by Michael R. Allen
This week started with the city’s Building Division moving ahead to surround Cupples Station Building 7 at 11th and Spruce with barriers to protect the public from potential collapses. Spruce Street between 10th and 11th streets is partially closed. This jarring reminder of the old warehouse’s rough condition was followed by owner Kevin McGowan’s statements that he will not preserve a building that he has owned — and let deteriorate — since 2004. The building’s condition is not yet dire enough to demand a death sentence, of course.
McGowan can pursue an emergency demolition permit if he wishes, or he can apply for a standard demolition permit. Either way, according to Mayor Francis Slay, the permit will go to the city’s Cultural Resources Office and likely to a public hearing at the Preservation Board. Preservationists are wondering if this will be a battle similar to that waged on behalf of the Century Building, of if McGowan will be led to the light of second chance emanating from a certain flying saucer. Either way, the fate of Cupples Station Building 7 will be a serious civic question, and the Mayor’s investment in the question is coming early.
What is at stake is not simply a fine warehouse with gloriously sculptural masonry details, designed by the esteemed local firm of Eames & Young and completed in 1907. The quality of the remaining built environment of Cupples Station, diminished now to nine buildings, lies in the balance. So does the pedestrian quality of downtown south of Walnut Street. This area has long been isolated from the humane scale of north downtown, due to the Gateway Mall and the presence of several hostile 1980s skyscrapers on Market and Chestnut streets. Both the new Busch Stadium and Citygarden have softened the transition from parts of downtown that are pleasant to walk and this neglected zone, and rehabilitation projects at Cupples have populated the area with office workers and a few restaurants and bars. Now is not the moment to reverse that momentum.
Furthermore, the block of Spruce on which Cupples 7 sits is the last place where there are Cupples warehouses present on both sides of the street. Until very recently, when another Cupples warehouse was foolishly lost in 2004, both faces of the block had two majestic red-brick buildings apiece. Even without one, the set is impressive, as is the visual line of brick on the south side leading to Busch Stadium’s Cupples homage.
On the western end of the block, Building 7 and its earlier neighbor across the street, built in 1900, anchor the corners. Here the genius of Eames & Young’s plan is evident in the convergence of scale, height and materiality contrasted ever-gently with variations in window proportions, cornice profiles and bay divisions. These buildings make a fine set in which no one of them is identical to any other. That variety is irreplaceable, and currently the backbone of any hope there is to build out south downtown with more architecture of this quality. Cupples Station Building 7 must be saved.