Best Adaptive Reuse of Underground St. Louis

Westin St. Louis Hotel at Cupples Station

The four buildings that form the new Westin St. Louis hotel, adjacent to Busch Stadium in the former Cupples Warehouse complex, are impressive enough as it is if you simply view them above street level. From ornate brickwork and arches to large loft-style room windows to a promenade echoing the original passage from Clark Street to the back of the building, the visible architectural detail offers a wealth of pleasing aesthetics.

Nonetheless, the real genius of the original Cupples complex lies below the surface, where the original layout included a network of tunnels interconnecting the old warehouses and linking them to the riverfront. In the early 1890s, shipping and warehousing centered on an area on First and Second streets, but the rail lines were located several blocks to the west. Goods had to be taken over crowded streets by way of horse- or hand-drawn carts, which was time-consuming and created numerous choke points.

The opening of the first building in the Cupples complex (just south and west of the four Westin buildings) in 1894 exploited the location of the mouth of the Terminal Rail Road Association tunnel near Eighth and Spruce streets, whose other end was at the Eads Bridge. The tunnel connection, along with the then-"remote" location on the site of lumberyards and an abandoned city market, eventually made the Cupples complex a hub of all 22 rail companies that shipped out of St. Louis. (The TRRA tunnel itself also has experienced its own renaissance as a key passageway for MetroLink downtown.)

It was, as Westin director of sales and marketing Gary Tarpinian describes it, "the Federal Express of its day" -- an intricate distribution system, the likes of which had never been seen before it was conceptualized by Robert Brookings, designed by the architectural firm of Eames & Young and implemented by Samuel Cupples near the turn of the 20th century.

Some of these chapters in commercial and engineering history were resurrected during construction, and others will return to daily use when the hotel opens around the first of the year. For example, guests will ride new elevators installed in the same shafts that housed the original hydraulic elevators, which, when they were first used, were considered such an engineering marvel that Inland Architect magazine said the Cupples complex "brought warehouse design to a point where little improvement is possible." Brick archways and exposed-stone walls in the basement will offer reminders of the old tunnel system, and some of the old wood handcarts, spring-loaded to facilitate manual operation and decked with solid oak four-by-fours to accommodate huge loads, will be displayed in the building.

Tarpinian also notes plans for a gallery of period photographs, documents and other artifacts just off the main lobby. (Although no plans have been announced to name a suite or ballroom after former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, who valiantly withstood an effort to raze the surviving Cupples buildings in favor of a building whose function is now served by the Savvis Center, the good Westin folks ought to at very least give Vince a nice little shrine in this gallery.)

In addition to Schoemehl, though, there are more than enough accolades to go around for the good judgment and good taste that are resulting in one of the premier adaptive-reuse projects in America. Developer Richard Baron of McCormack Baron & Associates is the modern-day equivalent of both Robert Brookings and Samuel Cupples, envisioning a new way of doing things and coming up with the financing to pull it off. Principal Andy Trivers and the architects of Trivers Associates made absolutely the most of the existing architectural detail of the building, then further enhanced it with a courtyard to tie the fourth, unconnected (although it will be, by elevated walkways) building in the complex to the other three. And even Tarpinian deserves considerable praise for adding "historian" to his hotel-management credentials, because he is now able to rattle off stuff like the original construction dates of the four buildings that the Westin comprises (1895, 1905, 1907 and 1911) and the total number of hydraulic elevators in the original complete Cupples complex (52) with the same facility he has with the specs of the new hotel (257 rooms, 18 suites, 7,500 square feet of retail, 9,000 square feet of function space).

Ironically, just about the time developer Baron's next Big Idea, the reconstitution of Chouteau's Pond, was getting a lot of attention this past summer, remnants of the pond were being dealt with by the construction crew at the Westin. Excavations to reinforce the foundation of the outermost building hit a considerable water table thought to have been caused because the 19th-century draining and landfill of the pond were less than perfect at that part of the Cupples site. It wasn't the first challenge to be overcome in preserving that particular building -- originally, it was thought to be so fragile that it couldn't be saved, but reconsideration and a lot of intricate renovation work resulted in the addition of several dozen sleeping rooms and extra function space to the Westin project.

For the immediate future, old-building lovers will have to be content with watching the sooty old façades of the various buildings being returned to their original clay hues. Come January, however, for about 200 bucks a night, you can be pampered in a truly unique hotel room; for significantly less than that, you can eat in the Clark Street Grill among the massive columns that once supported a commercial-distribution empire; or for free, you can walk through the promenade and lobby and take joy in the knowledge that, for once, innovation beat out implosion as the preferred tool for "progress" in St. Louis.

-- Joe Bonwich

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