by Michael R. Allen
Published in The Commonspace, December 2004.
Many readers know that with the ongoing demolition of the Century Building, downtown Saint Louis has been altered forever. With each swing of the wrecking ball comes another dislocated load of precious marble, steel and other parts of a formidable building that refuses to die easily. Each swing, however, takes this city closer to the sad day on which nothing resembling the great Century Building will stand on Ninth Street. The ruptured streetscape will only get worse as the demolition progresses and, inevitably, the replacement structure—a dull and lifeless parking garage to serve Steve Stogel and the DFC Group’s Old Post Office renovation—begins to rise.
Everyone knows that the Century Building will never return. Few realize that something even greater disappears with the Century Building: the last intact district of great office buildings in all of downtown and the city.
That’s right; after the demolition is finished, there will be no spot anywhere in St. Louis where one can stand and be completely surrounded by the magnificent historic office buildings that made this city’s downtown a worthy—and perhaps superior—architectural competitor to Chicago’s. Nowhere. There are other impressive parts of downtown, notably along Washington Avenue, where one can stand and be surrounded by grand late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century wholesale commercial buildings, remnants of America’s second-largest garment district. Yet there is not a single district like the Old Post Office office building district, the definite core of downtown since the 1880’s.
Throughout the debate over preserving the Century Building, no one made this point very well. Many people mentioned other sound reasons for preserving the Century Building: old building are superior to parking garages and bland new construction; its date of construction, 1896, makes it one of the oldest downtown office buildings; its marble facade is a singularity in the Midwest, if not in America; its history as one of the first hybrid office buildings in St. Louis, replete with theater; home to the famous Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney department store and the local White Star Line—remember the R.M.S. Titanic?—office; its undeniably majestic beauty; and the fact that the Century Building generates more street-level activity than a huge and disruptive parking garage.
While these are great arguments for preserving the Century Building, they are but elements of a larger argument for retaining the architectural integrity of the Old Post Office district. At the Ninth and Olive intersection stands an amazing array of buildings: Alfred B. Mullett’s Old Post Office, the visual anchor of eastern downtown since its completion in 1882 and the current rationale for the Century Building’s woes; the 1906 Frisco Building, by one of St. Louis’s most prolific and important architectural firms, Eames and Young; the 1926 Paul Brown Building by Preston Bradshaw, currently under renovation; and the Century Building, by the Chicago firm of Raeder and Coffin. Up and down Ninth Street are the Mark Twain (formerly Maryland) Hotel, by St. Louisan Albert Groves and featuring some of the most whimsical ornamental pieces made by local Winkle Terra Cotta Company, and the 1891 Board of Education Building by Issac Taylor, a highly prolific and important local architect.
Along Olive, of course, is a lovely canyon that is no longer architecturally intact but still retains a highly urban scale. Immediate to the Ninth and Olive intersection are H.E. Roach’s 1906 Syndicate Trust Building, joined to the Century since 1912; the combined landmarks of the 1906 Wright Building by Eames and Young and the 1918 Arcade Building by Tom Barnett; and the stunning Romanesque Revival first headquarters of Bell Telephone, from 1888 and designed by the firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. To both east and west along Olive, other landmarks abound. Many of these buildings replaced earlier spectacular office buildings.
This district earlier lost some of its coherence with the 1969 addition of the towering Laclede Gas Building at Eighth and Olive as well as with the 1971 demolition of the Victoria Building, which was the rebuilt 1893 St. Nicholas Hotel by none other than Louis Sullivan and the pointless removal of the upper floors of Isaac Taylor’s 1891 Columbia Building (now Hamilton Jewelers). Both of these buildings were at the corner of Eighth and Locust. Also lost on this corner was the entire row of small commercial buildings that stood north of the Victoria Building along Locust, the last of which was demolished in 2001. Still, the Old Post Office core remains incredibly intact, especially around the corner of Ninth and Olive.
I offer all of these names and dates not only to catalog the importance of the intersection but also to offer glimpses into the larger interplay of St. Louis architectural history in which the Century Building is situated. Of course, the Century Building is an inherently valuable structure, but its value is enhanced by its neighborhood—just as it enhances its neighbors’ value. Each of the collection of buildings near Ninth and Olive exhibits a remarkable sympathy to the others, with elegant variations in materials, color, style and massing.
The Old Post Office district, however grand, takes a definite second place behind the even grander office building district that radiated from the corner of Seventh and Olive. That district, of course, is long gone. Steady demolition along Seventh ensured that a good deal of it was gone before I was born in 1980, and almost all of it was gone before I was old enough to pay serious attention. Many of us watched in agony in 1997 as Mercantile Bank attacked one of its last survivors, the ornate Ambassador Building, to build a bland plaza that has become a driveway. Others may recall the earlier and still greater loss in this district in the early 1980’s, which shares some similarities with the Century Building demolition.
In the early 1980’s, St. Louis civic leaders lead by H. Edwin Trusheim promoted one of the worst designs ever to hit downtown: that of the “half-mall” completion of the Gateway Mall, that band of parkland stretching west between Market and Chestnut Streets from the Arch grounds to 22nd Street. This half-mall plan resulted not only in the destruction of one of the key blocks in the Seventh Street district but also in the construction of the horribly ugly Gateway One building right where older, more dignified buildings sat.
As in the case of the Century Building, civic leaders claimed—in the face of intense opposition from preservationists and the general public—that the demolition of significant historic office buildings actually helped save other buildings by making downtown as a whole more vital. Just like the Century Building demolition, this demolition led to the construction of an ugly structure that killed sidewalk life on its block. And, as with the Century Building case, the demolition did nothing to help revive downtown—it effected the reverse by destroying one of the most important architectural blocks and eliminating one of the last bits of vibrant street life south of Chestnut.
Back then, the victims were the stunning collection of buildings on the block bounded by Seventh and Eighth streets on the east and west and Market and Chestnut streets on the south and north, respectively. These were the 1898 Lincoln Trust (Title Guaranty) Building, by Eames and Young; the 1902 Missouri Pacific (Buder) Building, by William Swasey; and the 1906 Liggett (International) Building, also by Eames and Young. I won’t even get into the merits of these great buildings here. All three were gone by 1984.
Suffice to say, these buildings worked with each other and others—a few gone even before these—to form a harmonious and picturesque district of great office buildings centered around Louis Sullivan’s pioneering achievement, the 1891 Wainwright Building. These buildings expanded upon Sullivan’s ingenious triumph without overwhelming it. From the Buder Building at Seventh and Market up to the Ambassador Building at Seventh and Locust, this district’s buildings complimented each other through sophisticated variety of materials and colors, structural and stylistic experimentation and density of construction. This district served as a majestic corridor of commerce linking the northern downtown core, centered around the Old Post Office, with the southern Cupples Station warehouse district—which has been horribly devastated since the construction of Busch Stadium claimed half of the district and current “revitalization” plans have led to another demolition.
All that’s left today are the two downtown Sullivan buildings, the Wainright and the 1893 Union Trust Building at Seventh and Olive and two white terra cotta survivors also at Seventh and Olive, the looming 1914 Railway Exchange Building by Mauran, Russell and Garden, and the diminutive 1910 Louis Curtiss-designed Gill Building, which faces an uncertain future. That’s all. The fourth building at the corner of Seventh and Olive is a new, grossly overstated new parking garage that sits empty most of the time.
The Old Post Office district has not lost as many component buildings as the Seventh Street corridor. The fact that the Century Building was seriously considered for demolition in order to build an adjunct parking garage for another building is outrageous if one assumes that things are very good for downtown. If one instead assumes that downtown is caught in another speculation-driven bubble like the one that burst in the mid-1980s—not to mention the earlier bubble of the late 1960’s—the demolition makes sense. Recall that there was much talk about renovation and widespread support for preservation then, but stupid demolition decisions were still common.
One can also recall the 1998 demolition of the Marquette Building Annex on Broadway, which produced a bulky parking garage that stole sidewalk space and did nothing to further the renovation of the attached Marquette Building, which remains largely empty. This blunder pales in comparison to the Gateway Mall destruction, but serves as a direct and recent parable for the future of the Old Post Office project. The hype of the Marquette Garage’s saving power was totally false.
I’ll admit that the hype of the earlier waves of downtown reinvestment led to the renovation of many buildings, but only those deemed affordable to save. Many others were torn down, with horrible consequences. Somehow, the Old Post Office core made it out of the demolition spree to survive as the last place downtown where anyone could experience the elegant office building core as a living environment. Now, it becomes a memory—an abstract greatness that future generations may never believe existed.
Ironically, part of the earlier hype in downtown St. Louis was the renovation of the Old Post Office, reopened triumphantly in 1982. By 1996, the building’s doors were locked on weekends and the building fell into such disuse that less than 25 years after its grand re-opening it is once again the subject of redevelopment. This time, though, the Old Post Office will reopen slightly out of context and more than a little less elegant with a hulking concrete garage glaring from where solid Georgia marble once responded to the its ornate Second Empire lines. The old context—a relationship between buildings—will no longer exist in the same way as before.
Such beautiful contexts are the results of consistent accumulation of design choices. When planners make these choices carefully, districts like the Old Post Office core and the Seventh Street corridor emerge. When planners consistently make careless choices when altering existing districts, these districts become diminished over time until they become crude and disjointed collections of buildings. So goes downtown Saint Louis.