by Michael R. Allen
In October 2008, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to grant preliminary approval to the Roberts Companies’ plan to demolish the two small historic buildings at 921 and 923 Locust Street. At the time, the Roberts Companies had an arrangement with Hotel Indigo to open a new hotel in the historic former warehouse at 917 Locust, and wanted to build a covered entrance, lobby and restaurant addition on the site of the two buildings to the west. This plan was changed after the first rendering appeared to make what appeared to be a two-story building that fully concealed the driveway.
The Hotel Indigo plan had lots of support, but Landmarks Association of St. Louis and architect and advocate Paul Hohmann presciently opposed the demolition plans. Now, nearly three years later, the buildings sport for-sale signs, Hotel Indigo has pulled out of St. Louis and possibilities have emerged. Sometimes, the sky does not fall when a demolition is approved. Sometimes, the sky does not have bank financing and shovel-ready plans.
The Roberts Companies are offering all three of the buildings that were to compose the Hotel Indigo. The center building is a handsome three-story brick building with generous fenestration typical of early 20th century Commercial style design. This building dates to 1916, when Martin Monti took out a permit for the building with Nat Abrahams, a prolific minor designer, as architect. The building housed sundry tenants over the years including the Leppert Roos Fur Company and Leacock Sporting Goods Company. This is a bit player in a scene starring lavish terra cotta and penthouse corner offices, but a fine building ready for reuse. Even the absence of windows — oddly removed a few years ago — has not led to any damage.
The little timbered folly at 923 Locust Street on the corner gets the most attention of any small downtown building. The Tudor-inspired cladding corresponds to a 1947 building permit taken out by Fischer Optical Company, which must have had the clear vision of a slipcover that would delight and intrigue passers-by into the 21st century. This cover has led to years of speculation as to the date of the building underneath, and rumors of antebellum origin. The scale of the building suggests an old age, but the record is not suggestive. The Badaracco family, later to spawn the last citywide Republican officeholder in aldermanic president Joseph Badaracco, took out a permit to building this building on August 14, 1897. (We have a historic photograph of the building which we will post in a later article.)
The twelve-story building at 917 Locust Street is now completely vacant, but from 1989 until 2008 was the St. Louis Design Center. The Design Center attempted to lure design-related tenants into one building with shared spaces. (Two asides: Paul J. McKee, Jr. was one of its developers, and Landmarks Association had its office there for many years.) This slender but richly-detailed building was built as a warehouse for Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney department store in 1913. In the building’s design, architect Harry F. Roach mirrored the bay divisions, fenestration and even specific ornamental details from his massive Syndicate Trust Building across the street (1907). Scruggs, Vandervoort & Barney was located in the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings, so the clear reference made sense — as did the sealed-but-still-extant underground tunnel connecting the department store to the reinforced concrete warehouse annex. Scruggs used the building as late as 1950, and remained in business across the street until closing in 1967.
One of the great things about the north face of the 900 block of Locust Street is that it presents a continuous row of historic buildings. Isaac Taylor’s massive Renaissance-meets-Romanesque Board of Education Building (1891) anchors the corner, and a slender old building clad in polished granite in 1946 — a simple mid-century slipcover par excellence — stands between it as the old Scruggs warehouse.
Until 2004, the other side of the street also presented a continuous face of historic architecture in the conjoined Century and Syndicate Trust buildings, but we need not dwell on why that is no longer the case. To the west, despite the 1971 cladding that conceals Mauran, Russell & Garden’s 1920 Merchandise Mart Annex at 1015 Locust, both sides of the street are continuous rows of historic buildings. Hence, Locust Street between Ninth and Eleventh is quite a unique vestige of old downtown, and the group of buildings that includes the three now for-sale is essential to retaining a sense of place eroded in much of our downtown.