounds like a horror flick that you would see at the Drive-In, remember those? LOL….

  2. Doug
    the Mother in law houses I heard were for the rail road workers who had to live within one mile of the train yards, so to be on call when needed. I heard that they would be called in by certain whistle blows. May not be true at all.

    • Margaret, I would have to file your rumor under Partially True. There was most likely a whistle or siren to signal the start and end of shifts, breaks and lunch in the railroad yard. If it was loud enough to be heard one mile away, it would probably have been unbearable to have been near.

  3. Doug,

    You can see the old street lights that were used before the new Cobra head lights in the picture of the celebration. If you look at the bank on the NE corner of Sutton and the store two buildings down you can see the old street lights. I think there is one on the Manchester side of Kats but it is hard to tell.

    • Mike, so far it appears that we have only had three different styles of street lights in downtown Maplewood. They are all three shown in the photographs that accompany this post.

  4. These photos, as well as the content of Doug’s article, are just wonderful. Couldn’t agree more about the shame it is when buildings are stripped of their historic character. Nice work, Doug, and thank you for sharing the photos!

  5. Love these old pictures. Have fond memories of going to Katz when I was at my grandparents on Sutton.

    Is that Straub’s the original of the present chain? I didn’t know they started out in Maplewood

    • Hi Charlotte, thank you for your kind words. Someone once told me that the Straub’s in Maplewood was not connected to the other Straub’s grocery stores. I don’t know for certain. But I wonder now since Maplewood is on the rise if they might want to reconnect it.

  6. Off subject, but true to the history of Maplewood. My Husband and I first moved into the Greenwood Subdivision in 1977. At that time on a number of lots there were two houses. One in the front a normal home, and in back a converted garage or a small tiny home. Of them only one remains that I know of. Does anyone know the story of these tiny homes?
    My own home had been converted into a two family back I say in the 40’s. I wonder if this was housing for local factory or railroad men. The places were tiny and could not hold many people.

    • Hi Margaret, the small houses in the backyards are universally known as mother-in-law houses. I’m quite certain that folks who didn’t fall in that category lived in them too. There was a housing shortage shortly after World War II and some of them may have been constructed then. Zoning changes have restricted them in more recent times. I have heard rumors about railroad men living in Maplewood which is no doubt true but I don’t understand why that would be unusual. According to one rumor the small shotgun houses on Walter were built to house the men who built the railroad. This doesn’t make any sense to me and I doubt that it is true.

  7. I remember the cobra head lights back in the 50s. You’re right, they were hideous. I remember coming out of the Priscilla shop with a cherry sundae with real cherries on it and under the light they looked disgusting.
    Glad to see the old lights back.
    The street lights on our street (Flora) and the alley when I was a kid were a porcelain plated “crinkle” shade with a bare bulb. Green on the outside, white reflector.
    Kids were always shooting them out with BB guns.

    • Damn kids. No wonder there are none of those left. I bet they were very pretty. Thank you for your recollection, Don.

  8. You are correct, Dan. The building on the corner is the one where the Orbits bar is today. The building with the gable end was taken down during Marty Simpson’s ownership which was probably about 2003 or 4. I had looked at it with an eye to advocating for its preservation but it was too far gone.

  9. Doug: The image of the NW corner of Sutton and Hazel – isn’t this where Orbits is currently located? You say the building with the gable did not survive, but this looks awfully similar to what is there today. Right?

    • I have to agree with Dan — the building in the photo looks so much like the current Orbits pinball lounge that I find it hard to believe these aren’t actually the same building.

      • Ah, I can see it now. Had to pull up the street on Google Maps to get my bearings — sure enough, the building on the far left is gone, and replaced with a fence and some bushes. Looks like the original sidewalk remains, though.