17 May 2013

Saint Louis Union Station, Saint Louis, MO

A relic of retail

3 March 2024

I initially discovered Saint Louis Union Station on a brisk autumn afternoon in 2003. I was riding the city's Metrolink Light Rail away from downtown and what would be my final visit to the ailing Saint Louis Centre. I was on my way to Central West End to document a supposedly haunted location (this was just a week or two before Halloween, so of course) and I had a little time to kill. I disembarked at the Union Station stop hoping to get a few shots of a classic old train station. What I found was so much more.

Under the modified train shed, I found a Landry's Seafood Restaurant, a Hyatt Hotel and even a small pond. I wasn't surprised to find these few additions to help in attracting visitors to the no longer functioning train station. But just past the lagoon was a two level array of escalators, mezzanines and shops. The Saint Louis Union Station had been converted into a retail facility and, unlike its downtown peer, this development was quite familiar with success.

Interior views of the Grand Hall.

I loved how the modern was juxtaposed with the classic. There was a respectable selection of retailers and eateries, as well as healthy foot traffic considering that I was there on a weekday afternoon. Although covered by the train shed's roof for the most part, the facility was for all intents and purposes open-air and not climate controlled. I was more than a little impressed by what I was seeing, but I hadn't even reached the focal point of the complex- the Grand Hall.

Saint Louis Union Station Mallmanac, ca. 2004. View the full PDF version here.

What used to be the passenger lounge when old-timey trains made regular stops at the station to pick up three piece suit clad businessmen in bowler hats was now serving as the restored lobby of the Hyatt. The ornate arched ceiling, the Romanesque architecture and the Indiana limestone kept me gazing upward in a state of awe with my mouth agape. It was like I was instantly transported to another time and place; like I had just experienced a temporal shift and would be on the lookout for Captain Jack had I not had an evening departure to catch out of Lambert.

Underneath the old train shed.

Saint Louis's Union Station debuted in 1894. At one time, it served the passenger lines of 22 different railroads and was the world's largest and busiest train station. But as rail became an outdated mode of transportation, service was steadily reduced until 1978 when its last tenant, Amtrak, moved all of its operations out of the oversized facility. In 1985, the site was repurposed with the addition of the 539 room hotel and the retail portion. Finally, rail service returned in 1993 with the commencement of service via the Saint Louis Metrolink.

1 & 2- The bottom level of the retail arcade.  3- The retail arcade’s upper level.  4- The Midway shops.

Today, Union Station is one of the most visited attractions in the metropolis. That's a pretty impressive feat when also located in the city is one of the most iconic and recognized monuments in the world. And say what you will about Saint Louis, but I love that damned town. Sure, it's got its problems, and there are a lot of them. But while other locales were in a rush to demolish their obsolete rail stations in the name of urban renewal, that was never even a consideration in the Gateway City. So, unlike New York's Penn Station and the Birmingham Terminal Station in Alabama, everyone will be able to look up in awe at Saint Louis Union Station for decades to come. And to buy t-shirts and kitschy arch themed shot glasses.


-3 March 2024

Not to be outdone by its suburban competitors, Saint Louis Union Station itself became host to many changes over the past couple of decades.  The good news, it still stands much the same way as it has for the past 130 years. The bad news, there aren’t many retail tenants left in which to pick up those tacky arch themed shot glasses.

1- The Saint Louis Union Station from Memorial Plaza.  2- The Hilton Hotel entrance.  3- The station from Aloe Plaza across the street.  4- The Grand Hall and clock tower.  5- The west facing entrance to the hotel.  6- The Saint Louis Wheel.

In the winter of 2024, I walked from my nearby hotel to the Saint Louis Union Station for my first visit in twenty-one years.  As I strolled down Seventeenth Street toward the old transportation hub, my first glimpse of the old relic was of the 230 foot tall clock tower.  When I finally reached Market Street, I smiled as I my eyes greeted the Grand Hall for the first time in what felt like forever.

1- The Saint Louis Wheel.  2 to 4- Old timey trains at the western entrance to the shed.  5- The carousel and food vendors.  6- Looking back at The Saint Louis Wheel along with long time tenant Landry’s.

The most obvious addition to the Saint Louis Union Station was the first I could see, the Saint Louis Wheel.  Like a beacon on the horizon, I followed it down Twentieth Street until I reached an egress into what is now more of an entertainment facility than retail center.  Just past the carousel and several food stands, I found the familiar water feature that first welcomed me so long ago.

Saint Louis Union Station lease plan, ca. 2023. View the full PDF version here.

Landry’s Seafood remained in its location, but the Hard Rock Café had been taken over by what looked like a local soda shop.  The hotel, a Hyatt on my first visit, had since been branded a Marriott then as a Curio by Hilton today.  Years earlier the hotel had expanded into much of the former Midway and overall felt quite a bit less integrated into the overall design than in 2003.

1- Landry’s next to the lagoon.  2- Looking past Landry’s toward the Curio by Hilton.  3- The former Hard Rock Café now a generic soda shop.  4- The eastern entrance to the train shed.  5- The former retail arcade from across the water.  6- The entrance to the former retail arcade really hasn’t changed much.

The retailers from the former Midway were moved to the shopping arcade, but this set up only lasted until 2016 when a complete renovation and repositioning was announced that would almost completely eliminate the retail element.  In their place, attractions like the Saint Louis Rope Course, A-Maze-Ing Discoveries, the Saint Louis Aquarium and several restaurants opened for business and remain to this day.

1 & 2- Just inside the refurbished former retail arcade.  3- Looking back toward the entrance from the hotel, which is no longer accessible from this area.  4- The second level toward the hotel and Grand Hall.  5- The Saint Louis Aquarium from the second level.  6- A closer look at the intricate Saint Louis Rope Course.

Though not what it used to be, the Saint Louis Union Station has evolved well within its market.  Unlike the area around the former Saint Louis Centre and much of downtown, the station can still boast a healthy amount of patrons and hopefully will still be able to for a long time.

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