by Michael R. Allen
I visited Saint Louis last week, and spent some time in the Century Building. Yes, I was inside of the remains of the grandest marble building ever built. The experience was chilling, bizarre and intense. It would have been even more intense if I had made the visit with my colleague Claire Nowak-Boyd, but she had obligations that kept her home in Chicago while I went ahead with a truly terrible trip.
Last Wednesday morning, I was downtown in St. Louis, walking without an umbrella in the near-freezing rain to go to the Century. No one was there to let me in, so I wandered around and come back in an hour via MetroLink. As I ascended from the Eighth and Pine station, I heard a crack overhead and suddenly a light shower of glass mingled with the rain literally falling around me. I saw a set of vertical blinds flying in the strong wind many stories above. My first thought is that the workers at the Paul Brown Building had knocked their boom crane against the Arcade Building, causing a window to break. Then, a quick glance above revealed that a window had broken out in the Laclede Gas Building above.
A worker walking by turned to me and said, “That’s the problem with those windows. They don’t open and close, so they make a vacuum and the wind just sucks them out.”
Right on. Needless to say, the window now sports a plywood bandage.
I kept walking and, a few moments later, was inside of the fence at the Century Building, meeting up with salvager Larry Giles to get my hard hat. Then I went inside of the gruesome wreckage of the old gem. I watched as Larry and his two workers desparately began assembling bracing for the Ninth Street arch that he is trying to preserve in its entirety.
Water dripped consistently above the spot where Larry and his workers were working. The roof was removed weeks ago and there are some holes in the second floor due to the wrecking activities. Otherwise, the structure is fine even if slightly weakened. I believe that one could devise a workable plan to rebuild the building even in this late stage of demolition. The street frame with its exterior concrete piers is holding up well, as is the facade. Demolition of the corners has not damaged the intergrity of other spots in the building. Oh, well.
(The next day, another worker headed to the Board of Education Building rehab walks by and states to me that he thinks that the Century Building could be saved as-is if demolition stopped, and glass structures were built to encapsulate the corner areas and roof. Hmmm.)
At any rate, Larry informed me that the wrecking plan was altered to accomodate complaints from the Bell Lofts at Tenth and Olive; now, wrecking has to proceed from Locust to Olive, catching the arch in the middle. The original plan called for wrecking the corners first and then wrecking the building from the Syndicate Trust Building wall eastward toward the Ninth Street elevation. The arch would have been in the last area to be wrecked.
Hopefully, though, the salvage efforts will be completed without interference. Saving the entire arched entrance ornament system is a remarkable achievement that could only be bested by saving the entire building on-site.
Wednesday’s weather escalated into snow by mid-day, so the wreckers and Larry’s crew both stopped work after lunch.
When I returned to the site on Friday, the weather had improved and both operations were back in action, as they had been on Thanksgiving (hopefully Saint Louisans are thankful that Larry and his crew have been working seven days a week on this important and grueling task). I was able to take many good photographs that I will share on the EOA site later this week.
While the work was going on, I shuffled around the columns, open elevator shafts — some still framed with original Winslow Brothers cast iron framing — and piles of debris from the upper floors (the whole building is considerably smashed and somewhat unstable). The old Walgreens’ store space still sported macabre signs, one almost reading “BEAUTY” but missing some letters because the wall had been smashed out. The upper floors have been thoroughly gutted, but the ground floor’s shops paces are still full of furniture and a few old computers, buried under debris.
Being inside of the Century Building during demolition was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was plainly terrible to observe the signs of structural ingenuity exposed before destruction in addition to seeing the decorative beauty trampled. As the building continues to fall, more of the things that made it great are exposed in a grim irony.
As I said to Larry Giles while looking up through the archway at the Old Post Office as snow fell, this view never existed before and it’s beautiful as much as it is gruesome. But I never, ever wanted to even know that such a view existed.