Big Changes Coming to the Mark Twain Hotel, Once a Safe Haven for City's Most Troubled

Categories: Longform

robert_cook_mark_twain_cropped.jpg
Jennifer Silverberg
Robert Cook, a resident at the Mark Twain, in his room. He was released from prison in 2012 and now works as a warehouse manager.

The Mark Twain Hotel — despite its long and controversial history — is still gorgeous on the outside. Intricate, cream-colored terra-cotta bands wrap three sides of the former luxury hotel, including the entirety of the second floor. Griffins and cherubs stare down at loiterers on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Above the doors are the words "The Maryland" written in gold foil — the original name when it opened in 1907.

One of the tenants, a stout 45-year-old woman named C.J., sits on a concrete bench across the street from the building. Using two weathered fingers, she drags on the minuscule remains of a bummed cigarette.

C.J. (all the residents are identified by first names or pseudonyms) says she's a former heroin addict, a habit she picked up after leaving the military. She's been living in the Mark Twain for the past three weeks.

"I feel safe here," she says.

mark_twain_hotel_exterior.jpg
Jennifer Silverberg
The corner of Pine and North 9th Streets.

Her arms and face are sunburned from hours spent working in a gravel pit for $40 a day. It's a good job that pays under the table, she says. She uses the money to pay rent on her 185-square-foot room, along with her veteran's disability pay. When those resources dry up, at her doorstep is the heart of downtown St. Louis — a great place to panhandle.

"You have to use a key card to get in," she says, ticking off amenities that were unimaginable to her last month, when she lived in a vacant house on the near north riverfront. "You got a lock to your own door, a security check, a security officer at the front. So it is a safe environment, it's just..."

She pauses, scratching at a scarred right knee that she says is mostly titanium, the result of a bullet she says she caught in Iraq while serving with the Marine Corps.

"I wish they would reopen it the way it used to be to be," she continues with a sigh. "When they accepted everybody, no matter what their background was."

Rising eight stories above the corner of Pine and North Ninth streets, the Mark Twain Hotel was once an respectable establishment that rented rooms for less than $3 a day — about $75 in today's dollars. But things changed sometime after World War II, when it transitioned into single-room occupancy housing. For decades it housed blue-collar workers, ex-cons, new transplants and, increasingly, drug dealers and prostitutes.

Building owner Amos Harris bought and renovated the Mark Twain during the mid-'90s when it was little more than a flophouse. He retained the single-room occupancy model, and though he drove out the open drug dealing and sex work, the hotel's 232 units remain home to the city's poorest workers, the elderly, disabled and mentally handicapped. It is also home to a high concentration of felons. According to a database maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 38 registered sex offenders currently reside there.

"A lot of folks had criminal records, and so they couldn't get apartments," says Harris. "Very few folks in St. Louis will allow those with felony records. So we kind of targeted a community that couldn't get housing otherwise." At least, that's the way things used to be at the Mark Twain. As C.J. and other residents will attest, an important shift is happening at the storied hotel.

"My husband," C.J. says, "they don't allow felons or sex offenders here anymore. I was here a few years ago, and they would accept everybody. They accepted you as long as you could pay the bill."

In early February Harris quietly instructed the building's management to no longer consider applications from prospective tenants with felony convictions. That goes for those on the state or federal sex-offender registries as well — guys like C.J.'s husband. Management isn't kicking out current tenants, but recently released convicts with serious records can no longer turn here.

Not everyone feels sympathy for these men and women. For obvious reasons, the Mark Twain has a bad reputation among its downtown neighbors. Restaurateur Justin Shire pulled his business out of the neighborhood as a direct result of the hotel.

"One of the things I wonder is, how many perpetrators of crimes downtown live or recently lived at the Mark Twain," he wrote in a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010. "It's my personal belief that as long as institutions like the Mark Twain are based downtown, it will be difficult for downtown to attract and (more importantly) retain residents and businesses."

mark_twain_hallway.jpg
Jennifer Silverberg
Upstairs.

Phyllis Young, the alderwoman for downtown's 7th Ward for the past 29 years, acknowledges that every so often, debate over the hotel rears its head once more.

"Some years ago, there were all kinds of concerns because people were going online and finding that sexual offenders were living there," she says. "But there hasn't been, as far as I know, significant issues of crime that have come to my attention. The police are watching it."

Back outside the hotel, C.J. is joined on the bench by Rob, a trim man with a baritone voice and graying hair. He's been living at the Mark Twain for six months and has a job at a nearby gas station. He's got a clean record. Like C.J., he was briefly homeless before finding refuge at the hotel.

"Most places around here are $1,200, at the least, that's what they're building up to as far as downtown is concerned," he says. "This is going to have a major impact."

For now, tenants like Rob and C.J. are not in jeopardy. But the changes are sparking rumors among residents that soon rates will be increased, or that the building will be sold to the Saint Louis University School of Law. (SLU tells Riverfront Times it has no such plans, but this rumor persists.) And Harris wants the hotel to cater to a very different market in the near future: St. Louis' growing population of tech workers.

Rob worries evictions are coming.

"The city is squeezing," he says. "When you come out onto the streets, you just can't get into an apartment, you can't get a job, it's really, really hard. It's a high probability that they will not be able to go anywhere else."

Rob, C.J. and many other Mark Twain residents have, at one time or another, stayed at Reverend Larry Rice's embattled New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter on Locust Street seven blocks west. None of them want to go back. And yet Rob guarantees one thing about Mark Twain's most borderline residents, should the hotel close its doors to them.

"They're going stay downtown."

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19 comments
Freedomwriter
Freedomwriter

Nearly 30% of the population over 100 million have criminal records. the highest rate per capita int he world...by far.


Where do these people live or get a second chance?

markie19
markie19


11 days ago

READ SEE THE FRIEND IN THIS VIDEO CLIP THAT HAS BEEN GOING ON MOST PEOPLE HAVE BETRAYED ME CAREFUL IT COULD BE YOUR SPOUSE AND YOU COULD NEVER KNOW OR YOUR BEST FRIEND OR YOUR DOCTOR -MINE I THINK WAS GOING TO LET THEM KILL ME-HE IS INVOLVED DR BEACH READ MARKIE MC NIGHT I NEED DR PHIL DR BEACH HAD A CON MAN IN HIS OFFICE THAT DATED PEGGY AND WAS ON DR PHIL-MY MEDICAL RECORDS WERE STOLEN TOO-WATCH YOURS READ MARKIE MC NIGHTEdit (in 6 minutes)

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DeleteShareLikeReplymarkie19Jul 20, 2014

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markie1918 hours ago


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Evievstl
Evievstl

I noticed in the article that there was no real information about the conditions inside of the building.  If the building were to be rehabbed, they would have to clear it out.  It is filthy inside.  There is basically very little to no maintenance performed on this building.  Carpets are not cleaned once a week.  There is virtually no amenities.  And the price for a single person staying here for one month would come to $440.00 (without a bathroom) and $500.00 per month with a bathroom.  The bathroom are disgusting and only spot cleaned.  You would not believe the filth and grime around the doorways and the floors.  Having hot water for a shower is random.  The bathrooms that are shared by people with no bathroom in their rooms have no paper towels and no hand soap.  Can you imagine the kind of germs that accumulate on door handles and toilet handles when you are unable to wash your hands?


How the building ever passed any kind of inspection as being fit to live in is beyond me.  The owner of Mark Twain Hotel does not care about the conditions that the people that live there have to endure.  He gets away with this because they are desperate and down on their luck and really have no place to go.  If you complain, you can find yourself homeless.as they can throw people out for any and no reason at all.


Amos Harris is the biggest slum lord in downtown Saint Louis.

vicki.henry
vicki.henry

According to credible research folks need three things to successfully reintegrate into society: a job, a place to live and a positive support system.

There are over 774,600 men, women and children (as young as 6, 8 and 10 in some states) required to register and the "crimes" range from urinating in public (indecent exposure), sexting, incest, mooning, exposure, false accusations by a soon-to-be ex-wife, angry girlfriend, or spiteful student, viewing abusive OR suggestive images of anyone18 years old or younger, playing doctor, prostitution, solicitation, Romeo and Juliet consensual sexual dating relationships, rape, endangering the welfare of a child and many others.

If you multiply the number on the registry by 2 or 3 family members you can clearly see there are well over 3million wives, children, moms, aunts, girlfriends, grandmothers and other family members who experience the collateral damage of being harassed, threatened, children beaten, have signs placed in their yards, homes set on fire, vehicles damaged, asked to leave their churches and other organizations, children passed over for educational opportunities, have flyers distributed around their neighborhood, wives lose their jobs when someone learns they are married to a registrant....all these things occur when these people try to hold their family together and provide the three things that professionals state are needed for successful re-integration; a job, a place to live and a good support system.

Women Against Registry dot com

g1rag
g1rag

Great article! Well researched, interesting, & a very good read.

aamerica123
aamerica123

Look homeless Will travel if housing is not made available so instead of one building now it's all over plus people deserve a roof over there head

Sean McElligott
Sean McElligott

There are beautiful vacant buildings in downtown east st Louis right by a metro-link station why not rehab them

Steve Mincer
Steve Mincer

dude... east st. louis? that's cruel and unusual punishment.

Steve Mincer
Steve Mincer

why not let them crash at the RFT office?

Emily Irene Franke
Emily Irene Franke

Good article, but sad. I wish there were more options for felons - a person can make one mistake - and some surprisingly small things qualify as felonies sometimes - and they'll pay for it the rest of their life.

tsjay310
tsjay310

"Got a room at the Mark Twain

did a line of cocaine....

then we got up and shot up

like movie stars" -from the Bitch n Moan song 'Prussian Blue' 

*think they were talking about the Mark Twain in Hollywood, CA though ? are all Mark Twain motels drug dives ? 

Sean McElligott
Sean McElligott

Why not turn the Old mark twain into market rate apartments and condos and use the profits to rehab a building for them in east st Louis. win win

Jeana Poertner
Jeana Poertner

East STL has lots of places for rent. No background or credit check.

Roxanna  Islam
Roxanna Islam

i live across from this. always wondered what it was! now i know! no wonder a lady who smelled like piss walked into my "luxury downtown loft" and started asking everyone for crack

Christina Baker
Christina Baker

What a great article. Thoughtful, well-researched, and informative. Thanks!

g1rag
g1rag

Well, it 'appeared' to be. Please feel free to add or point out things that might have been missed or omitted!

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