Will Transformed St. Louis Centre Building Succeed Where Old Mall Failed?

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The Mercantile Exchange at Sixth and Washington, site of the former St. Louis Centre. - ALL PHOTOS BY CHRIS NAFFZIGER UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED
  • All photos by Chris Naffziger unless otherwise noted
  • The Mercantile Exchange at Sixth and Washington, site of the former St. Louis Centre.

When it opened in 1985, St. Louis Centre was to be downtown's remedy to decades of retail business lost to the suburbs. Instead the massive shopping center -- said to be the largest urban mall when it opened in 1985 -- was a tremendous flop. Within a decade of its debut, St. Louis Centre was struggling to keep retailers, and by 2006 the nearly vacant mall shuttered for good.

The old St. Louis Centre, months away from demolition in 2010, showing its tired, grimy exterior.
  • The old St. Louis Centre, months away from demolition in 2010, showing its tired, grimy exterior.

Yet as a new exhibit at Center for Architecture and Design + CEL suggests, it would be premature to write off St. Louis Centre as a total failure -- especially now that the building's recent metamorphosis seems much more likely to attract the sustained foot traffic that eluded the original project. Through a series of displays, including photographs and conceptual drawings, one can see how the developer Amos Harris and architect Robert Neely of Forum Studio worked out the problems of the old mall by acknowledging the building's urban environment.

The Railway Exchange Building, shortly after the demolition of the bridge that connected it to the old St. Louis Centre. - COURTESY OF FORUM STUDIO
  • Courtesy of Forum Studio
  • The Railway Exchange Building, shortly after the demolition of the bridge that connected it to the old St. Louis Centre.

Continue to the next page for more on St. Louis Centre's rebirth.

The MX at Seventh and Washington Ave, showing the pedestrian oriented street retail.
  • The MX at Seventh and Washington Ave, showing the pedestrian oriented street retail.

Instead of focusing visitors' attention away from the street, the newly rechristened Mercantile Exchange (MX) looks outward, towards Washington Avenue. While the old mall encouraged shoppers to ignore downtown by driving straight into parking garages, new street level retail forces visitors to actually experience street life in St. Louis -- in other words, how shoppers and pedestrians did it for the first 200 years of St. Louis' history. Walking up and down Washington Avenue, the MX appears as a complementary component in the greater urban fabric of downtown.

600 Washington Ave, with the newly renovated MX surrounding it.
  • 600 Washington Ave, with the newly renovated MX surrounding it.

Another successful aspect of the transformation consists of the re-skinning of the tired façade of the old mall, whose upper floors now serve as a parking garage. Rejecting trendy designs, and the ultimately obsolete style of the old mall, Neely's design looks back to Modernism for the upper floors of the old mall and the neighboring lobby of mall's adjoining office tower, 600 Washington Avenue. While many urbanists cried foul when they learned the upper levels of the mall would become a parking garage, Neeley countered that the garage could easily adapt to serve a new purpose in the future. That's encouraging, as parking garages already take up more than their fair share of downtown's landscape. In the meantime, Neely's design hides the parking garage levels adeptly with a shimmery, silver curtain on one side, and large plate glass windows on the other side.

The Lobby of 600 Washington Ave, showing the new Modernist interior. - COURTESY OF FORUM STUDIO
  • Courtesy of Forum Studio
  • The Lobby of 600 Washington Ave, showing the new Modernist interior.

The retrofitting of America's cities back to pedestrian friendly environments will take decades to realize, as the moribund, unfriendly office towers around the MX aren't going anywhere soon. Fortunately, though, Neely and his team at Forum Studio have shown us one example of how we can learn -- and even benefit -- from our mistakes.

Rejuvenating the Urban Fabric -- Designing 600 Washington and the Mercantile Exchange runs through June 7 at Design STL + Creative Exchange Lab, 3307 Washington Avenue.

Chris Naffziger writes about architecture at St. Louis Patina. Contact him via e-mail at naffziger@gmail.com

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