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Leon Strauss -- rebuilding St. Louis;NEWLN:Undaunted by economy's effect on building

By TIM BRYANT

ST. LOUIS -- Hope is a rarely used word in the vocabulary of Leon Strauss, the hard-driving king of the rehabbers.

'Faith, not hope,' he says. 'You've got to have faith.'

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Although he's been joined by a host of builders, developers and dreamers who plan to remake this city, Strauss began alone, with little money but a lot of faith.

Strauss' company is involved in the rehabilitation, renovation or construction of more than 3,700 dwelling units in the city named eight years ago in a Rand Corp. study as the most abandoned in America.

Strauss, 53, a St. Louis native, stayed around to see much of the city's middle class leave for the suburbs. Though the St. Louis area is one of the largest urban centers in the country, the central city has lost nearly half its population since 1950.

The city's decline gave rise to a lucrative business for demolition companies that tore down block after block of stately homes and row houses and sent the bricks for use in new construction in the boom towns of the Sunbelt.

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The trend has reversed. The rebuilding of St. Louis has become a multi-million-dollar business.

But the sluggish economy has been particularly hard on builders and developers.

'We have a thing in our office not to say, 'How come it's taking so long,'' Strauss says. 'Patience, patience, patience. We just picked ourselves up off the mat as far as I'm concerned.'

Because of high interest rates and the squeeze on mortgage money, Pantheon now builds fewer condominiums and more apartments.

'Everything is contingent on the economy,' he says. 'We'll know everything is OK when we quit saying that.'

Strauss formed Pantheon Corp. the same year the Rand study was released. The company's spacious offices are on the second floor of a picturesque brick and stone building that only recently was in the middle of a blasted neighborhood.

The building is a focal point of Pantheon's centerpiece called DeBaliviere Place, a 106-acre development in the city's west end. Blocks of derelict buildings are being turned into new apartments and condominiums.

Strauss' success has sparked the revival in St. Louis' redevelopment. From a low of five building permits issued in 1975, permits now are at a four-figure annual level.

One of Pantheon's first projects was in the $14 million renovation of a blighted area called Jeff-Vander-Lou. Completion of the project made a neighborhood activist, Macier Shepard, a believer in Strauss' talents.

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'I really believe that Leon's ability to make a success of his work at Jeff-Vander-Lou helped him win the big financial backing he needed to turn the DeBaliviere area around,' Shepard said. 'We had our differences but he is the most totally committed person I know.'

Strauss' early successes calmed fears of the city's bankers, whose backing is important to the work of any large-scale developer.

'Leon Strauss is an imaginitive and delightful businessman who does what he promises,' said Donald Lasater, board chairman of Mercantile Bancorporation. 'That is what a bank likes in a customer. He is a real credit to St. Louis.'

'I'm sure we've created some air of optimism,' Strauss said. 'The success of what we've done has encouraged other activities.'

The bearded graduate of Washington University's schools of architecture and engineering says St. Louis is coming out of a long period of the doldrums.

As a result of the Strauss style of city living, young people are flocking back to the city. Nightclubs and restaurants have sprung up in many redevelopment areas.

'It's a very special time right now,' he said. 'We're building things for the future. It's fun to create something out of nothing.'

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