Century Building Demolition Downtown

The Demolition of the Century Building Brings to Mind…

by Michael R. Allen

As wreckers race to destroy the landmark Century Building, Ecology of Absence pauses to recall how it once appeared in this vintage postcard.

Such a memory bring to mind another downtown office building now lost. Correction; we recall several buildings now lost that once formed the most spectacular commercial group in the city. These were the buildings on Seventh Street between Market and Locust, as depicted in this other postcard.

From left, the Missouri Pacific, Lincoln Trust, Fullerton and Holland Buildings have all fallen to the callous plans of our civic leaders and property owners. The last of these buildings disappeared in 1982, suggesting that 22 years is not enough time for a Saint Louis civic leader to learn good urban planning.

To contemplate the existence of a commercial corridor and an individual building so graceful that someone sold postcard images of both leads to a massive shudder as one considers what has replaced and will replace these buildings.

Century Building Downtown

The Biggest Windfall in St. Louis History

by Michael R. Allen

Originally published by the St. Louis Independent Media Center, April 1, 2002.

The city of St. Louis has handed Mark Finney and his Conlon Group what is perhaps the biggest real estate windfall in city history: the opportunity to make nearly ten times the purchase price on two buildings that Finney exploited and blighted. Recently purchased by the city for $6.5 million, Syndicate Trust and Century buildings on Olive Street between 9th and 10th Streets were moderately occupied when the Conlon Group purchased them in 1993 for $625,000. Now, the buildings sit behind a plywood fence and house only a corner Walgreens — the result of willful neglect amid a nearly seven-year effort by Finney to demolish them.

Not only is the city handing the Conlon Group ten times what his building cost him, but it is doing so precisely to facilitate the demolition of the 1896 Century Building. Once the foe of Finney’s demolition, the city’s new plans call for renovation of the already Protected Old Post Office, which is being arranged by the state of Missouri and the DESCO Group. In doing so, the adjacent Century Building has become a plum site for a 1,050-car parking garage. Despite the fact that Loftworks LLC, McGowan Brothers Development and Mansur Real Estate Services unveiled an $81 million plan in February for the buildings that would provide needed parking and preserve the historic, stately Century Building, the plan was withdrawn because it received no support from a City Hall intent on proving that it can complete a major downtown development.

Never mind the other available sites for parking within a block from the Old Post Office — this site is the only one the state is considering. In fact, it is unlikely that the city would have even purchased the buildings at all if it were not for the Old Post Office redevelopment. After opposing Finney’s demolition plan and allowing him to let the buildings sit in disrepair, the city now has rewarded him for his stalwart insistence on leveling one of downtown’s most unique blocks. Neighboring buildings have lost tenants as the deteriorating Syndicate Trust and Century buildings have waited for a future. The cost to the neighborhood of the vacancy has been enormous. Why did the city give a multimillion dollar payoff to the developer who speculated on the buildings and then left them moribund when they cost too much?

Postcard view of the Century Building. Collection of the author.

In short, Finney’s speculation turned into a windfall aided by the city government, which had opposed him. Because of the intervention of a judge in Jefferson City, Finney was able to have the courts set a price for the buildings only the city could afford to pay–and that is exactly what happened. A preservationist would argue that if the city is willing to hand Finney his outrageous profit, at least such a payment should be for the preservation of these important buildings. The city has a responsibility to its citizens to respect its own preservation standards, which after all it insisted that Finney himself uphold. If the city allows the Century Building to be wrecked, the folly of Finney’s enormous profit will be topped by the irresponsibility of the demolition.


When Finney bought the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings in 1993, the buildings had been through a nearly one hundred year progression from vitality to lethargic vacancy. The elegant Century Building, designed by Raeder, Coffin & Crocker of Chicago and built in 1896 across Ninth Street from the Old Post Office, incorporated the entrance to the defunct Century Theater and housed the local offices of the White Star Line — the agents for the R.M.S. Titanic–in the space now occupied by Walgreens. The elaborate Syndicate Trust Building, designed by Harry Roach, was constructed next door in 1906. The two buildings were joined in 1912 to become the headquarters for the Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney department store, which remained there until its closure in 1967.

After the department store’s close, the buildings fell from being a familiar downtown address to a difficult space to market. The floors housing the store had no interior natural lighting and were virtually unusable for office uses, although Southwestern Bell’s data division occupied some of the space briefly. With a total of 705,000 square feet, the buildings were a formidable challenge that few tenants wanted to take. Two renovation plans–one in 1968 and another in 1986–failed to revive the buildings. The owner prior to Finney, Allan Pullman, a Philadelphia dentist who had bought the buildings using an inflated appraisal, defaulted on his loan in 1988 and lost the buildings to the FDIC.

When the FDIC held an auction in 1993, there was only one bid for $625,000 — less than one dollar per square foot — from Mark Finney, head of the Conlon Group of Saint Louis. Although Pullman’s inflated appraisal held the buildings to be worth $41 million, the FDIC had determined that their worth was close to $16 million. Finney got a bargain–but a costly one.

He was also prepared to invest money in a $2.6 million renovation plan sponsored through a voluntary contract with the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Agency. This contract — which Finney later distorted–bound Finney to renovate the buildings and prevented their demolition, in exchange for financial and legal help from city agencies. This contract alone should have prevented the actions Finney would take over the next eight years.

With the designs of architect Richard Claybour, Finney planned to use most of the bottom six floors of the building — the department store space — for parking with office space above. He began gutting the buildings when an apparent insurmountable structural deficiency emerged.

Finney claims that a Bobcat loader broke through a floor of the Century Building. Claybour argues that a wheel got stuck in a weak spot on a floor section that was going to be removed for a garage ramp. Claybour told the Riverfront Times that “what really happened was that the owner lost interest in the project” Work stopped immediately, and never resumed.

Finney immediately sought a demolition permit — no surprise to some people involved in the project. The Heritage and Urban Design Commission twice rejected his application, citing the possibility of finishing the renovation. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the buildings, Finney and his brother, attorney Daniel P. Finney of Maplewood, took advantage of a strange possibility in state law: they filed an appeal in a court in Cole County, where the capital of Jefferson City is located.

The possibility panned out well — in March 1995 Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ordered the city to issue the demolition permit. The city filed an appeal in state court, and the resulting legal fight dragged on for months, costing both sides enough money to refurbish a floor or two of the buildings.

Meanwhile, all of the tenants were forced out except the Walgreens at Ninth and Olive, which had a 15-year lease that could not be legally terminated without consent of both parties. Walgreens refused to move out, even after Finney erected a wide fence on all four sides of the block, with scaffolding from the middle of Olive Street to the door of Walgreens.

Finney’s chain-link fence — built to protect pedestrians from “falling objects” from the buildings — blocked two lanes of traffic on all sides, causing a nuisance suit to be filed by neighboring building owners and shopkeepers. Instead of ordering Finney to make the same necessary repairs to his property required of even the poorest homeowners, the city Circuit Court simply ordered the fence taken down. Finney complied half-way: he built a new plywood fence on the sidewalks only.

That fence still stands, successfully impeding pedestrians for nearly five years now–despite its as illegality. Finney then sued the city in city courts for a staggering $14 million in damages, a vague figure never fully substantiated. He said the city was guilty of inverse condemnation, claiming that the city was preventing his rightful use of the property: demolition. Of course, the fight over Finney’s “rightful use” was possibly impairing neighboring buildings from retaining tenants. During the legal wrangling, the nearby renovated Paul Brown Building at 818 Olive Street closed and the Frisco Building at 906 Olive Street lost many of its tenants.

In December 1997, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Margaret Neil ordered the city of St. Louis to pay Finney $4.2 million for his buildings. The city refused, calling the price excessive. Although the city was legally bound to respect the decision of the Heritage and Urban Design Commission, its development agencies did not pursue developers for the buildings. If Finney’s combative style hadn’t run off potential buyers, his inflated asking price had.

The city did continue to mount legal challenges to Finney, and eventually won a victory. On September 1, 1998, the Missouri Appellate Court overturned Kinder’s ruling and Neil’s $4.2 million price. The reason behind the decision was very simple: Finney had breached his contract with the LCRA, and thus still owed the city renovation of the buildings. The meaning of the decision was not as simple, because neither Finney nor the city had a plan for the buildings. Finney could not even afford to demolish them, let alone renovate them. Neither could the city.

The city under mayor Clarence Harmon tried to broker a voluntary use of eminent domain in 1999, whereby the city would purchase the buildings. Not surprisingly, Finney would not budge from his price. Finney now demanded $9 million, and the city was willing to spend $2 million. The St. Louis Circuit Court appointed a three-member commission to hear the case, which decided that the fair compromise was $6.2 million. The city balked, and the buildings continued to sit empty–as well as stripped of many ornaments that Finney sold.

More of the same back-and-forth legal maneuvers happened throughout 2000, too. In September, city Circuit Judge Robert Dierker, Jr., declared the buildings a “public nuisance” and ordered their demolition. Then, developer John Steffen came forward with a proposal to renovate both buildings for residential uses. The hitch: he only could pay $5 million for the buildings, and Finney would not accept that amount. Steffen walked away and Finney blamed the business booster group Downtown Now — skeptical of the Steffen plan — for not coming up with financing for Steffen to pay full price.

Of course, had Steffen paid the full amount, he would most likely have been unable to finance any work on the buildings. In order for the damaged buildings to be renovated — or demolished for that matter — a party with nearly unlimited financing would have to buy the buildings.

That’s exactly what happened. After the state’s Missouri Development Finance Board announced plans to renovate the Old Post Office to house a state court and Webster University, the city offered to but the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings for adjacent parking — as long as the state agreed to reimburse the city. Plans call for demolishing the Century Building and selling the Syndicate Trust Building — hopefully at a non-Finney price — to a developer for renovation.

No one mentioned Finney’s contract with the LCRA, or the city’s earlier position in favor of preservation. Now that the state was calling the shots and mayor Francis Slay needed the publicity of a downtown redevelopment project, the profit was quickly arranged.


In February of this year, the LCRA paid Finney a $3.5 million down payment on the buildings with the promise of delivering $3 million more to him later.

Meanwhile, a proposal to save the entire block for residential use and for 700 parking spaces — more than enough for the required spaces for Webster University and the court — was given no serious attention by city development agencies. Loftworks LLC, McGowan Brothers Development and Mansur Real Estate Services unveiled in February a $81 million plan for the buildings that would provide needed parking and preserve the historic, stately Century Building.

Mayoral spokesperson Ed Rhode called that plan an “11th hour proposal.”

On March 2, the Loftworks group withdrew its plan and oddly endorsed the plan to demolish the Century Building. One reason for the withdrawal was that the buildings are not eligible for much-needed state historic tax credits since they are not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In February the city’s Preservation Board rejected, 6-1, an application to place both buildings on the National Register. The majority say that they will approve listing the Syndicate Trust Building after the Century is demolished. [N.B. The heroic Melanie Fathman was the lone “nay” vote.]

One need not be a preservationist to remember the failure of a similar project completed by the City Treasurer’s office in 1998 at the Marquette Building, in which the less significant portion was demolished for an adjoining garage. Both the Marquette Building and the garage are largely unoccupied, and plans to restore the building fizzled within months of the garage’s opening.

The city has a responsibility to its citizens to respect its own preservation standards, which after all it insisted that Finney himself uphold. If the city allows the Century Building to be wrecked, the folly of the windfall profit will be topped by the irresponsibility of the demolition.

Fire Midtown

National Memorial Church of God in Christ

by Michael R. Allen

The church in 1972. (Source: Heritage/St. Louis Collection, Landmarks Association of St. Louis)

LOCATION: 460 N. Spring Avenue; Midtown; Saint Louis, Missouri
OWNER: Grand Center, Inc.

A bolt of lightning struck the National Memorial Church of God in Christ in March 2001, and the church burned. The church building was built in 1884 by the Garrison Avenue Baptist Church, which reconstituted itself here as the Delmar Baptist Church. The congregation followed its upper-middle-class and wealthy members by moving to Delmar and Pendleton avenues in 1892. A Swedenborgian congregation, the Church of the New Jerusalem, was the next occupant. In the 1950s, the Pentecostal, African-American National Memorial Church of God in Christ purchased the building and began services.

After the fire, the church shell sat in Midtown containing the charred debris of the church roof, pews and altar. Eventually, Grand Center, Incorporated bought the building for conversion to an urban sculpture garden. In late 2003, construction crews removed the debris and began renovation. Yet after initially filling the basement with gravel in spring 2004, the crews stopped work.

Clearance McRee Town South St. Louis

The Destruction of McRee Town: September 2004

by Michael R. Allen

By September 2004, McBride & Sons Homes had opened their first two display homes on McRee Avenue and had built foreboding fencing along 39th Street to mark their subdivision’s boundary. The company had also placed sod around their fences after grass seed did not grow in the hot Missouri summer. One young worker had to water the sod lawn each day, dragging a large hose around the former site of St. Louis’ worst south side slum. Wreckers had completed nearly all of the demolition work on the eastern three blocks, including the demolition of the Regal Foods store (see third photo). The last remaining structure in this area, a handsome 1910’s-era four-flat at 3919-21 Lafayette, was half gone. We detail the wrecking of that building in photos below.

September 24, 2004

September 26, 2004

Chicago Schools

Jacob Riis Elementary School

by Michael R. Allen

LOCATION: 1018 S. Lytle Street; Chicago, Illinois
ARCHITECT: Arthur F. Hussander
OWNER: Chicago Public Schools

The Chicago city government plans to demolish shuttered Jacob Riis Elementary School as part of rebuilding of the ABLA Homes project, despite the school building’s excellent physical condition. The Chicago Public Schools closed Riis in 2001. Riis School is a sturdy and remarkable example of early Chicago Public Schools architecture, which diverges dramatically from St. Louis’ school styles set forth by architect William B. Ittner. Riis is rather boxy and strictly symmetrical, but is nonetheless a striking visual anchor in the Taylor Street area.

Why is Riis being demolished? To make way for a residential development that will replace the ABLA Homes, one of Chicago’s oldest public housing projects. The projected rise in enrollment from the surrounding neighborhoods — which will experience population boosts from the ABLA development project — will necessitate opening a new school in the area.

Maxwell and Taylor Streets once were the scene of economic diversity and use diversity. People can still see some of that world remaining on Taylor, where add-on storefronts abut row houses next door to apartment buildings and the public library. This mixed-use area is vital and active, but for how much longer will depend on the whims of the city development agencies as they import the suburban single-use zones under the guise of New Urbanist styles. The nearby University of Illinois at Chicago has already decimated the historic African-American Maxwell Street area for a bland world of one-brick-thick boxes.

SLPS South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Nouveau Rousseau

Southwest High School after mural cover-up, September 1, 2004. Photo by Michael R. Allen.

by Susan Turk

The businesslike efficiency, which now typifies the management of the Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), was demonstrated August 23 by the speedy obliteration of Nouveau Rousseau, a landmark mural which had graced the façade of Southwest High School at Arsenal and Kingshighway for the past 20 years. Painted by Southwest students, Nouveau Rousseau, transformed an otherwise unremarkable building into a tropical jungle, giving passing motorists, Metro riders and pedestrians a glimpse of paradise reminiscent of French painter Henri Rousseau’s landscapes. In its place we are left with newly painted plain brown brick walls which the administration considers to be a more appropriate representation of the future of a building soon to house Bunche International Studies Middle School and Central VPA HS.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

Much like that icon of American business, Henry Ford, who considered history to be “bunk”, SLPS COO Manny Silva explained in the Post-Dispatch that obliterating was important to symbolize that this was a new school. Since the mural symbolized the old, now defunct Southwest HS, it had to go. And so, a work of art that had become part of our cultural heritage had to be sacrificed.

Nevermind that it was quite possibly illegal. Nevermind that federal law recognizes the moral right of artists to protect their work from alteration or destruction. Nevermind that federal copyright law requires that if the owner of a building wishes to destroy a work of art painted on it, he is obligated to either get written permission from the artist or artists who created it, or first give the artists the opportunity to try to remove and preserve it.

So much for respect to the former students who created Nouveau Rousseau. So much for their legacy, a testament to the quality of fine arts education in the SLPS. All gone within a matter of hours.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

It is a sad commentary on the current outlook of the district’s administration that some small economy could not be found to preserve Nouveau Rousseau in some way. It could have been photographed and displayed elsewhere.

From the destruction of historic buildings that housed public schools, to the scattering of the historical treasures that were housed in the districts archives, to the obliteration of the landmark Nouveau Roussea, one can only surmise that to the business men running St. Louis Public Schools, history IS bunk. But while there may not be much room for history and art in the rarified business climate that now governs the SLPS, history and art are important components of an educated mind.

Somehow, the brave new evangelists who have brought the gospel of efficiency to the SLPS are going to have to reconcile academic and business cultures if they are going to be successful in improving the outcomes for our students. Hopefully, they will not often find it more efficient to destroy the proud products of our students’ labors in the process.

From the August 30, 2004 issue of the electronic newsletter version of Saint Louis Schools Watch. To subscribe, email editor Peter Downs.

Clearance McRee Town South St. Louis

The Destruction of McRee Town: August 2004, Part Two

August 19, 2004

The first photograph shows that brick salvage and demolition at the Regal Foods Store has progressed quickly. Other photographs in the row show views around the corner of Lawrence and Blaine. The last two rows of photographs show a lone bungalow and a row of attached two-flats — a rare arrangement in St. Louis — under demolition on the south side of the 3900 block of Folsom Avenue, between 39th and Lawrence.

August 31, 2004

These photos show the 4000 block of McRee Avenue between Lawrence and Thurman Avenues, except for the last photograph, which shows the ongoing demolition of the Regal Foods store at McRee and Lawrence.

Abandonment Demolition North St. Louis Old North

What the 14th Street Mall Could Be

by Michael R. Allen

On St. Louis Avenue in Old North St. Louis, a one-story storefront building just bit the dust. Located at 1315 St. Louis Avenue, the modest narrow building was once a productive part of neighborhood commerce, and was part of a connected group of three buildings. Such groups have allowed the neighborhood to evince strong historic character despite the fact that over half of its 20th century built environment is gone.

Across St. Louis Avenue and a half-block to the west is the two block “14th Street Mall,” a section of the commercial district turned into a pedestrian mall in 1977. The buildings on the mall are largely abandoned and some have been lost.  However, this is the most dense and intact group of commercial buildings left in Old North, or anywhere on the near north side between downtown and Salisbury Avenue.

A remnant of 1970’s era urban planning, the closure of 14th Street from St. Louis Avenue southward to Warren Avenue left a once-bustling shopping district in decline. The shop buildings gradually became vacant, and only a few businesses on the fringes remain open — notably the venerable Crown Candy Kitchen at 14th and St. Louis. With some renewed attention to the surrounding Old North St. Louis area in the last two years, though, the 14th Street Mall could enjoy some form of rejuvenation soon. Hopefully, rejuvenation will not consist of massive demolition; the two blocks suffered from much demolition when the mall was built to accommodate parking behind the stores on 14th Street.

The scale of this shopping district is as intimately urban as that of the Cherokee Street district. Buildings here are small and close together, and within walking district of beautiful and remarkably intact — by northside standards — 19th century row and town houses. It could be instrumental in developing a multi-racial, mixed-income district of housing and shopping north of downtown, which is priced out of range for most of Saint Louis and is woefully lacking in diversity in its emergent population.

This area could anchor a near-north belt of family-friendly housing, cooperatively managed rental units, urban gardens, live-work spaces (Neighborhood Gardens, anyone?), and neighborhood schools. Imagine: affordable, restored historic living space in the inner city in the 21st century!

Clearance McRee Town South St. Louis

The Destruction of McRee Town: August 2004

Destroying the 3900 block of McRee Avenue

By August, the last remaining building on this block was the Regal Foods Store building located at the northeast corner of McRee and Lawrence avenues. This sturdy 1910’s storefront building was ripe for renovation but instead was headed toward demolition. During demolition, wreckers salvaged nearly every piece of masonry and lumber because all of it was in great shape.

Destroying the 4000 block of McRee Avenue

This was another block of mostly-sturdy residential buildings. The 4000 block contained some ecclectic juxtaposition of common 19th and early 20th century St. Louis vernacular housing, as the photograph below of the 1910’s four-flat, 1890’s two-flat and 1900’s four-square single-family home demonstrates.

Destroying the 4000 block of Blaine Avenue

Note the obvious physical integrity of most of the buildings scheduled for demolition. Here is one general shot and photos of buildings on the north side of the block:


These were the buildings on the south side of the block:

Displaying the 3900 block of Blaine Avenue

McBride and Sons continued to construct the display units in the 3900 block of Blaine Avenue in Botanical Heights. Along with the homes came fencing along 39th Street, sod lawns (after an unsuccessful seeding effort) around the intersection of McRee and Blaine. Only two older buildings, one shown below, remained standing in this block.

Abandonment Carr Square North St. Louis Schools

Carr School

by Michael R. Allen

Located on Carr Street between 14th and 15th streets, the Carr School has stood as a forlorn reminder that the downtown renovation boom has left many buildings behind. The Carr School, an elementary school designed in 1908 by the celebrated school district architect William B. Ittner, was abandoned by the St. Louis Public Schools in 1983. Sitting on a block of mostly vacant lots surrounded by the Carr Square Village low-rise public housing project, the school seems precariously posed between death and life; the mostly-occupied apartments are in reasonable shape and of a mediocre (as opposed to awful) design, but the missing buildings on the block and others along 14th Street point to a different future altogether. The Carr Square Tenants’ Association owns the building and has struggled for two decades to renovate the building for elderly housing with no success. Consequently, the building has slid toward dereliction — even a short glance at the roof is saddening — and has been listed on the Landmarks’ Association’s Most Endangered Buildings List for many years running. The interior is in particularly bad shape, with plaster falling from most walls and many floors less than intact. Nevertheless, the brick walls and their ornamental tile work are in very good shape and retain their beauty.

Recall a time when such craftsmanship was common in elementary school design, and then attempt to imagine one of today’s new school buildings surviving 21 years of abandonment this gracefully. The difference in quality is staggering.

See more photos at Built St. Louis.