Demolition Downtown Terra Cotta

Locust Street Breathes Again

by Michael R. Allen

Our landmark Railway Exchange Building, home of Macy’s Department Store, breathed a sigh of relief last week as the last bit of the monstrous St. Louis Centre sky bridge over Locust Street came down. The wide, tall bridge connected the second through fifth floors of the department store space to the mall, and blocked views of the building’s north elevation.

Completed in 1913 and designed by Mauran, Russell & Crowell, the Railway Exchange occupies the entire city block between Olive, 6th, Locust and 7th streets. The 21-story mass is adorned with 183,000 white-glazed terra cotta tiles by St. Louis’ Winkle Terra Cotta Company. The tiles display a wealth of original work and Italian Renaissance-derived patterns. For the past 25 years, only three sides of the building have been fully displayed.

Removal shows that the sky bridge construction in 1984-1985 did entail grinding away of the faces of many tiles, but the damage is not as extensive as it could have been. Most of the area was simply coated with fire-proofing spray.

As with the former Stix-Baer and Fuller department store building to the south (coincidentally designed by the same firm), some replication of terra cotta is ahead. The Railway Exchange’s north elevation will again shine, perhaps with a substitute material (hopefully not a plastic-based one!) or perhaps with the real thing. Recent replacement work on the Orpheum Theater used actual new clay terra cotta pieces. Terra cotta is still manufactured in Italy, but there may be fewer than a half-dozen American makers. When the Railway Exchange was built, there were many makers domestically but none finer than our own Winkle Company.

The Railway Exchange has repair work ahead, but already Locust Street is a restored place. With both of St. Louis Centre’s sky bridges demolished, we have reversed one of the worst atrocities of the 1980’s urban renewal era in St. Louis. At an event Sunday, someone asked me if the Gateway One of the Mall building’s demolition could be far behind.

I won’t bet on that event happening soon, and I would certainly prioritize projects that reclaim the public space of the street eroded in the post-modern era.  (Also, with the mass of the bridge gone, the loss of density through demolition on Locust between 7th and 9th is terribly evident.)  The sky bridges may not have precluded pedestrian and vehicle passage, but they cast a psychological shadow that devastated the east end of downtown.  No more.

Iowa Terra Cotta

Lemp in Ft. Madison

by Michael R. Allen

While working in Ft. Madison, Iowa recently I noticed an unmistakable emblem of the St. Louis empire. At the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and Avenue G downtown, the parapet of a building caught my eye.

Joined with the corner building — and united by lovely green mid-century tile — to form a Sears store, the narrow building told me of its connection to my city.

Two stories above the sidewalk in an Iowa river city, arrested in fine terra cotta, was the mighty shield of the William J. Lemp Brewing Company.

As I rounded the corner, I saw that the building wrapped the corner building in an L-shape. On Avenue G, the wider elevation was definitely the main entrance.  Research showed that this building was built for Kiel & Burster Liquor Dealers, the exclusive distributor of Lemp beer in this area.  Many brewery distributors and tavern owners in the late 19th and early 20th century adorned their buildings with terra cotta brewery emblems.  Anheuser-Busch’s emblem is more prevalent than Lemp’s, but there are some surviving buildings with the Lemp shield outside of St. Louis.

Chicago Terra Cotta


Terra cotta ornament, Stony Island Boulevard, Chicago. (Taken July 2005.)

Brecht Butcher Buildings Fire Hyde Park North St. Louis Old North Terra Cotta

Terra Cotta on the Move

by Michael R. Allen

According to a neighbor, a missing piece of the terra cotta cornice of the Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings now resides in front of the firehouse at the northwest corner of Blair and Salisbury in Hyde Park. The buildings burned last Friday.

Gate District Historic Preservation Salvage South St. Louis Terra Cotta

City Hospital’s Missing Pieces

by Michael R. Allen

The City Hospital has reopened, but without two important elements: Its front steps, and its front gates. (Or its original cast-iron cupola framing, made locally by Banner Iron Works. But that’s another story.)

The gates are in the middle of one of the ugliest new developments in the city, The Gate District. The city removed the gates around 1994. They sit on Park Avenue west of Jefferson, framing an ugly and useless lawn that now sits sun-baked.

The gray Maine granite steps are in the City Museum, having been removed by Bob Cassilly in 1997 along with other items from the front entrance, including a terra cotta arch and a transom window bearing the hospital name. While the future of the hospital was bleak at this stage, demolition was not scheduled and salvage bids were not being taken.

Why anyone would rob an architectural landmark of defining features is beyond comprehension. Then again, in 1997 believers in the future of the City Hospital were in short supply. Alderwoman Phyllis Young was seeking demolition in coordination with the redevelopment of the Darst-Webbe housing project, and Mayor Freeman Bosley’s office concurred. While these instincts proved wrong, and some of the hospital buildings ended up being renovated, what sort of pessimism would lead the city government to allow the removal of the gates and steps?

The bigger question is why the city under different circumstances years later did not try to return the gates.