20 April 2013

Saint Louis Centre, Saint Louis, MO

A dead mall

3 March 2024

Mention the name "The Saint Louis Centre" to a lot of people in this beautiful city, and you will get a lot of opinions. Mostly negative. They'll call it a waste, an example of poor design and planning as well as a dividing wall downtown. The only thing they won't call it is a success.

I first noticed the Saint Louis Centre on my first day trip to the Gateway City in late 1999. I had taken the Metrolink from the airport into town and got off at the Convention Center station. I rose to street level, looked behind me, and there it was.

The impressive layers of the Saint Louis Centre.

I wasn't very impressed by the dated entrance design, but I was rather impressed with the inside. The first level had a few shops but was mainly used to access the second to fourth levels, where the real action was.

Saint Louis Centre Mallmanac ca 1999. View the full PDF version here.

With much fanfare, the Saint Louis Centre opened in the mid-eighties in the hopes of drawing more people downtown. It was four levels of stores, many new to the area, in a bright and clean environment under large barrel skylights, flooding the mall with natural light. There were two ready-made anchors as it was built between existing downtown department stores Dillard’s and Famous-Barr, which were connected to the Saint Louis Centre by skywalks. There was a diverse and vibrant food court on the fourth level. All signs pointed to greatness not just for the mall, but for a city whose downtown really was in need of rejuvenation. But the mall was never really successful. I visited again in 2001 and noticed that many stores had closed and that foot traffic had dwindled. A lot of the national chains had left and were replaced with local stores peddling tacky Saint Louis memorabilia.

1- Looking down from the fourth level.  2- A disused corridor on the third floor.

On this trip I also discovered another downtown destination, Saint Louis Union Station. The city's old railroad station and shed were converted into a retail and entertainment facility complete with a lake and a Hyatt Hotel. Granted, there were tacky Saint Louis souvenirs there, but there were also tourists to buy them. It was everything that the Saint Louis Centre wanted to be.

Scenes from a forgotten mall.

Then I visited for what I knew would be the last time in 2003, when these pictures were taken. The mall was still clean, white and flooded with light, but also very dead. The nearby convention center and dome were never sparkling successes, but the mall was a downright failure.

Dillard's had since shut down its downtown store and the venerable Famous-Barr was an uninviting and unkept mess. The food court was almost completely empty as downtown workers who didn't want to make the four level trek up to the top past empty, forgotten storefronts for an off-brand taco made alternate lunch plans. It seemed that the white elephant had fallen. And many in the city cheered. But why did it fail when other vertical malls such as Chicago's Water Tower Place and Seattle's Pacific Place flourish?

First, the design was not conducive to attracting pedestrian traffic inside. On Sixth Street, there was only one of those gaudy glass entrances on each end. In the middle was just an oversized egress exclusively for office workers. The side facing Seventh Street was nothing more than four stories of concrete resembling something out of the eastern bloc. Here, the entrances were small and camouflaged into the urban landscape. Many residents felt that it and its skywalks also created a psychological wall, dividing downtown Saint Louis in half. There was a lot of resentment because of this, and recent news that developers were wanting to tear down the skywalk to the old Dillard's was met with cheers.

1- The nearly vacant food court.  2- From the bright ceiling to the darkened bowels.

A developer has purchased the old Dillard's building and hopes to convert it to a boutique hotel and small shops, the kind of development downtown needs. And recently, the mall was auctioned after Haywood Whichard, grim reaper of malls, defaulted on payments. In 2006, the mall was closed and by 2009, the adjoining office tower was 85% vacant. So what happens here on out is anyone's guess, though many seem hopeful that soon the wall downtown will come down. All that I do know is that on my last visit, I knew the mall was a goner. I'm glad I took the pictures. Soon, that may be all that remains of the Saint Louis Centre.


-3 March 2024

It finally happened.  The multi-level skywalks connecting what was once the Saint Louis Centre to its free standing anchors were demolished.  Out of service years before the mall closed down in 2006 when each of the anchors departed downtown, they were still seen as a wall dissecting the central business district.  Now they are gone; good riddance.

Around the northeast corner of what was once the Saint Louis Centre.

Unfortunately, it seems as though everyone else has gone with them.  Not only the retail patrons that used to frequent the Saint Louis Centre in it’s nineties heyday, but more alarmingly, the office workers.  The attached skyscraper, One Saint Louis Centre, once housing the corporate headquarters of Trans World Airlines, hasn’t seem to have recovered from its earlier 85% vacancy.  In fact, it looks now to be closer to 100%.

I finally returned to the Gateway City in 2024 for my first visit in two decades.  To say the very least, I was shocked at how deserted the downtown area has become.  Besides the immediate vicinity of the Gateway Arch and along Washington Avenue, the pavements and streets stood very sparsely populated.

1 & 2- The former Stix Baer and Fuller building with the multi-level skywalk now gone.  3- The façade of the office building entrance facing Sixth.  4 to 6- The southeast corner of what is now the Mercantile Exchange.

I arose from the Sixth and Pine Metrolink station close to midday on a Friday not to be surrounded by harried office workers on their lunch breaks or delivery drivers distributing their items, but really nothing.  Just the sound of those midwestern winter winds whipping up as they traversed the manmade canyons and maybe the hum of a car in the distance.  I was left aghast.

A rough layout of the Mercantile Exchange as of this writing.

The blocks surrounding what was once the Saint Louis Centre are some of the most startling.  The former Dillard’s, what was originally the home of Saint Louis based Stix Baer & Fuller, seems to somewhat be bucking this trend as it now hosts the National Blues Museum, an Embassy Suites Hotel and various store fronts on Washington.  On the other end, at the former Famous Barr, well, I’ll let the pictures speak.

The tragic reality of the former Famous Barr building in 2024.

Saint Louis Centre itself hasn’t changed much as far as its footprint.  But what was the original interior concourse is now inaccessible.  Whether or not it exists in any form is unknown.  The centre has been renamed Mercantile Exchange, a retail and entertainment complex with only exterior facing entrances.  Its tenants include a YMCA, MX Movies and Bar, and Hi Point Drive In.

1- The southern face of the former Saint Louis Centre.  2- Looking down the backside of the complex along Seventh.  3- Another view along Seventh with one of the funky skywalks of the former mall.  4- Another of the same groovy style skywalks crosses Sixth on the front side of what is now the Mercantile Exchange.

I'll always love this city and still had a great time on my visit, so I really hope the center of the city bounces back.  I'm stoked about what they've done with Gateway Arch National Park by capping the freeway running just to the west, and I hope they have just as many plans to save what was previously, in my opinion, one of the best city centers in the US.

Mercantile Exchange official website

1 comment:

  1. Union Station went the same way since the City and the folks with money did nothing to keep both places open. Plus the myth that it is too dangerous to come downtown does not help. The City charges for parking at the meters on Sat. now which was a stupid mistake so there is very little traffic evenings and weekends unless there is a ballgame or something else special going on. We had a nice downtown that is mostly wasted space now. A new expensive plan to improve the Arch grounds will start soon. We'll see what happens with that. Oh, and let's not forget how derelict most of LaClede's landing is now, too. Sad commentary on a city that should have a really nice waterfront and a vibrant downtown.