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Jan 2002 / the ordinary eye :: email this story to a friend

The Collection of the Century
By Lynn Josse

This has been quite a year for the folks at Landmarks Association of St. Louis. An unprecedented number of preservation triumphs are racking up as large and small projects benefit from the state's historic tax credit program, but the number of new threats to St. Louis' historic neighborhoods and buildings seems to keep increasing as well.

One of the more astonishing things to happen this year was our too-brief association with William Gibbons. A resident of New Jersey, Mr. Gibbons was a St. Louisan at heart. His enthusiasm for the city extended to hunting down and collecting its ephemera. When Mr. Gibbons died this year, well before his time, he left to Landmarks a collection such as we've never seen of matchbooks, books, and — most importantly — postcards. Hundreds of them. The collection is an amazing visual history of St. Louis from just after the turn of the last century (when postcards became popular) until the present. Carefully stored in just-the-right-size boxes and alphabetized by subject, the cards were obviously put together by someone who loved and cared about St. Louis and its history. I wish we could have met Mr. Gibbons, since we clearly shared a passion.

This selection from his collection illustrates changes over time in the vicinity of the Old Post Office, an area of current concern for preservationists across the area (and some from out of town) because of current plans to demolish the historic Century Building.

[Click on a thumbnail image below to enlarge it.]

Bird's-eye view showing large buildings
This shot downtown, facing west from the Old Courthouse, was probably taken around the time of the World's Fair. Look closely to see if there's anything you recognize. This view of St. Louis is completely foreign to us almost a century later because virtually every building in it has been demolished. Four of the buildings in the view still exist. One of these is the Century Building, currently proposed for demolition.

Post Office, St. Louis, Mo.
It looks like a fortress, and there's something to that — in addition to serving as a post office, this massive federal building was also a customs house and subtreasury. It was built between 1872 and 1884. Landmarks Association bases our educational program for 4th graders out of this building, and we like to tell them the following things:

  • They used to have GOLD here!
  • The granite that composes the exterior came from Maine and Missouri. It weighs over 170 pounds a cubic foot.
  • They didn't have women's bathrooms here until well after the beginning of the 20th century.

Of course, 9-year-olds are interested in the way the cast iron construction is all bolted together and how a magnet sticks to it, but they REALLY like the food court in the subbasement. The food court was part of a full rehabilitation of the building, which happened about 20 years ago. The whole fortress thing, apparently, was kind of a deterrent and it never really worked out.

Olive St. looking west from 6th Street
This early 1900s view favors the north side of Olive, showing (from right to left) a long-gone block (current site of the downtown Famous-Barr), Louis Sullivan's Union Trust Building, the Chemical Building, and the Century. The spire thing on the south side of the street is the Odd Fellows Building.
Office Buildings, St. Louis, U. S. A.
The Holland Building, on the left, is now the site of a surface parking lot, soon to be vastly improved as the site of a parking structure. Notice the round windows at the base of the Union Trust. These just may have been the best windows downtown, but the building was victim to an unfortunate remodeling of the first two stories. Round windows still exist at the alley.
Eighth St., Locust to Olive
Here's a twist on the common theme of remuddling the base of a building: the first two stories of the building on the left still exist, but the seven on top of them were just lopped off. The center building (its first two floors remodeled along Renaissance lines in the 1920s) is owned by Amos Harris and Tom Reeves (director of Downtown Now!) and is being converted into lofts. On the right is the Chemical Building, still in use as an office building today.
Century Building
Taken before the Century Annex was added starting in 1906, this view of the Century shows off the now-missing rooftop spires and the original storefront configuration. The Century, constructed in 1896, takes the full block face fronting the Old Post Office on the west. Although structurally sound and ripe for redevelopment as housing, the Century is the subject of a plan that will tear it down and replace it with a parking garage. Although the City supports this proposal, many urban advocates and downtown residents would prefer to see a plan that retains this historically significant building and promotes residential use.
Ambassador Theatre and Office Bldg., St. Louis, Mo.
A listing on the National Register and as a City Landmark really doesn't mean anything in terms of keeping important buildings standing. The Ambassador was one of the great works from one of the country's greatest designers of movie palaces, the Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp. It survived from 1926 until 1996. The site at the northwest corner of Locust and 7th is now a driveway plaza for Firstar Bank; the Ambassador is commemorated by several terra cotta exterior panels pasted up on the wall of the bank building just west (visible in the postcard).
Hotel Lennox
One of the success stories sparked by the passage of Missouri's Historic Rehabilitation tax credit, the Lennox at 8th and Washington is scheduled to reopen as part of the new Convention Hotel sometime in spring 2002. Its postcard motto, "in the center of things," reflects the rich concentration of buildings that surrounded it. None of the other buildings on the postcard exist today, of course.
Hotel St. Nicholas
Not from the William Gibbons collection but quite an image nonetheless — one which is necessary to complete the story of the blocks surrounding the Old Post Office. This building, designed by Louis Sullivan, survived into the 1970s on Locust Street directly north of the Post Office. Surface parking is the current use. The Downtown Now plan calls for a park on this location (apparently we don't have enough unused parks downtown already).
Syndicate Trust Building
This view from the southwest shows the Syndicate Trust, originally considered the Century Annex. Begun in 1906, the new building picked up ornamental details from the Century. Originally connected only at the first two stories, the buildings were joined up to eight stories high when the Scruggs, Vandervoort & Barney department store expanded from the Syndicate Trust into the Century. The plan to demolish the Century Building more or less ignores the Syndicate Trust, leaving it standing but not developed.

Lynn Josse researches buildings for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a nonprofit historic preservation organization.

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