Back in the day, the area around Wabash Station was an essential warehousing district for goods brought into this market by rail. The bulky supplies were stored in and beneath nearby buildings before being picked up and disseminated. Many of these storage places still exist. The recently vacated Koonse Glass Building at Park Avenue and 10th Street is a good example.
In fact, structures on the north side of Walnut between 10th and Orr streets all still have connected, below-ground storage spaces — the Catacombs as they’ve always been known — with access only available from an alley to the rear, facing the station. It will not surprise you to learn that this essential alley remains unnamed.
Beginning in the late 1970’s, Jim Bradshaw, Dave Mustain and the other owners and occupants of this warren of spaces off the alley began to make use of a part of these disused, long-forgotten cellars as a private, late-night gathering place for their friends (a space now below Artrageous galleries).
The concept of private, BYOB social clubs is not a new one in a Midwest once splattered with arcane “blue laws” restricting sale and consumption of alcohol. What was unusual about the Catacombs was that it thrived for decades just a few feet under downtown Columbia, while only a relatively few people even knew it existed.
Admission, you see, was free, but by invitation only, so to speak. Shows were promoted strictly by word of mouth. Otherwise, the venue was rarely mentioned above ground. There were no passwords, as the entrances were obscure enough you had to know exactly where to look to find or even notice them.
My own introduction into the space was probably typical. One evening, while walking with the late Forrest Rose, we found ourselves in the alley in question near Ken Green’s Monarch Jewelry shop (the oldest business still extant on this now-bustling strip of asphalt). Forrest pointed to a door I’d never noticed and told me he had something to show me.
In we went to what was then an upholstery shop run by the late Cat Tenny and Roseann Wellington. Greetings were exchanged only in passing as I followed Forrest through the shop into the bathroom, then immediately out another door into the Catacombs space, which was in full swing at the time.
I live for sensations like the one I felt stepping through that door. Looking around a room that was about 40 feet square, I saw a bar (used for little but sitting on, it seemed), refrigerators, and a small stage where five musicians from three bands were wailing away for an audience of maybe 50 people, almost all of whom I knew. Otherwise it was a cellar: snug and secure — its only improvement was an anything-goes atmosphere of trust and good cheer. I felt immediately safe and at home sitting there kind of in secret, just below Walnut Street.
The buildings and spaces I’m talking about were lovingly rehabbed not long ago (except Kenny’s jewelry shop is the same), and homage was paid to its underground spirit and origins by attaching the Catacombs name to the group of shops beneath the Berry Building and Artrageous Gallery.
What can’t be resurrected is the feeling of togetherness and trust exemplified by the sub rosa concept of not mentioning the Catacombs outside of the Catacombs: impossible in the social media era, but still sorely valuable as privacy becomes another concept that is fast becoming obsolete.
North Village’s First Friday celebrations (www.northvillageartsdistrict.org) are an ideal time to check out downtown’s historic places. The Catacombs and environs are at the center of this monthly whirlwind of music and art.
Oh, yeah — and it’s about time to name that alley.
Kevin (aka Kelvin) Walsh considers himself a student of music’s effect on people. Since moving to Columbia in 1975, his professional ventures have included music retailer, radio show host and a brief stint as Truman the Tiger. He currently hosts “The (So-Called) Good Life” from 3 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday on KOPN-FM 89.5 and streaming live at www.kopn.org.