Adaptive Reuse City Hospital South St. Louis

From Laundry Building to Palladium, From Great Depression to New Recession

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Lynn M. Josse taken in 2000.

The 50th anniversary gala for Landmarks Association of St. Louis this past weekend took place at a venue called Palladium St. Louis but better known as the Laundry Building at the former City Hospital complex. Since 2003, Gilded Age Development has been working on rehabilitating the remaining buildings of the long-vacant municipal hospital. Thanks to the Butler’s Pantry, which built a new building next door for its headquarters, the Laundry Building is now complete.

Landmarks’ choice of venue for its half-century birthday was fitting; without an active preservation movement, City Hospital would not have survived nearly twenty years of abandonment to find new investment and new uses. There is another timely coincidence with the re-opening of the Laundry at this time. The National Register of Historic Places nomination for City Hospital by Lynn M. Josse reminds us that the Laundry Building was part of a Depression-era modernization of City Hospital funded by a combination of local and federal funds. Voters approved municipal bond issues in 1933 and 1934 to fund major expansion, and the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works provided several matching grants. According to Josse, federal funds covered 45% of the costs of the 1939 round of construction that included the Laundry Building as well as a now-demolished 14-story hospital building. Albert Osburg, Chief Architect of the Board of Public Service, probably designed these new buildings.

The following photograph, taken by Dr. George W. Salmon, shows the corner of the newly-completed Laundry Building amid a modernized hospital complex and a dense, if smoky, metropolis.

Public investment amid economic downtown led to the creation of the Laundry Building in the first place. The rebirth comes in a time when such public investment is viewed through an engrained, misplaced anti-government lense. However, Missouri’s state historic tax credit program — an incentive, of course, rather than a public investment — returned the Laundry Building to life. In this recession, St. Louis doesn’t have the impressive public investment of the New Deal era, but it does have a proven incentive that does a lot of good.

And what good has been done at the Laundry Building! Here’s a look at the changes using photographs that I took in 2004 and photographs taken this weekend after the gala.

The two views above are looking west inside of the building. The two images below are aimed at the northwest corner. What a change! (The fate of that laundry machine is unknown.)

As the photographs above show, the steel balcony running on the south and west walls remains in place. A lot of the glazed structural clay tile has been covered by drywall, but some exposed sections in the corners show off the lovely old walls. Some of those walls needed repair.

For years, the Laundry Building’s windows were boarded with ugly boards painted City-Owned Red. The cupola that echoes the cupolas of the Administration Building and Ward Wings on Lafayette Avenue was destroyed by thieve sin the 1980s. Now, the composition’s elegant strength is fully evident. Designed in the Georgian Revival style to blend with the rest of the historic hospital complex, the Laundry Building is really a functional modern box. Yet its architect gave this utilitarian building the dignity and hopeful beauty demanded by a city hospital building built amid a major national public works effort.

Adaptive Reuse City Hospital Historic Preservation Hospitals South St. Louis

City Hospital Laundry Building Rehabilitation Moving to Completion

by Michael R. Allen

One encouraging recent turn in local development is nearing completion: the start of the second phase of rehabilitation of the remaining buildings at City Hospital. Gilded Age, the developer, has embarked on a $27 million project that involves rehabilitation of the Laundry Building as an event space operated by Butler’s Pantry, construction of a new headquarters for Butler’s Pantry on Park Avenue and renovation of the Power Plant as a restaurant and office building. The Laundry Building is nearing completion, with the exterior sporting a cupola for the first time in decades.

Built in 1939 and designed by Albert Osburg, chief architect for the city’s Board of Public Service, the Laundry Building was once a hub of activity at the municipal hospital. The spacious, tile-walled interior housed a bustling laundry operation that kept thousands of linens used for bedding as well as staff uniforms clean and suitable for a medical environment. This efficient interior was artfully concealed behind a Georgian Revival exterior that referenced the earlier buildings of the hospital.

The large multi-paned windows, now replicated in aluminum, have always given away the building’s use. Those are industrial windows, made to light a work space. The town homes of Georgian London did not have such prosaic glazing. Here the modern meets the classical, and the Laundry Building melds the two with style. The dormers and cupola on the hipped roof add a welcome note of whimsy. While the hospital complex lost some fine buildings as part of the redevelopment, luckily the utilitarian Laundry and Power Plant buildings were spared. Buildings such as these can be hard to adapt, but when the right use comes along preservation seems completely logical. The Laundry Building will be a wonderful event space, and watching it regain its beauty is very satisfying.

Bohemian Hill City Hospital Flounder House South St. Louis

Bohemian Hill and City Hospital

Here is a view east toward City Hospital from just south of Picker Street in Bohemian Hill, taken by me in 2002. Here we see visual density and variety giving way to the relatively monotonous architectural mass of the City Hospital. The distinct individual buildings mitigate the impact of the hospital complex, which otherwise might be overbearing. The relationship also makes full use of that human-scaled unit with which we build towers and flounder houses alike: the brick.

While each building is the sum of its parts — here those parts are largely brick — each urban vista also is the sum of a multitude of elements. Limiting the complexity by reducing the number of and small disparities between each element diminishes the view as well as the pedestrian experience.

Five years later, this view does not exist — but we have the chance to remake it. However, we should keep in mind that the view seen here was over 100 years in the making, and just as the brick or the building becomes an element that composes a larger view, so is each year during which the view emerges. While it is easy for a person to manipulate space and material, it is impossible to manipulate time.