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St. Louis: New Look For Old Downtown - 2002-01-30


The Gateway Arch, America's tallest monument (193 meters) and Busch Stadium, a 50,000 seat baseball arena, bring millions of visitors to St. Louis every year. But the two attractions, both located near the historic downtown area next to the Mississippi River, have not been enough to revive the old and long neglected city core.

In the 1990s, the St. Louis city government, private organizations and groups of citizens began an intensive effort to revive the oldest section of the city. Their ambitious plan includes revitalizing downtown St. Louis with small local businesses; linking parks and walkways with commercial as well as residential areas; cleaning up the air; combating violence; helping the poor and improving education. One of the primary goals of the revival plan is to save the historic buildings in St. Louis.

Local architect Andrew Trivers says old buildings with unique architectural features have to be restored to their original form. But others can be adapted for new uses. "We've made a specialization within the firm to do historic preservation and what we call adaptive re-use, which is a little bit different than historic preservation in the sense that we like to take historic buildings and give them a new use, while maintaining their original historic character. But by renovating them and making them useful in contemporary society, we think we can save more buildings than if we were just trying to restore relics of the past," he said.

In many cases it is easier to demolish old buildings and build new ones. And that's what many developers prefer to do. But historic preservationists as well as a growing number of ordinary citizens oppose destruction of what they see as their heritage. Richard Baron, president and CEO of McCormack, Baron and Associates, one of the largest private developers in the country, says he is willing to take on even the most challenging remodeling projects if he feels they will help a community. His company is currently redeveloping the historic Cupples Station warehouse complex.

"It is the largest collection of unused buildings in downtown St. Louis and there was no other development firm that was interested in being involved here. So we decided that it was really critical for the revitalization of downtown St. Louis to get involved," he said.

The initial result of McCormack-Baron's new effort is an elegant, medium size hotel run by the Westin Hotel chain. It is just across the street from Busch Stadium. A grand new steel-and-glass entryway complements the old, red-brick façade. Glass corridors connect what used to be three separate warehouses of the old Manhattan Coffee Company. The simple, contemporary design and warm brown and honey colors of the interior reflect a new trend some American hotels have adopted, a more artistic and personable style rather than a purely functional design. But Mr. Baron says the road to this elegance was long and thorny. The old buildings were sitting on woodpiles, decaying from the underground waters, trapped there after an old lake was drained.

"We had a lot of problems in terms of the structural integrity of the wood columns. So we had to drive 60-foot piles down to bedrock underneath these buildings in order to shore them up again. And so it was a major, major engineering project just to keep these buildings intact so that we can then go into the inside and convert them, in this case to a hotel," he said.

Richard Baron says it would have been cheaper and easier to remove the old buildings, shore up the terrain and build a completely new hotel. So why go through the trouble? Architect Andrew Trivers says even the plainest looking old buildings, such as former warehouses and train depots, may be worth saving.

"They are an important part of our past. For example, many of these warehouse buildings, these old storage buildings, have structural systems, which are called heavy timber. And they have been hewn out of trees, these very significant and major columns out of single pieces of lumber, which simply aren't harvested any more and aren't built," he said.

When it is finished, the Cupples Station warehouse complex will offer a combination of office and retail space, entertainment and housing. In agreement with groups of St. Louis citizens, Richard Baron is also proposing a re-creation of the lake that was drained in the 1940s during the onset of a cholera epidemic.

But the Cupples Station revival is just one of many projects designed to bring downtown St. Louis back to life. The city is planning to complete most of them by the year 2004 and celebrate with a big party. 2004 will also mark the first centennial of the World's Fair in St. Louis and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark historic expedition to the West. Many people will flock to the city for these important anniversaries and St. Louisans want to be ready to receive them.

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