20 April 2013

Saint Louis Centre, Saint Louis, MO

A dead mall

Mention the phrase "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 and a dividing wall downtown. The only thing they won't call it is a success.

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

I first noticed the Saint Louis Centre on my first day trip to the Gateway City in late 1999. I had taken the Metro 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.

L- One of the streetside entrances. R- Inside, under the atrium.

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.

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 night. There were two ready made anchors as it was built between existing downtown department stores Dillards 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.

Looking down from the bright ceiling to the darkened bowels.

On this trip I also discovered another downtown destination, Saint Louis Union Station. The city's old railroad station and shed was converted into a retail and entertainment facility complete with a lake and a Hyatt Hotel. Granted, there were tacky Saint Louis souveniers 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 were only one of those gaudy glass entrances on each end. In the middle was an impervious wall. The side facing Seventh Avenue 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.

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.

Wikipedia on Saint Louis Centre

Deadmalls.com on Saint Louis Centre

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.