by Michael R. Allen
Today at 4:00 p.m. the Old Post Office Plaza will formally open. (More on the design later.) Located on the 800 block of Locust, the site was most recently occupied by surface parking. Yet there was a building standing there as recently as 2002, when demolition commenced on the building shown at right in the photograph above. The photograph, taken by Landmarks Association of St. Louis in 1980, shows that the block facing the Old Post Office was once typified by relatively narrow, short commercial buildings — exactly the kind of buildings that allowed small business to thrive downtown. The view above is looking west toward Locust’s intersection with Ninth Street.
These buildings were not celebrated like their larger, more obviously important brethren. The Old Post Office, Arcade Building and Century Building are household terms to preservationists, but few chronicle the lost small buildings that gave downtown variety in architectural style, form and scale of commerce. In 2009, we have so few left that many people can’t remember days when even streets east of Tucker had many great small buildings. These were reminders of downtown’s own rise from the heart of a small city to the center of a metropolitan region.
When I first started coming downtown as an adolescent in the early 1990s, I remember small buildings on Market, Locust, Clark, Washington and other streets, occupied by small businesses ranging from high-volume fast food restaurants to dusty bars. These gave downtown a character that unitary visions like tall office buildings and plazas have erased. While the Old Post Office Plaza takes no buildings down directly, it does take away a site where new commercial infill could have been built. Alas, we also are still taking down small downtown buildings, too, as the Hotel Indigo project one block west of the Old Post Office Plaza illustrates.
On the other end of the block, toward Eighth Street, stood the St. Nicholas Hotel. Built in 1893 and designed by Louis Sullivan, the hotel was not a small building, but it was no giant compared to later downtown hotels. The St. Nicholas met a strange fate when it was remodeled into the Victoria Building, an office building, in 1903. Eames and Young redesigned downtown’s third Sullivan masterpiece, creating a hybrid building that historian David Simmons and others have praised as a noteworthy work in its own right. Whatever one thinks about the alteration of the hotel, we all can agree that its demolition in 1974 was a senseless loss for downtown. During plaza construction, debris from the hotel’s demolition was unearthed, reminding us of the plaza site’s history.
There are merits to the Old Post Office Plaza, and the site will enter into a new life. Erasing surface parking downtown is always an improvement. Yet the plaza is another reminder of the lionization of large scale projects over preservation of the small things that make downtown a pleasant living environment.