“In This Part of the City, All the Fellows Are Gay”: Exploring the History of LGBTQ Nightlife at St. Louis’s Grand and Olive [1/3]

The south side of the 3500 block of Olive in the early 1960s. Several popular lesbian and gay hangouts are visible: Shelley’s Midway Bar, Act IV Coffeehouse, and the Golden Gate Bar (left to right). Another gay bar, the Onyx Room, is out of the frame to the right. All of these buildings were later demolished. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

The south side of the 3500 block of Olive in the early 1960s. Several popular lesbian and gay hangouts are visible: Shelley’s Midway Bar, Act IV Coffeehouse, and the Golden Gate Bar (left to right). Another gay bar, the Onyx Room, is out of the frame to the right. All of these buildings were later demolished. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Probably no single city block in St. Louis has a longer or more consequential history of LGBTQ nightlife than the 3500 block of Olive Street.

From the mid-1930s to end of the 1970s, there was an almost continuous presence of lesbian and gay establishments here. For generations of LGBTQ St. Louisans, Grand and Olive was a favorite destination for a night out and an important setting of their social lives.

The 3500 block of Olive is in Grand Center, a neighborhood that is today home to such major cultural institutions as the Fox Theatre and Powell Hall. It is also near the main campus of Saint Louis University. Going back as far as the early twentieth century, this area was a busy entertainment district. Its central location and proximity to several streetcar lines and major roads made it a relatively convenient gathering place for people living throughout the St. Louis area. In 1915, the St. Louis Republic called the neighborhood around Grand and Olive “a place of music and laughter and bustle and bright lights, of pretty women and carefree men.”

Image 2: An aerial view of the 3500 block of Olive in the early 1960s, taken from the Continental Life Building looking toward the southeast. The location of Dante’s Inferno, the earliest known gay bar on the block, is circled in red. Dante’s Inferno had closed about a decade before this photograph was taken, but the exterior of the building probably remained more or less the same. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

An aerial view of the 3500 block of Olive in the early 1960s, taken from the Continental Life Building looking toward the southeast. The location of Dante’s Inferno, the earliest known gay bar on the block, is circled in red. Dante’s Inferno had closed about a decade before this photograph was taken, but the exterior of the building probably remained more or less the same. Image courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

As far as we know, Dante’s Inferno (3516 Olive) was the first gay bar on the block.

It is also one of the oldest identified gay bars anywhere in St. Louis. It opened in March 1936, only a few years after the repeal of Prohibition, as a “branch” of the infamous Kansas City nightclub of the same name. Some sources suggest that the bar might have been connected to a speakeasy that operated at the same address in the 1920s. Dante’s Inferno hosted drag shows and other kinds of live entertainment.

Image 3: A map illustrating the distribution of single men in St. Louis, according to data from 1930 US Census. The approximate location of Dante’s Inferno (3516 Olive) is marked with a red star. Dante’s Inferno stood in the midst of a band stretching across St. Louis’s Central Corridor characterized by low average family size and an unusually high proportion of unmarried adult male residents. Source: Ralph Carr Fletcher, et al., Social Statistics of St. Louis by Census Tracts (St. Louis, 1935).

A map illustrating the distribution of single men in St. Louis, according to data from the 1930 US Census. The approximate location of Dante’s Inferno (3516 Olive) is marked with a red star. Dante’s Inferno stood in the midst of a band stretching across St. Louis’s Central Corridor characterized by low average family size and an unusually high proportion of unmarried adult male residents. Source: Ralph Carr Fletcher, et al., Social Statistics of St. Louis by Census Tracts (St. Louis, 1935).

[dates for Dante’s Inferno updated December 2017]


“In This Part of the City, All the Fellows Are Gay,” a three part essay about the history of LGBTQ nightlife at St. Louis’s Grand and Olive.   Title quote from a 1969 police report, when a man arrested for “masquerading” (i.e., dressing in drag) reportedly told a vice officer that “in this part of the city [i.e., the 3500 block of Olive and vicinity] all of the fellows are Gay.”

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.