When St. Louis Centre finally had its grand opening after over a decade of planning in August 1985, there was great anticipation by the City's civic leaders that shoppers would return to Downtown St. Louis. For the first several years of its existence, they were right. The siphoning of shoppers away from Downtown to newer sprawling suburban shopping centers had been occurring for over three decades, and now the table had been turned. It had been almost 10 years since a major mall debuted in the St. Louis region (Chesterfield 1976), and most of the area's other major shopping centers were approaching 20-30 years of age and had lost their luster (Westroads: 1955, Northland 1955, Crestwood:1957, River Roads: 1961 South County 1963, Northwest Plaza: 1966, West County 1969). St. Louis Center was the place to shop whether you lived in St. Louis, its suburbs or were just visiting from out of town.
Comedian Bob Hope was featured at the opening festivities.
When opened, St. Louis Centre was claimed to be the largest urban shopping center in the U.S. in retail square footage, rivaling even Chicago's giant Water Tower Place. A local reporter compared the mall to a luxurious "ocean liner" due to its almost all white interior and exterior finishes. The mall's enormous barrel vault skylights and walls of glass at the entrances reminiscent of the Crystal Palace or Milan's Galleria Vittorio bathed its interior with daylight. St. Louis Centre even made the cover of the book Interior Pedestrian Places, which features great public interior spaces throughout the world.
Cover and image below from: Interior Pedestrian Places
1985 was a year that had St. Louis flying on a high that was unmatched since the mid 1960's. Not only was the $95 million dollar St. Louis Centre opened, but Union Station, which had been closed in the early 1970's was renovated into a festival market and hotel by the Rouse Corporation. Between 1981 and 1985 St. Louis led the nation in the use of Federal Historic Tax Credits with $436 million in renovation projects including over 1600 units by the Pantheon Corporation in DeBaliviere Place and dozens of buildings in Laclede's Landing. A glowing article in Fortune Magazine lists these achievements and much more, declaring St. Louis "a place with a future".
Many people have said that St. Louis Centre was detrimental to street-front retail in Downtown St. Louis. The vast majority of the stores that opened in St. Louis Centre however were new to Downtown St. Louis. Many including Abercrombie & Fitch, The Sharper Image and others were brand new to the St. Louis retail market. While the shoppers that patronized the stores in the enclosed St. Louis Centre for the most part did not did not add any vitality to the streets, it is hard to argue against the fact that the Centre attracted shoppers who had not thought about coming Downtown for years.
August 11th, 1985 (this and photos below from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Beyond the expansive skylights and bright clean interior, St. Louis Centre had many design flaws that did not help its fate. When the Mercantile Center was planned a decade earlier, the first main retail level was to be at street level, with all of the service areas and loading docks located out of the way in a basement level. This would have drawn a lot of cut-through pedestrian traffic. Instead, to cut construction costs, the large loading dock and service area of the mall was built in the middle of the ground level, forcing potential shoppers coming in off the street to go up the second level to the stores. There were a few stores on each end at street level, but sacrificing the center of the first floor to service areas seriously hampered the ability of the mall to be integrated with the streets around it or adapt to changing needs of the Downtown market.
November 22nd, 1985
In 1986 the first section of the St. Louis Galleria opened in Richmond Heights, replacing the old Westroads Center. With only a remodeled Dillards in the original 1955 Stix Baer & Fuller and a relatively small number of stores, the Galleria barely made a dent in St. Louis Center's retail supremacy. Five years later in 1991 however the Galleria was more than tripled in size, with a new Famous Barr, Lord & Taylor and another 100+ stores, moving the region's retail center of gravity to Brentwood and Clayton Road. Even downtown Clayton, which had established a strong retail presence in the mid-1950's suffered. After the Galleria expansion opened, foot traffic and sales at both St. Louis Center and Union Station, which was reopened as festival market / mall just three weeks after the Centre, dropped significantly. Instead of encouraging people to stay Downtown to shop, busloads of conventioneers were regularly sent via charter bus to the Galleria. For St. Louis Centre, which had lost its newness factor, the future from this point on was only downhill.
Even Fredbird thought St. Louis Centre was the cool place to be.