Architectural History USA

St. Louis Downtown: Ghost Town at Locust and 21st Street

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Less than a mile west from the state-of-the-art Busch Stadium and Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, a visitor will find empty streets and an urban environment almost devoid of people on a weekend. This used to be a bustling area decades ago, before urban planners, our interstate freeway system, development, and white flight in cities like St. Louis drew people from historic urban centers to the suburbs.

St. Louis is not the only city struggling to encourage redevelopment in its urban core, to make its downtown a place where people want to live, play and work. But whenever I travel to the city of my youth to visit family, I am confronted, visually, by the permanency of the change that turned once vital urban spaces into practically human-free zones.

I was struck by this sensation during my mid-April 2018 trip to St. Louis. After visiting the historic Old Courthouse, I drove to the multi-block site of the now demolished Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. It is now a giant and fenced-in field of rubble, weeds and trees, decades after the high-rise housing blocks were demolished in 1972 and the complex was acknowledged as a failure in our national public housing strategy. It is also the story of the death of American cities in the 20th century.

Not far from this fenced-in area I found the Schlafly Tap Room, the cornerstone brewpub of the St. Louis area’s premier microbrewing company, Schlafly Beer. The tap room is located at Locust and 21st Street, a mile due west of the Mississippi River. The beautiful old building used to be home of the Swift Printing Co. Across the street you will find the stately Lambert Building, also known as the T.M. Sayman Products Co. building, dating from 1891. It is an example of what is called Richardsonian Romanesque. The structure’s striking red sandstone facade embodies the confidence of the former St. Louis, when it was a major industrial city that was ascending.

At this intersection, I stopped. I got out of my car and walked to the middle of the four-way intersection. Not only did I not see any people on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I did not see any cars driving by. It was as if the whole area in all directions had been given orders to flee because of some imminent threat. I took my pictures and left, leaving the urban ghost town behind.

For a more detailed description of this area of the city, please see this excellent photo essay on the outstanding Built St. Louis website. The essay on this section of St. Louis ironically notes, “The ground-level arches of the entryway can be seen in the 1981 film Escape from New York, posing as part of a postapocalyptic New York City.”

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