Adaptive Reuse Downtown

A Dying Mall Gets to Live

by Michael R. Allen

The press is reporting that the Mayor’s office has successfully gotten St. Louis Centre into the hands of one of its favored developers, the Pyramid Companies. Pyramid aims to introduce condominiums into the twenty-one-year-old grimy mall. Pyramid’s track record downtown has been good, including some thoughtful rehabilitation of historic buildings like the Paul Brown. Their architecture staff is dynamic and young, and should handle the challenge well.

Odd that the fortune of a place can change so quickly; in two decades, the downtown shopping mall rose and fell like a bird, to borrow from the Handsome Family. Its birth in fad is met in rebirth through another, hopefully more vital fad: condominium conversion of commercial space.

St. Louis Centre has changed quite a bit since its grand opening in 1985, which was replete with a ceremonial balloon launch and the styling of the late comedian Bob Hope. The downtown mall was the brainchild of city planners with block grant money and big dreams — big dreams that were articulated in the muddled form of the place and in its name. To boast that the “centre” of St. Louis was downtown in 1985 was very optimistic. To claim that a shopping mall there was that center was quixotic, eroding the importance of the name. To use “centre” was so silly as to suggest the mall’s planners did not take it very seriously.

The design, by famed 1980s “urban mall” experts RTKL Associates, grafted a postmodern pastiche of London’s Crystal Palace with onto an awkward box with green-and-white (officially “light gray”) aluminum walls. The box supported a 25-story shiny granite office tower that does not share any public connection with the mall, in one of the most puzzling aspects of the mall. Another confusing design feature is the fact that the mall’s first level is actually the second floor, so mall-goers have to take escalators through two unconnected lobbies at different ends of the building in order to reach the first full floor of shops. The building overhangs the sidewalk with a garish barrel vault arcade, another effort at pastiche that only makes the mall less humane. Then there are the sky bridges that connect the second through fourth levels to the department stores, Famous -Barr on the south end and the shuttered Dillard’s on the north. The sky bridges are overly wide, overly tall (why not a connection at one level?) and only have glass on one side with the dreaded aluminum wall on the other. Furthermore, these bridges have the glass on different sides. They block the views one would have down Washington Avenue and Locust Street, obscures the facades of the department store buildings and create dark spots on the streets below.

The one redeeming feature of St. Louis Centre is the sun-filled main arcade. It follows a traditional long-form plan, much like Milwaukee’s Plankington Arcade. The three levels of shops are punctured by an open atrium. Everything is white, from the railings along the atrium to most of the tiles on the floor. (At least, they used to be white.) The whole effect is bright and comfortable — not a great space, but not as badly disarming as the rest of the mall.

All of the design flaws create a building that is wholly resistant to natural circulation. Beside the fact that downtown is not a place where a shopping mall will help create life, the mall’s architecture is too confused to be inviting and too confusing to be useful. Consequently, the mall has been in decline since its opening. Nowadays, the mall has hit the bottom of its life. More store spaces are closed than open. Nearly every original “name” store is gone, leaving behind a handful of super-discount shops and junk food vendors. Dillard’s has closed, and the new owners of Dillard’s are eager to demolish the sky bridge to their building. The new owners of Famous-Barr, Federated Department Stores, will be changing that store to the posh Macy’s name; they weren’t likely to keep the sky bridge for long.

In the meantime, the mall has had an owner who never seemed certain what to do with it. Barry Cohen purchased the giant block grant project for a mere $4.5 million in foreclosure, and has proceeded to preside over accelerated obsolescence. Maintenance has become a lost idea at the mall. St. Louis Centre lingers, losing shops and shoppers but picking up the occasional improbable new tenant (an art gallery and a well-known gym moved into the mall in 2005). The slow decay and deferred maintenance combined with the anemic flow of people inside provide the perfect space to meditate on the future of the city. To anyone who was here when the mall was a bit busier, traces of history emerge. A memory of a shop, a cup of espresso consumed (there was an espresso shop when I was younger), a photo-booth adventure (the photo-booth, with its radiant Technicolor, remained until fall 2005) — it’s all still here, just as the memories of lost buildings and stores infuse our neighborhoods with a secret counter-narrative that either infuses new uses with life or curses them to death.

One can offer an easy guess as to which way these ghosts are carrying St. Louis Centre, but the mall itself may disagree. Windowpanes on fake Victorian greenhouse may be boarded and the floors may be unwashed, but what about those thirty-somethings jogging in place in their clinging, sweaty workout gear in plain view of passers-by on Locust? Death may be at hand, but in a fashion consistent with the mall’s own style, it arrives slow and confused. What could have been a death of the building — a fate that many found hard to oppose — is just a death of use, form and style. What remains after those three elements are removed is any one’s guess, but it will not be St. Louis Centre.