by Michael R. Allen
In the past two weeks, construction of the Old Post Office Plaza downtown unearthed some fragments of a Louis Sullivan masterpiece lost twice, the St. Nicholas Hotel. The hotel stood at the northwest corner of Eighth and Locust streets downtown between its construction in 1893 and its demolition in 1974, surviving an unfortunate remodeling in 1903. Since 1974, its site has been paved and maintained as a parking lot. Salvagers picked the building of recognizable Sullivan ornament, but apparently other parts stayed on site.
When workers broke through the asphalt, they unearthed a mess of structural steel, brick and other parts of the old hotel. The city had an unusual and unanticipated archaeological site, offering potential clues on the elusive details of the St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, the potential opportunity came and went without any real investigation. Steel was loaded out to be scrapped, and more solid debris was either removed with other fill or left in the ground. The good news is that the excavation was fairly shallow, and surely more of the building survives beneath the plaza. Should the plaza ever be less than successful, and it future land use reconsidered, we may have another chance to mine the lot for traces of the prairie master’s hotel.
Photo courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
The eight-story St. Nicholas Hotel was defined by a dramatic side-gabled roof, large center arched entrance on Locust and projecting oriel bays on both street-facing elevations. Like the Wainwright and Union Trust buildings, the St. Nicholas featured a monochrome exterior palette accentuated by terra cotta featuring Sullivan’s imaginative geometric and organic motifs. The roof profile was somewhat unique among Sullivan’s designs. A supposed fire led to conversion of the building to office use in 1903, when the gabled roof and arched entrance were removed and four floors added according to plans by Eames & Young. Renamed the Victoria Building, the hotel survived in diminished form for another seventy years. (Read more about the St. Nicholas in Patty’s Ramey’s article Louis Sullivan and the St. Nicholas Hotel, St. Louis, MO.)