Downtown Historic Preservation JNEM

Moving Ahead on South Fourth Street

by Michael R. Allen

The on-again, off-again rehab of the elegant commercial building at 904 S. Fourth Street just south of downtown is definitely “on” again. That’s a good sign in this slow market, and hopefully a good sign for the larger but slow-moving Chouteau’s Landing project of which this building is part. The “other” Landing’s developer, Chivvis, has succeeded in rehabbing two other commercial buildings on Fourth Street, and is planning a major rehab of the Powell Square into studio space with a photography museum as an anchor.

Located just a stone’s throw from Busch Stadium, the South Fourth area is ripe for redevelopment. One of the problems, of course, is that are retains few historic buildings, having lost many to the construction of surface parking for the old stadium and downtown workers. What’s left is scattered, but that provides interesting opportunities for new construction.

The building at 904 S. Fourth Street is part of a more intact section on the east side of the street north of the MacArthur Bridge. That area is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the South Fourth Street Commercial Historic District (nomination by Karen Bode Baxter, Tim Maloney and others.) According to the nomination, the building at 904 S. Fourth dates to between the publication of Pictorial St. Louis in 1875 and the Hopkins Fire Insurance Map in 1883. Since St. Louis building permit records from before 1876 no longer exist and permits from the next decade are often incomplete, those two references are invaluable at assigning dates to buildings without permit records.

There are two noteworthy features of the Italianate-style building. First, its cast iron storefront carries the maker’s mark “Christopher & Company” rather than Christoper & Simpson, which was the maker’s name after 1874 and is more commonly seen. However, the building does not appear on the 1875 atlas. The second oddity here is that the south bays of the building were lopped off around 1917 to make way for the railroad approach to the Municipal (later MacArthur) Bridge. Originally, this building was symmetrical. The nomination states that the Eberle & Keyes Undertaking Company — as in bodies — was an early tenant.

Across a parking lot to the north is an intriguing building with a tower-style rounded corner. This building dates to 1887 and housed many doctor’s offices over the years. The back drop here is stunning — the majestic bridge approach still active with rail traffic, the rising masses of the industrial buildings closer to the river, and the downtown street canyon to the north. South Fourth might lack an intact built environment, but it has an urban scenic quality that is very attractive. Imagining the potential is not difficult.

There are some connectivity problems. The rail bridges are visual barriers, but they add to the charm. The barrier here is to the east, where I-55 walls off Fourth Street from Chouteau’s Landing proper. Something has to be done there before this area will really “pop” with development. The likely major design competition surrounding the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial next year provides a great opportunity to examine the connection between this south end of downtown and the river. Removal of I-55 is not possible, but removal of I-70 on the other side of the Poplar Street Bridge could open up an easy walk to the river from South Fourth. Whatever happens, the design competition ought to be open to big-picture thinking that would benefit the development efforts on South Fourth as much as the downtown tourist experience.