St. Louis Architecture

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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Finding hidden treasures in St. Louis

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

I love exploring St. Louis and its neighborhoods. Many are hurting, and my blog posts about the city’s struggles never hide that fact.

What I like the most about my journeys of discovery in St. Louis is taking side streets.

Without fail, I find new art work (check out the gargoyle on the factory corner), businesses, factories, and sadly buildings and homes in decay and various stages of abandonment. The old Columbia Iron Works facility, which I photographed, is a symbol of the changing economy from manufacturing to information and health care, which do not produce any goods or good blue-collar jobs. A health care foundation was reportedly moving into the abandoned factory site.

Outside of distressed areas, one can find breathtaking works of architecture and homes that would fetch a fortune in “hot” real-estate market cities like Washington, DC, or San Francisco.

On an upbeat note, St. Louis remains a beautiful, historic place. Here are some of the homes, local businesses, artwork, and surprises I found driving through Forest Park East, Botanical Heights, Shaw, Tower Grove East, and Dutchtown neighborhoods.

St. Louis is a city worth discovering, even if you have lived there for decades.

Sidney Street, in St. Louis

During my last trip to St. Louis in October, I visited the Benton Park neighborhood of south St. Louis. To the east, the area is severed by Highway 55 , which runs south and north, cutting off neighborhoods from the industrial waterfront, where factories, power plants, and shipping firms dominate the landscape. Not too far to the west, you cross Gravois Avenue and hit the great Tower Grove Park, one of the nation’s best public parks. If you wander the streets, you might find a beautiful old church, classic row homes, and other architectural gems that make St. Louis a hidden treasure, still unknown to most of the country. Here are a few of the pictures I took on the 2000 block of Sidney Street, not far from the Anheuser-Busch factory and Highway 55.

Churches made St. Louis great

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St. Louis is one of the greatest cities in the United States for exploring the magnificent architecture of American churches from all Christian denominations. The city’s strong Catholic roots, still powerfully expressed through the Archdiocese of St. Louis, are expressed in the great St. Louis Basilica, but also in other churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and worship halls around the city. Most are still functioning, but some have closed because of the city’s precipitous population loss from nearly 900,000 in 1950 to nearly 300,000 in the 2010 census.

Churches from the Catholic and Protestant strains of Christianity provide testimonials to the city’s confidence in itself, its industry, its people, its future, and its identity that the city may have been favored by their lord and protector. I challenge anyone to give me a greater constellation of churches in an urban area than St. Louis. I’m sure Detroit, Chicago, and maybe New York might offer a good fight.

Here is a sample of four churches I took during my last visit. One, St. Agnes Church, owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, closed in 1993. It fell victim to the city’s slow and painful decay.

Industrial architectural icons of St. Louis

St. Louis has more than its magnificent Gateway Arch to showcase the city’s rich industrial and economic past. During my recent visit, I caught a few of the city’s most iconic structures: the old Falstaff Beer plant in North St. Louis, the Union Electric Company energy plant in the city’s industrial riverfront, and the massive grain silo facility in central St. Louis, now owned by the Ray-Carroll County Grain Growers Inc. cooperative.

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St. Louis, once a great city

Before the Arch was built, St. Louis aspired to greatness through the early 1900s. It then began its long spiral downward. This once prosperous industrial city has seen most of its manufacturing leave and the population contract since the 1960s. Suburbanization, car-centered urban planning, racism, and very painful economic restructuring completely changed this community. The city’s leadership and the corporate owners of the St. Louis Cardinals still managed to build a new baseball stadium for the beloved Redbirds downtown. I still love this city, despite having completely opposite feelings growing up there.

You can track the demographic changes in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the surrounding bi-state area on this very informative interactive map. You can also read how eminent domain and the freeway system destroyed neighborhoods and fragmented the city. The Arch, that great structure I love so dearly, was part of this process that leveled entire blocks.

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Snowfall on Concordia

I was recently in St. Louis, Missouri, and was blessed by a lovely snowfall that created opportunities for winter images, when the world around you gets quiet and you gaze and smile like a kid catching snowflakes for the first time. I had my Fuji X-Pro1 camera, with a Leica 24mm Elmar lens. This lens always delivers images that only can be found with Leica. Luckily, I was close to Concordia Seminary. I think it is one of the most beautiful campuses in North America.

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As beautiful and grand as architecture get, all in St. Louis

I grew up in Metro St. Louis until I was 18. I did a fabulous city architecture tour in my senior year of high school and was blown away by the depth and richness of St. Louis’ architectural past. I learned it was misfortune and visionary legislation that made this possible.

A disastrous and deadly fire in 1849 led the city passing an ordinance preventing the construction of wooden buildings. The easy access to clay deposits led to a boom in brick buildings that provide a richness almost unparalleled in any American city. The money from the industrial era and real-estate speculation allowed for the construction of amazing homes and neighborhoods, even though slums were widely prevalent. Those gems from the golden era of St. Louis remain today. The pictures here are from the historic Cherokee Street area, near the river in South St. Louis, and the Lafayette Square area, in south central St. Louis. In racial terms, those remain mostly white, but that is also changing. Cherokee Street now hosts Hispanic celebrations, due to their large presence.

A web site dedicated to St. Louis’ diverse architectural styles provides a nice overview for those who do not have a background in architecture, with a nice sample of the gems any visitor can find with a map and simple curiosity. The styles I have captured are mostly Second Empire, inspired by French designs, and one Neoclassical design for the Chatillon mansion.