Saturday, May 17, 2008

From skyscrapers to Saarinen: A history of St. Louis architecture

By David Bonetti
online interactive tour

A boomtown through most of its history until at least World War I, St. Louis has inherited a fine legacy of late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century buildings. For the most part, the history of architecture and development in St. Louis parallels that history in the rest of the United States, particularly the Northeast.

There is nothing left of the French colonial village established by fur-trader Pierre Laclede in 1764. A fire that spread through crowded, docked ships devastated the area in 1849, and whatever survived was demolished 100 years later for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The only building from the site of the original St. Louis that remains is the Old Cathedral, an urbane stone structure with a Doric portico built in 1834.

Remnants of other early French settlements in Ste. Genevieve and Southern Illinois preserve examples of French colonial architecture — stone warehouses and wooden dwellings made of logs laid vertically — that give some idea of what 18th-century St. Louis looked like.

St. Louis was established because of its location near the confluence of the two great rivers of North America, the Mississippi and the Missouri, and the town soon began to flourish. From 1840 to 1860, the population increased tenfold; from 1860 to 1870, it nearly doubled. In that year, the city had more than 310,000 people, making it the nation's fourth-largest city, a ranking it held through World War I.


All those people meant that a lot of building was going on. Warehouses and commercial offices crowded the levee and overflowed into the streets to the west, the first sign of the continual westward movement that has dominated St. Louis history.

Important institutions were founded and ambitious buildings were constructed to house them. The Greek Revival Old Courthouse (1839-1864) could boast of the tallest dome in North America for a couple of years before the U.S. Capitol dome surpassed it.

The Missouri Botanical Garden, founded in 1859, was the first botanical garden in the United States. The Mercantile Library, founded in 1846, is the oldest circulating library west of the Mississippi. Washington University was founded in 1853 in an upscale residential neighborhood. The St. Louis Art Museum, founded in 1879, was the first art museum west of the Mississippi. It was originally built near the university, its parent institution.

Like the colonial village built just above the levee, many of those institutions' original structures no longer survive. Washington University and the art museum both rebuilt farther to the west. In 1997, the Mercantile Library abandoned its downtown home for the University of Missouri-St. Louis.


Downtown increasingly became focused on commerce. Residential enclaves were repeatedly forced out by the spread of buying and selling and manufacturing. For a couple of generations, impressive commercial palaces that looked to the Italian and French Renaissance for stylistic models were built on downtown streets.

One of the most impressive buildings to survive downtown from the late 19th century is the Old Post Office (1873-74). Designed by U.S. government architect Alfred B. Mullett, it is in the monumental Second French Empire style, which was favored for government buildings in the United States in the years after the Civil War. Most of those structures, which had few 20th-century fans, have been demolished.

St. Louis is lucky to have retained the Old Post Office but it was a tough, costly and decades-long battle to keep it standing. Boomtowns tend not to look back; tearing down the old for the new is how they remain boomtowns. Although the city can no longer claim to be a boomtown, the unfortunate habit of demolition continues today. Think of the replacement of Edward Durell Stone's Busch Stadium with a retrograde pastiche.


St. Louis was nothing if not ambitious in the second half of the 19th century. It built the Eads Bridge (1874), an engineering marvel, the wide supporting arches of which allowed river crossing while not interfering with river traffic.

Less than 20 years later, Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building (1890-92), arguably the first skyscraper, was constructed, leading to a taller skyline.

At the same time (1894), Union Station, one of the busiest passenger rail stations in the world, was being built, as were the Cupples Station warehouses, the complex where trade had moved when rail trumped river transport.

But an unfortunate pattern that consigned the city to decline also emerged at this time: aversion to risk. The Eads Bridge was a phenomenal achievement, but it came too late. Steamboat and ferry owners conspired to keep the bridge from being built earlier, giving Chicago the opportunity to consolidate rail power. From that time forward, St. Louis would always be second to Chicago in the Midwest.

Henceforth, St. Louis' visionary moments would be undercut by lack of foresight. At the same time that Forest Park was established in 1876, for instance, the city drew its western border excluding the areas where future growth would occur.


The residential history of St. Louis is marked by the creation of attractive upscale neighborhoods fated to be abandoned after only a generation or two because of the encroachment of business and manufacturing or of people judged undesirable by the bourgeoisie. The influx of African-Americans during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century added "white flight" to an already established pattern of the middle classes moving west.

St. Louis didn't invent the private street, but private or quasi-private streets have dominated residential construction here for more than 150 years.

The first private street was Lucas Place, which was laid out downtown in 1851. Only the Campbell House remains from that development. More intact is Benton Place in the Lafayette Square neighborhood, which was opened in 1867.

The most famous private streets are in the Central West End. These housing estates, most of them built at the time of the 1904 World's Fair, are still very impressive.

St. Louis has always been famous for the high quality work of its building trades, and the spacious houses that line these closed-off streets, often guarded by an ornate gatehouse, are testimony to their skills.

Masonry construction is the norm, with high quality brickwork highlighted by carved stone, wood-paneled rooms and stained-glass windows creating fine domestic ensembles.

The houses that line the private streets represent an encyclopedia of historical styles. Gothic abuts Federal; Tudor makes itself a neighbor of Italian or French Renaissance; Richardsonian Romanesque tips its hat to Vienna Secessionist.


The Louisiana Purchase Exposition marked St. Louis' economic and cultural peak. Although it was the largest World's Fair ever organized, it was another example of the city playing catch-up with Chicago, which held its epochal fair in 1893. The fair's buildings were temporary, with the exception of the Palace of Fine Arts, which became the new home for the city's art museum, an imposing Beaux-Arts structure that stands on the top of Art Hill.

At the same time, Washington University's new campus opened west of Forest Park. Built in collegiate Gothic style, the new campus is perhaps more significant for the fact that it was located in St. Louis County, increasingly the site of building activity in the area.

There were two last flurries of urban development in St. Louis. In the first decades of the 20th century, the luxurious residential neighborhoods surrounding Grand and Lindell boulevards gave way to an entertainment center tagged Midtown. The art deco Continental Building (1928) scraped the sky, and the Fox Theatre (1929) brought an eclectic, over-the-top flamboyance to the theater scene. Downtown, a City Beautiful-inspired mall lined by bland government buildings took form along Market Street.

During the Depression and World War II, there was little building activity here or anywhere else in the war-torn world.


After the war, building resumed, primarily in St. Louis County. Clayton grew a downtown dominated by stubby towers, and corporations built campuses along the interstates.

The area was fortunate that a group of sensitive modernists dominated the local architectural profession. Homes influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright emerged from the landscape of Ladue and Creve Coeur by such architects as William Bernoudy and Harris Armstrong.

A young Minoru Yamasaki captured the spirit of flight at Lambert International Airport, and Gyo Obata gave distinction to a handful of high-rises downtown.

New museums by "starchitects" such as Tadao Ando and Fumihiko Maki put St. Louis on the global art map.

Of course, the symbol of the city and its unquenchable aspiration to be better than it is was also constructed then. Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch (1965) remains a rebuke to our doubt. A symbol of unity, it suggests that we can achieve what we desire if we work together.

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