Downtown Historic Preservation

Roberts Brothers Buy Buildings on Locust Street

by Michael R. Allen

Roberts brothers take bigger stake in Old Post Office district – Lisa R. Brown (St. Louis Business Journal, January 13)

The Roberts Brothers have acquired the buildings at 919-21 and 923 Locust Street, just west of the St. Louis Design Center where the offices of Landmarks Association of St. Louis are located. The Roberts Brothers now own the entire north side of the 900 block of Locust, with the Board of Education Building at the other end of the block.

The building at 919-21 Locust is a rather plain, four-story brick commercial building, likely built between 1900 and 1920. The other building, though, is of great historical importance: It may very well be the last remaining Civil-War-era commercial building in the Central Business District (excluding Laclede’s Landing). The building consists of two sections, a three-story portion at the corner of Tenth and Locust and a two-story section facing Tenth. Aside from later cast iron columns on the first floor, the building’s older features are completely covered by stucco and timber in a kitschy mock-Tudor style. Underneath the stucco, the buildings are probably very simple Federal style buildings with red brick walls adorned with stone windowsills and lintels. Perhaps a dentillated cornice in brick exists. Few buildings like this one are left in the entire city, and no other in the downtown core.

The brothers are contemplating demolition of the newly-acquired buildings, although they have no certain plans. One idea is to build a new condo tower on the site, which would confirm the old rumor that the Century Building Memorial Parking Garage exists not just for the Old Post Office but for a secret new tower project. Who knows? Discussion is underway on the Urban St. Louis forum.

Demolition is ill-advised on one of the few downtown block faces that has not had any demolitions in the 20th or 21st centuries. The 900 block of Locust only recently had intact faces on both fronts, complementing the also-intact 1000 block of Locust and the 800 and 900 blocks of Olive. What a dynamic urban context this was, and still could be. The wise choice would be to renovate the two buildings on Locust, with a full restoration of the old building at 923 Locust. The recovery of the original appearance would add even greater visual complexity to this part of downtown.

Building any new buildings on the north side of the 800 block of Olive seems logical; there is an entire city block front that could host a stunning, modern design that would provide space for a new, taller residential building that would fill in one of downtown’s most glaring visual gaps. The proposed downtown plaza and its associated public urination would never come to fruition, but no matter — there is too much open space downtown as it is, with the old Ambassador Building site already providing a lifeless park one block east. Why not rebuild that space instead, build up the 800 block of Locust and restore the 900 block of Locust? Locust Street needs a boost, and the resources are at the ready.