Chuck Berry’s Abandoned St. Louis Home
Of the thousands of abandoned homes owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, one stands out a bit more than many others; the former home of Chuck Berry, where he would write some of the most famous songs of his career.
During the first 30 years of his life, before he was recognized as the Father of Rock and Roll, relaxing in the luxury of his 17,000-square-foot mansion at Berry Park, Chuck Berry had occupied numerous homes around St. Louis., including the now abandoned home at 3137 Whittier Street. This home, originally built in 1910 by architects William Moxey and James Podmore, could be arguably one of the most important homes relating to the greatest years of Berry’s rise into his music career.
Chuck Berry’s Many Homes
Berry was born Charles Edward Andserson Berry on October 18, 1926 inside his childhood home at 2520 Goode Avenue in St. Louis. The street is now known as Annie Malone Drive, and is now the site of the former Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which had served for decades as the only medical center for people of color in St. Louis.
He would only live in this home for a few years before his family decided to move across the street to 4420 Cottage Avenue. After only a couple years here however, the family would once again move, this time to 4319 Labadie Street where they would live for years.
Berry was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center at the age of seventeen for a carjacking, and would return home to his parents four years later at the age of 21. About a year after his release, he would get a cosmetology degree, and a job as a beautician. Around this same time, he would marry his wife, Themetta Suggs, who he called “Toddy,” on October 28, 1948.
Now in search of a place to call their own, in 1949, Berry and his wife moved into a rooming house at 4352 Delmar Boulevard owned by Berry’s maternal uncle. Their stay here was short, as they had decided less than a year later to move back in with Berry’s family at 4319 Labadie for a short time before moving once again in 1950 to a home on Whittier Street in the Ville neighborhood.
The First Home of Their Own:
In 1950, now expecting their first of four children, Berry and his wife purchased the $4,500 property with a $450 down payment. This would be their first true home of their own. Around this same time, Berry purchased his first electric guitar from a local pawn shop for $30, and would begin his journey into the world of music.
Berry quickly fell in love with playing music as a very young child, tapping his foot along to rhythms of baptist hymns in his parent’s living room.
Soon he would find himself reuniting with an old friend he had met through the Sumner High School choir, and they would play together for a short time as a band. His performances had caught the eye of keyboardist Johnny Johnson, who invited Berry to play with his band at the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis, Illinois. After a short time playing together, the band would change their name to the Chuck Berry Combo, and by 1955 had signed a deal with Chess Records in Chicago.
An Addition Is Built to the Whittier Home:
In 1956, as Berry’s family continued to grow, he decided to build a two room addition onto the house during both to provide more space for his family, but also for extra rehearsal space for practicing his music.
For years, a “B” for Berry remained visible on the awning, but was unfortunately recently removed or stolen.
Berry and his wife lived in the Whittier home with their two children Ingrid and Melody during the biggest years of Chuck’s music career as he rose to the top of the charts numerous times during this time. While living here, he would see his career take off starting with “Maybellene,” his first real hit in 1955. Following shortly after this, Berry would score four more chart topping songs while living in the Whittier home – “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Too Much Monkey Business,” both in 1956, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Day,” both in 1957. In 1958, Berry would release two more hits, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which both unsurprisingly topped the charts.
Fame, New Home, New Business Ventures:
He would soon after move his family to a new, much larger home in the Visitation Park neighborhood of St. Louis. However, before leaving the Whittier home, Berry had started his venture into the music business, establishing Chuck Berry Music Inc. and the Chuck Berry Fan Club in a building he had purchased at 4221 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which at the time was still called Easton Avenue. While working out of this building, Berry recorded his song “Memphis” with no more than a single Sears-Roebuck recorder he had picked up for around $80. The song was later renamed as “Memphis, Tennessee.”
In 1958, Berry moved him and his family into a new eleven-room $30,000 3-story home on a private street at 13 Windermere Place. Now spending most of his time on the road performing, the royalty checks had really started coming in. This gave them the opportunity to purchase a home they never would have imagined during the earlier days when Berry was pulling about $100 per week at an auto assembly plant, and his wife was bringing in about $20 per week working at a cleaner.
Berry would reside in this home with his family for a short time before moving into a mansion west of St. Louis in Wentzville.
Berry’s Mansion & Another Business Venture:
In 1959, Berry took another step into his business ventures by opening Club Bandstand at 814 North Grand Avenue. While Berry’s life up to this point hadn’t been entirely free of run-ins with the law, it would soon get much worse. He had high hopes for this music venue to mimic some of the mixed-race night clubs he had visited in the Northeast, but unfortunately it never gained much traction. In the same year that he had opened the club, Berry was caught and arrested for transporting a fourteen-year-old girl he had met in El Paso, Texas across state lines. Berry had brought her up to St. Louis to work for him at Club Bandstand. At the time, the fourteen-year-old waitress was also working as a prostitute, and Berry had hired her not only for sexual favors of his own desire, but to work as a hostess at his club. After some weeks, she was fired from the club, and was busted for prostitution. She broke down and told the police that Berry had repeatedly had sex with her while on the road, which eventually led to his arrest. In interrogations, Berry had claimed she told him that she was 21 years old. Berry was sentenced to five years in jail, but due to racist remarks made by Judge George Moore, the conviction was overturned and lowered to only 20 months. While locked up, Berry wrote several songs, including “Promised Land.”
In the early 1960s, Berry finally settled into his 17,000-square-foot mansion situated in “Berry Park” – a 35-acre piece of land purchased by Berry in Wentzville in St. Charles County. His idea was to build something that would rival the segregated clubs he had seen while growing up and playing music in St. Louis. In addition to his mansion, the property contained cottages, a nightclub and a guitar-shaped swimming pool. The park was opened for business on May 31, 1961. This property is where Berry would reside until his death on March 18, 2017.
A Dark Past:
Although widely praised for his music, and rightfully so, as much of his music was highly influential to shaping early days of rock and roll, Berry also had a darker side to his personal life, which stretched even further than his sexual relations with underage women.
Berry was charged with tax evasion in 1979, owing $110,000 in income taxes. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail, and four years probation. To make it even more interesting, this conviction came not long after Berry performed for President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn.
Ten years later, Berry was accused of striking a woman in the mouth in the middle of a dispute outside the Gramercy Park Hotel. The woman he punched was Marilyn O’Brien Boteler, a rock singer who had dated Berry. She went after him with a five million dollar lawsuit after claiming she was in need of stitches from the attack. On top of the five million dollar lawsuit, Berry was charged separately with assault, but failed to appear in court in June 1988, which led to a bench warrant for his arrest.
In January 1990, Berry was shamed publicly with the publication of an issue of High Society magazine showing stolen photos of the rockstar posing nude with different women. The magazine promoted themselves as being “the only magazine with the balls to show Chuck’s berries.”
During this same year, Berry’s estate was raided on suspicion of him transporting large amounts of cocaine in his guitar cases. While the search only turned up a couple ounces of pot, a bit of hashish, and some guns, the police had also found a massive stash of pornography, some featuring underage women. Berry was charged with marijuana possession and three counts of child abuse for owning the pornographic material. The child abuse charges were dropped in a civil case after Berry sued the country prosecutor, William J. Hannah. He had claimed that the charges filed were malicious in nature and politically motivated.
This investigation however led to an even larger discovery, when it was found that he had installed hidden cameras in the bathroom of the Southern Air restaurant he owned in Wentzville. In 1994, a class-action suit was filed by 59 women claiming to have been recorded while using the bathroom. Berry paid out $830,000 in the suit, and also settled for $310,000 in another suit filed by a former restaurant worker and another woman. His lawyers had claimed that Berry was a victim of a conspiracy to profit from his wealth, but given the tapes found in the raid on his house, it’s unlikely. One video found during the raid of his home showed Berry urinating on a woman believed to have been a hired prostitute in a hotel bathroom.
While I’m not in support of many of the things that he did, I’ll always love the music he created, and what he did for rock and roll truly can’t be denied. I mean, I’ve always found it interesting that he scored a #1 hit in 1972 when he released “Ding-a-Ling,” which was a song entirely about a young boy discovering his penis. It has been said that Berry loved to be a comedian at times.
Still though, I think it’s difficult to compete with the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who unfortunately is far less often mentioned in the spotlight when talking about the history of Rock and Roll. If it weren’t for artists like her, there might not have been any Chuck Berry.
Right before Berry’s death, he announced on his 90th birthday that he would be releasing his first new studio album in 38 years, entitled “Chuck.” The album features his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid on guitar and harmonica. The album was dedicated to Toddy, his wife of 68 years.
The Whittier home was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, and there had been talks in 2017 of restoring it and making use of it in some way as a museum, but as of May 2021 nothing has come to fruition, and it does not appear that anything will happen.