by Jake Banton
Architectural Staff at Mackey Mitchell Architects
Development in St. Louis has picked up some real momentum in the past year. Most has been in the central corridor, although significant housing and multi-family family projects have been announced for both the north and south sides of the city as well. Downtown has benefited from the flurry of activity as well, with many large historic structures slated for residential and hotel conversion. At this point, the stock of historic buildings left empty has dwindled to just a significant few. We’ve now reached the point where new construction downtown is being proposed. The new tower at ballpark village will be only the second large new residential construction downtown since the 1960’s. The new office building will be the first in 30 years.
Late last year, a proposal was announced by a development team led by HDA Architects for another 33-story residential tower at 300 S Broadway, caddy-corner to Ballpark village with views into Busch Stadium. The announcement immediately created much excitement. A new tall shiny tower in downtown St. Louis. What’s not to like?
The problem is that currently on the site is a modest 6 story brick office building that dates back to the 1890’s. While not on the register of historic Building’s, there is no doubt that the building has beautiful historic elements and that it’s in fairly good condition. Thus, the proposal immediately drew the ire of local preservationists.Because the building sits in a preservation district, the proposal required a review from the City’s Preservation Board. Last December the board gave conditional approval for demolition, provided that the developers keep a corner of the historic 1890’s façade. Following that decision, the Journal published an editorial blasting the Preservation Board, “part of the alphabet soup of city panels,” as creating Barriers to Real Progress Downtown.
The editorial reminded me of a similar one written in 1966, not by the Journal, but by the now defunct Globe Democrat. Titled We Told You So, they railed against the administration of Mayor Cervantes and an “art-loving” newspaper, for their efforts to save the Old Post Office building, which the paper deemed a “repulsive pile which has neither historic value nor architectural virtue.” What was proposed to replace it? A “modern” office building for the General Services Administration.
The irony of all of this is that today, the Old Post Office Plaza has become a hub of activity for downtown, containing a branch of the public library, a satellite campus for Lindenwood University, offices for Focus St. Louis and oh yes, The St. Louis Business Journal. Perhaps the Journal would prefer to be in a 1960’s-era office building built for the GSA? My guess is probably not. Just like other mediums of art, styles and preferences in architecture change. Having a rich mix of architecture gives a city character, can help define districts, and creates a sense of place.
The Preservation Board’s job is to preserve this architectural history of St. Louis. Our grand brick buildings and homes set us apart from cities across the nation. The board should not be criticized for trying to save these structures in the face of glitzy new “modern” proposals. In fact, it is often a mix of old and new that produces some of the most stunning architecture. Just look at Troy Block in Seattle, Hearst Tower in New York, The Exchange Building in Vancouver, or the Ernst and Young tower in Toronto. St. Louis is ready for progress, but we must be careful not to destroy what’s good, just for the sake of something new.