Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Remembering the Good Years at St. Louis Centre

St. Louis Centre Grand Opening 02.jpg
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.

St. Louis Centre Grand Opening 01.jpg
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.

Interior Pedestrian Places - St. Louis Centre.jpg
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".

St. Louis Centre Interior.jpg

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.

St. Louis Centre Aug 11 1985 PD.jpg
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.

St. Louis Centre Nov 22 1985 PD.jpg
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.

St. Louis Centre Fredbird.jpg
Even Fredbird thought St. Louis Centre was the cool place to be.


kristan said...

I would occasionally work at the Benetton store at St. Louis Centre in the late 1980's. Back then, I thought the place was pretty cool. (my regular Benetton gig was at Crestwood mall- strange- now they're both defunct)

I agree with you that Galleria completely changed the way we mall shop in St. Louis. It probably didn't hurt that Galleria wasn't very far from St. Louis centre or Crestwood.

Fowler Jones said...

Whoa! A cliffhanger. What happened to the St. Louis Centre? I mean, I think I know, but I'm from out of town, so I look forward to mored from you Paul.

Rick Rosen said...

This post, and a previous post about the loss St. Louis Centre's great neon signs, are VERY IMPORTANT statements.

They provide a completely balanced picture--right here and now--of the positive features of the defunct attraction. Everyone else--right here and now--is only remembering the negative.

The current perception that St. Louis Centre was just so obviously BAD is called "conventional wisdom." Conventional wisdom comes and goes, but good architectural and urban design criticism endures.

Contratulations on this excellent post.

This comment has been removed by the author.

Nice post. I lived downtown in the early 80s. St. Louis Center was so busy you couldn't get into it. It was a destination for the region. The ONLY time I really saw that happen. The Galleria, Fairview Heights Mall, and (maybe) Union Station put an end to it. There were some beautiful little buildings that were torn down to put the center up, I was none too happy about that.

Now everyone hates the design. I didn't think it was so bad - except the green stripe. I liked the shopping experience too - much nicer than the Galleria (was or is)for me.

But alas, that's when there was a real grocery store downtown (National I think) - across from Famous-Barr (Macy's) That's when I could rent an entire floor (loft) on Washington Ave for about $200 a month (yes and entire floor) That's when Union Station was abandoned and open to the wind and rain and the homeless (and architecture buffs on private tours) Thats when there were flower stalls on the downtown corners and street vendors (before they became outlaws) and Union Market (boy I miss it!) just like Soulard Market only downtown (now a Drury Inn by the dome) I wonder if St. Louis Center will be missed some day?

Anonymous said...

Good analysis of what went wrong and hilarious article in Fortune on why the Lou is back! Clearly the bottom wasn't in 1985 nor is it in 2010. The mistakes that created excitement about StL Centre are still actively marketed and pursued not just in the City but in the surrounding burbs as well.

Mall sprawl is alive and is an integral part of the Lou culture... which means bigger highways and a lower quality of life for those who have yet to escape.


Now that I think about it. The St. Louis Centre design was actually very good. Maybe a lot of the naysayers today didn't actually experience it when it was open. Best urban mall design I've seen. The glass roof allowed shoppers to see the buildings around the center. There was a glass wall along the entire West side of the foodcourt (on the fourth floor I think) Very nice to have lunch and look out the windows.

The only thing that even came close to the good design of St. Louis Centre was the old Northwest Plaza original design, which was open air (before they enclosed it).

In my humbug opinion, the Galleria is a candidate for cheesball design of the decade, Plaza Frontenac has always been like shopping in a dark, dingy basement, what other wonderful shopping center designs are out there. A nice one in Louisville, a nice one in Indianapolis. They're both more like St. Louis Centre than not.

I was a little sad to see the skybridge over Washington Ave go down. I know there were big parties for it by some downtowners. I remember when I lived, worked and shopped downtown 30 years ago. I could go through the garage near the Old Courthouse, go over the garage skybridges, through Famous-Barr (Macys) through St. Louis Centre, across the (dreaded) skywalk over Washington, Into Dillards, across another skybridge into a garage and exit at the Convention Center. About 8 blocks I think without touching the ground. I'm all for activity on city streets, but to be honest, it was kinda nice to have that pathway, now partly gone.

I also remember the great views up and down Washington Ave from the multi-leveled skybridge, they were some of the best downtown.

ray at

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

St. Louis Centre suffered from being in a bad location. You just don't go downtown to shop in a mall, you can do that in the county. On top of that, parking availability was bad.

It looks like a pretty mall. It would have been better off in the suburbs, a city is no place for an indoor mall.

Anonymous said...

I remember it well. The interior was really quite beautiful, especially the stunning barrel vaulted glass roof (portions of it are still visible in the MX parking garage). But IMHO the exterior was so bad that it was in the running to be the ugliest building in downtown. There was only one section at the main entrance that had any design elements, the bulk of it was a solid white box with green stripes. The skywalks connecting Famous and Dillard's destroyed two of the few urban canyons we enjoy in STL. On the street level there were practically no shops or windows, just solid closed off walls, killing the urban landscape. It was a hideous piece of post modern junk, and I for one was thrilled when they got rid of the skywalks, opened (some) of the ground floor to Washington, and covered over that awful white and green exterior. It was a good try at keeping retail alive downtown, but like most of the country shopping trends were too strong to fight against. Now, all of the suburban malls that killed off the great downtown department stores are suffering the same fate due to consumer trends that continue to rapidly change.

Anonymous said...

I loved working here. I worked at Bakers Shoe Store in 1996-1997? The people, the stores, the food court. It was always busy. I miss it. It's funny how they talk about no one wanting to be down there after dark for shopping but they have added clubs, restaurants, and condo's. Everyone is down there now.

Anonymous said...

I moved to St. Louis in 2018 at the age of 22, so the only thing I have ever seen in downtown is what it looks like now. As of the day I type this comment, the Railway Exchange Building seems to be abandoned. What a shame! It's a massive structure. I had no idea that there was a big mall in the heart of STL until I read about it here.

I live inside the old Dillard's. Now it is called The Laurel apartments. The restaurants (like the BBQ place on the first floor) attract lots of people during the day. But at night, when everyone goes home to the suburbs after 6pm, this place is empty. There are no people on the streets and it is completely quiet.

Thank you to everyone who wrote before me for sharing the history of downtown STL!

Anonymous said...

I worked at both St. Louis Centre (Dillards, Benetton and Umberto's) and Union Station (Houlihan's, Benetton) around 1985-88. It was a lot of fun. I moved to Chicago in 1989 and I remember coming home and running down to Dillard's for something in the early 90's and I was shocked how far the mall had fallen. It was still full but a lot of Foot Locker and gold chain stores had started to move in. It was over.

Bam said...

My friends and I would meet up for lunch in the food court every Tuesday. Man, those were good times

Bam said...

My friends and I met every Tuesday for lunch at the food court in the St. Louis center. Man, those were good times

Bam said...

My friends and I met every Tuesday for lunch at the food court in the St. Louis center. Man, those were good times