Tillie’s Corner moves a step closer to national landmark status

National status could come around Thanksgiving

Tillie’s Food Shop, which Washington University students studied and documented as a historic, African-American site, has been designated a St. Louis city historic landmark.

Lillie Velma Pearson opened Tillie’s Food Shop in north St. Louis in 1948.

The approval by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Aug. 17 enabled the buildings, one dating to 1870, to be considered for historic status by the National Register of Historic Places. It also gives Carla Pearson Alexander, Tillie’s Corner owner and granddaughter of grocery founder Lillie Velma Pearson, access to state tax credits that could help fund an estimated $750,000 in renovation costs, says Sonia Lee, PhD, assistant professor of history in Arts & Sciences.

Lee and 20 of her students in the class “Building St. Louis History: The City and Its Renaissance” researched the history of the 64-year-old former grocery store. (Lee received a Faculty Innovation Grant from the Gephardt Institute for Public Service to develop and implement the community-based teaching and learning course.)

Tillie’s Food Shop was a hub of activity in the African-American community in North St. Louis at the corner of Garrison and Sheridan avenues, and an example of a pioneering woman- and black-owned business.

Pearson opened Tillie’s Food Shop in 1948, when black St. Louisans were kept out of white institutions and forced to create their own spheres of commerce, entertainment, religious and cultural life.

Lee’s students conducted interviews and archival research about life involving the store, which was named for Pearson’s first daughter, and its significance to the community. Those stories were part of the application for historic status.

On Aug. 26, just days after receiving state designation, a major portion of Tillie’s Corner collapsed, exposing much of the brick buildings’ interior to the elements. Another segment collapsed shortly after that, Lee says.

“The buildings aren’t going to last through winter. The weather will bring them down,” Lee says.

A decision on national historic status, which could help secure funding for the renovation, is expected around Thanksgiving, she says. In the meantime, Alexander is still seeking funding from individual donors and foundations.