by Michael R. Allen
This photograph from the collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis shows a section of Washington Avenue in 1978. Obviously, the photographer was intrigued by the Fire Department’s activity, but ended up documenting more than just a one-alarm call. This view shows the north side of Washington from the mid-point of the 700 block east through the 500 block.
From the left, one sees Loews Theatre still in business with its marquee advertising “Greased Lightning.” Then there is Unique Jeans ‘n Shirts, Stan and Julio’s Spaghetti House, H.R. Perlstein Furs, Amitin’s Books, the Big Men’s Shop and Lane Bryant. On the next block east is the Stix, Baer and Fuller Department Store, later Dillard’s, long before any skybridge marred its lovely commercial facade. Beyond the department store is the old May Company Building, now 555 Washington and then home of the Dollar Store.
This retail environment was dense with stores and small-scale buildings. The 700 block, with the exception of the theater, was occupied by narrow four-to-six-story buildings. These small buildings were the lifeblood of downtown retail in the 20th century, offering low rents and lower operating costs to owners. The buildings and the shops also imprinted streets like Washington, Locust, Olive and others with architectural variety and commercial abundance.
Alas, this photograph captures that downtown street life in end times. By the time this photograph was taken, city planners had decided to smother the retail environment here with the colossal failure that was St. Louis Centre. Opened in 1985, St. Louis Centre stands diagonally across from the Lane Bryant Store here. To build St. Louis Centre, two blocks of modestly-scaled historic downtown buildings — all with ground-floor retail — were leveled. St. Charles Street was closed. The two giant department stores, Stix and Famous-Barr, were joined to the mall rather than being separated by a diverse array of urban retail accessed on the sidewalks.
Retailers like Lane Bryant moved into St. Louis Centre and failed. Establishments like Stan and Julio’s lingered until city planners again decided to stamp unitary order onto functional, if messy, urban life. In 1989, the 700 block of Washington was seized for construction of an addition to the convention center. Some retailers, like Amitin’s, moved westward on Washington, but many closed their doors forever. The buildings fell. Today, the view captured in 1978 is depressing. Where delightful urban life thrived sits the giant convention center, with its sidewalks a pedestrian danger zone of taxi-dodging. The Stix building is empty, with a giant skybridge fused onto its facade that blocks sunlight and site lines.
Fortune may lead to rehabilitation of the Stix buidling, demolition of the skybridge and reconstruction of St. Louis Centre. However, the very urban architectural and commercial character of this stretch of Washington is lost.