Lost: The Carleton Building

by Michael R. Allen

Among recent arrivals in the office this week came this postcard view of the long-lost Carleton Building, whose decorated mass once stood proudly at the northeast corner of Sixth and Olive streets. Designed by architect Theodore C. Link, the Carleton was completed in 1899. The building’s owners bestowed the name honoring businessman Murray Carleton upon completion. Fronting 50 feet on Olive Street and 114 feet on Sixth Street, the ten-story building seems small by contemporary standards but received considerable attention in its time.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced construction on October 8, 1898. The newspaper reported that the Reliance Building Company had secured a 99-year lease from the owner of the site, Mrs. Virginia Peugnet. Reliance Building Company evicted the Mermod-Jaccard Company, jewelers, from the building standing on the site, which they demolished. The builder of the new, yet-unnamed building was Hill O’Meara Construction Company. According to the National Register nomination for the Hadley-Dean Glass Company Building, written by Carolyn H. Toft, construction of the Carleton Building required the manufacture of the largest piece of plate glass made to that date.

The Carleton Building was part of a wave of design that responded to the robust expression of the steel-framed office building. By the time the Carleton was completed, St. Louis had seen the rise of two buildings by Louis Sullivan, the Wainwright (1891) and the Union Trust (1893) as well as several minimally-decorated commercial designs by Isaac Taylor, including the Columbia Building (1892). Toward the turn of the century, following the fashion of their clients, architects were returning to classical form and ornamentation in commercial design. Unlike Sullivan and other architects who adhered to what they viewed as more pure expression of tall buildings, Link gave his clients the styles that they preferred.

Yet the Carleton Building maintained the tradition of experimentation in the office building form. While the upper floors’ brick and terra cotta body hid the skeletal construction, and the fenestration was rather conservative, the lower floors presented a four-story arcade filled with large bay windows. The arcade presented two arches to Olive street and four to sixth, with retail storefronts flat against the building wall underneath two-story trapezoidal bays. These bays had large fixed-pane center windows flanked by smaller one-over-one windows, in the configuration known as the “Chicago window.” Above these, triple windows filled in the round arches. There was a small break on Sixth Street for the narrow entrance bay. The base of the building recalled the use of bay windows in the maligned Fagin Building at Olive Street (1888), which was designed by Charles B. Clarke and greatly altered by 1896.

The somewhat-eclectic Carleton Building was well-regarded in its time. In his The Story of a Great City in a Nutshell, Harry Braze Wandell offers a building-by-building account of downtown St. Louis. Comparing the Carleton Building with W.A. Swasey’s Fullerton Building at Seventh and Pine, Wandell wrote that the buildings were “perhaps a trifle more ornate than downtown edifices that were erected half a dozen years before.” Some controversy came to the building in November 1899 when Mary J. Hutchinson fell down an elevator shaft, saving herself by grabbing a cable loop. Hutchinson’s case led to a large award and stricter elevator safety regulations.

The base of the Carleton Building c. 1950. (Source: Preservation Research Office Collection.)

The building went on to house the headquarters of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In November 1900, the St. Louis Republic reported that the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company was to immediately set up headquarters in the Carleton Building. Throughout the next four years, the company’s impressive level of activity was directed from offices in the building. Many prominent St. Louisans and out-of-towners would have had occasion to visit the building in those years. Later, in 1905, a syndicate including James W. Black, C.H, Beggs and Lawrence Pierce purchased the Carleton Building for $525,000 and announced plans to add four stories to the building. Those plans never materialized.

Perhaps the Carleton Building’s most important tenant was its own designer. As Sullivan worked at the highest vantage point within the 16-story tower of his Auditorium Building in Chicago, so Link placed his office here on the tenth floor, in suite 1000. Already assured strong stature in the field due to his designs for the Westmoreland Place gate (1890), Union Station (1894), Second Presbyterian Church (1899) and dozens of large residences, Link had many productive years in the Carleton Building. From this office, Link and his staff would produce plans for the stately classical St. John’s Methodist Church on Kingshighway (1901), the Mississippi State Capitol (1903), the Art Nouveau Roberts, John and Rand Shoe Company Building at 15th and Washington (1910), the Barr Branch Library on Jefferson (1905) and a slew of buildings at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi.

In his volume St. Louis: The Fourth City, 1764-1909, W.B. Stevens summarizes Link’s busy career: “A constantly growing business, however, makes heavy demands upon his time, for through successive stages of development Mr. Link has long since left the ranks of the many and stands among the successful few.” Much of that career could be tied to the office at the Carleton Building. When Link entered into a short-lived partnership with Wilbur Trueblood in 1915, he retained the office. Link died in 1923 in Mississippi, but the Carleton’s life as a general office building with street-level retail fronts continued.

Rendering of the Executive Office Building. (Source: Design Profile #45, September 1961; in-house publication of A. Epstein & Sons.)

The Carleton’s life came to an end when the First National Bank secured a demolition permit in January 1962. The Carleton and its neighbors. including J.B. Legg’s Oriel Building, fell to make way for the Executive Office building. Designed by A. Epstein & Sons, the 18-story Executive Office Building was the first downtown building to have a glass curtain wall — allowed only since the city’s new building code was implemented in 1961. The Executive Office Building has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, while the phantom Carleton Building drifts in and out of the city’s collective memory.