As I walk various areas of downtown St. Louis – to and from giving tours, shopping for groceries at Schnucks’ chic Culinaria, researching sites and studying great buildings – I am amazed at how dramatically downtown is rising, once again coming into its own.
The shape it’s taking is very different from the downtown I remember as a child where there were many more skyscrapers, where streets were clogged with buses and cars, where your parents and grandparents walked the block between Stix, Baer & Fuller and Famous-n-Barr to compare merchandise and prices before buying and where you could pick something out at one of two big dime stores and stop for a treat at the soda fountain if you’d been good.
Alas, the dime stores with their gleaming soda fountain counters and swivel seats are gone but the candy counter at Macy’s (formerly Famous) is still a wonderment to the eyes of a child and grown-ups can bite into European chocolates and sip wine in an elegant gallery setting two blocks west at the Cafe Cioccolata(http://www.cafecioccolato.com/Home_Page.html). Although the Hotel Lennox and the Statler are no longer serving it, you can enjoy afternoon (and morning) tea in the charming ambience of the London Tea Room at 15th & Washington (http://thelondontearoom.com/).
The western end of Washington Avenue is all but complete as is its center: Tom Klein’s Windows on Washington (http://www.wowbanquets.com/) hopping with parties and receptions, and marvelously renovated garment mills and warehouses like the Ely-Walker Lofts 100% occupied (http://www.elywalkerlofts.com/). Strolling Washington Avenue amid block after block of handsome early 20th century skyscrapers you might easily imagine yourself in Chicago or New York.
Once more Washington Avenue is streaming with traffic – most days of the week from Bob Cassilly’s City Museum (one block north), Friday and Saturday nights from its myriad clubs and restaurants and Sundays, when the Rams are at home playing football in the Edward Jones Dome.
The eastern end of Washington is noisy with drilling and cranes (sounds of prosperity) as the Hotel Lennox, Convention Center, the Dillards Building (formerly Stix, Baer & Fuller) and St. Louis Center all undergo face-lift or major renovation; here in the last distressed pocket of downtown to be re-developed.
Market Street, the first street in St. Louis, has never looked so beautiful. From Union Station to the Gateway Arch, the architecture varies from French-Renaissance, Romanesque-Revival (Union Station) to Art Deco, Greek Revival to modern (the General American Building). The green spaces are many (the Gateway Mall) and once Isaac Taylor’s lovely Beaux Arts Municipal Courts Building and the newly re-named Peabody Opera House (formerly Kiel) re-open – by this time next year – Market Street will be complete except for projected improvements to western sections of the Gateway Mall.
Aside from the masterfully rendered City Garden (http://www.citygardenstl.org/) with its whimsical art work and refreshing pools and fountains, no other pocket of downtown St. Louis has been more dynamically realized in the past two years than Post Office Square. Bounded by the former Board of Education Building and Schnucks’ Culinaria on the West, The Roberts Orpheum Theater and the eco-friendly Roberts Tower (almost finished) on the north, the U.S. Bank and the Chemical Bank Buildings on the east, and the magnificently restored U.S. Custom House and Post Office on the south, you can view art, listen to concerts, enjoy the out-of-doors in a wonderful open air plaza, shop for fresh produce on Thursday afternoons spring thru fall in the Downtown Farmer’s Market and visit the Central Express Branch of the St. Louis Public Library (even on Saturdays until the Central Library Building re-opens in two years after restoration and renovation).
You are far more likely to see stylish office workers jogging in shorts and tennis shoes during their lunch hour as opposed to the heels and designer skirts they wore in to work than ever you would have in the 1950’s. Today bicycles and pooches on leashes negotiate sidewalks once so crowded with pedestrians you had to hold onto whomever you came downtown with – so as not to get lost in the shuffle.
Salons and restaurants there still are aplenty but there are more of the latter than ever before, here in the first city in the nation with outdoor restaurants. Yes, downtown St. Louis has come back in a very dramatic way. It offers some tremendous amenities to businesses willing to re-locate. The Gen Am Building needs occupants and the splendid Arcade Building where the wedding rings of so many St. Louis brides were purchased awaits a visionary and entrepreneur to finish it off and then – one of the most exciting downtown recoveries in the U.S. will have taken place. Moreover, plenty of open spaces remain for daring, innovative structures to take shape in which new businesses can prosper.
If you haven’t shopped, dined, jogged, cycled, strolled, played in, read in or explored downtown St. Louis recently . . . what are you waiting for?!
© 2010 Maureen Kavanaugh