Mini-Flood 8: St. Louis Gateway Mall

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photograph by Patrick Gioia

The original St. Louis Gateway Mall Plan was an attempt to invigorate downtown; it failed in this, seeming to achieve only at razing some of STL’s most significant buildings (Real Estate Row), creating a bland, grassy wedge splitting downtown in half, and making for attractive loitering for the homeless. However, in 2009, a revised Master Plan was approved that seeks to utilize the existing Gateway Mall, promising to convert it into something truly great. Since then, the wonderful CityGarden (an outdoor sculpture park) has emerged showing a glimpse of what’s yet to come.

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photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

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photograph by Amanda Krebel

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

In 1907, the famous landscape architect, George Kessler, unveiled his grand design for a grand city. Just a few years after the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (which Kessler landscaped), St. Louis was a bustling metropolis growing at an ever rapid pace. For such a place, the architect designed an artfully decadent and beautifully landscaped mall, one block wide, that would stretch some 30 blocks west of the Old Courthouse to Grand Avenue. Popular in the United States at the time was a concept of beautification and monumentalization known as “City Beautiful”; the St. Louis Gateway Mall, with its enormous proposed length bounded by wide boulevards, fits this bill. These were essentially Beaux-Arts ideologies, and St. Louis had already been successful at commissioning several buildings in a style related to the movement (like the Cass Gilbert designed Saint Louis Art Museum), so the public was largely behind the project, even as it called for first demolishing up to 30, successive blocks of existing, downtown real estate. However, St. Louis did not remain as the juggernaut that it was in 1907.

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

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photograph by Theresa Harter

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photograph by Ann K. Hubbard

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

Some years later, Kessler’s overall proposal was contended with, and ultimately defeated by public vote. A short time after, the City Plan Commission released a scaled-back version; the first in an innumerable chain of revisions and counter steps that continues to this day. Ultimately, the Mall was reduced from Grand, to extending to just 21st Street (roughly 18 blocks). Construction of the Mall proceeded as open space became available, and this slow pace often meant that the idea of what to put there changed drastically between conceptualization and actualization. A dramatic version of this is evidenced by the Gateway One office building, which occupies land on the Gateway Mall between CityGarden and Kiener Plaza, and the related complex of buildings (save for the Wainwright Building) just to its north, along Chestnut. This area was once known as Real Estate Row, a reference to its significance, both historically and commercially. In the 1970’s, several historic buildings adjoining the Wainwright were demolished in a plan that overrode historical preservationists’ attempts to save them. Arguments against keeping them ranged from the assertion that they obstructed Arch views, to that they could be replaced by buildings that better integrated themselves with the Mall, to that the Gateway Mall needed more space surrounding it; these are among others. None of the arguments made against keeping the older structures intact panned out. Gateway One, built on the Mall to specifically cohere commerce with the park setting, is now a corporate headquarters whose “Mall integration” fails to deliver much commerce or park setting (its plaza is fairly typical for corporate plazas). The buildings that replaced the view-obstructing, Real Estate Row buildings are skyscrapers, taller and wider than their predecessors. As for open space, up until CityGarden came along, the major problem affecting Downtown, especially along the Gateway Mall, was too much open space. Fortunately, architectural details salvaged from Real Estate Row are on display in several important museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago. Unfortunately, this only illustrates the historical significance of the razed properties.

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photograph by Patrick Gioia

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

It would be easy to end a post on the St. Louis Gateway Mall by writing about the mistakes that were made. Although, to be fair, these same mistakes were being made all across the city as it desperately tried to stave away the steep declines of population and industry that suffered it greatly. However, St. Louis is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, and thankfully, city planners have returned with determination to the project began by George Kessler, over 100 years earlier. The new St. Louis Gateway Mall Master Plan, funded by the Gateway Foundation (responsible for green-lighting public arts projects around the city), seeks to transform St. Louis into the “Public City”– or a place where daily activities and recreation opportunities co-mingle. The Plan (somewhat contingent upon development projects, ranging from loft conversions to the new ballpark village at Busch Stadium) works in conjunction with the Arch Connector and Riverfront Redesign, and consists of dividing sections of the Mall into a series of integrated “rooms” with distinct characteristics among them. From the Old Courthouse west, the rooms are: Kiener Plaza, CityGarden, Civic Room, Neighborhood Room, and The Terminus. Although each room will possess defining elements, consistency is offered in the “hallway”, which is essentially a recurring system of landscaping and circulation modes throughout and surrounding the Mall.

The rooms:
1. Installed in 1962, Kiener Plaza (named after a local athlete who competed in the 1904 Olympics in STL) was designed to be a focus for civic activity in downtown. The Master Plan continues this concept, but redesigns the plaza to make it better accessible, more attractive, and more functional. The site will also include programming, outside of the major festivals and events currently staged there; something that it desperately needs in order to become an active use space. A new pavilion is part of the redesign. Important buildings that surround this section include the Old Courthouse (location of the Dred Scott decision and fabulous murals by Karl Ferdinand Wimar), and the Wainwright Building (world’s first skyscraper designed by Louis Sullivan). Between Kiener and the next room sits the Gateway One building.

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photograph by Theresa Harter

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

2. CityGarden opened to widespread public acclaim in 2009. This outdoor sculpture park is touted in the Master Plan as an “urban oasis”, and it truly is. If CityGarden is any indication of what’s in store for the St. Louis Gateway Mall, then exciting things lay on the horizon. Currently, the park features major works by Jim Dine, Julian Opie, Tom Claassen, Igor Mitoraj, George Rickey, and many more. In between CityGarden and the next room sits the massive Richard Serra work, Twain (controversial and misunderstood when installed, but slowly becoming more accepted after CityGarden), and the Civil Courts Building (another example of the “City Beautiful” movement, this Beaux-Arts building features a pyramid top modeled after the Mausoleum of Maussollos).

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

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photograph by Mandi Gray

3. The Civic Room comprises seven blocks and includes several memorials, including the Soldiers’ Memorial (a building unto itself). The intention of this area is as a flexible use space, and promenade. Up until this room, the St. Louis Gateway Mall might be defined as having an urban characteristic. Beginning with the Civic Room, the designers’ intentions are to create a more pastoral scene. Many major festivals and events, such as the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure, will use this space as the base of their activities. Eventually, plans are to close down Chestnut Street for pedestrian use. Significant structures adjoining this section include St. Louis City Hall (designed to reference the iconic Hôtel de Ville in Paris, France), St. Louis Central Library (newly renovated Beaux-Arts statement, conceived of by Cass Gilbert–architect of the Saint Louis Art Museum), and the Peabody Opera House (also newly restored).

4. The Neighborhood Room will function as a contemporary public park space, and will include athletic fields, playgrounds, picnic areas, meandering paths, and a food stand. For the playgrounds, the designers are purportedly taking cues from the City Museum. Nearby this section rises Union Station, once the world’s largest passenger rail terminal.

5. The Terminus is being conceived of as a “book-end” to the Arch grounds, and so needs to be both a strong entrance and exit to the city. One unique and personally exciting proposal is the construction of earthen mounds simulating those built by Native Americans that once occupied some of the land in and around St. Louis. The mounds would ostensibly provide unique, 360-degree views. Throughout all five rooms, the theme of flowing water will be repeated.

As exciting as the proposals are for the St. Louis Gateway Mall, they are long-term plans, and so are subject to the shifting priorities of our city’s sometimes enigmatic decision makers. Thankfully, good ideas met with good intentions seem to be prevailing at present; this, combined with a broadening recovery, suggests a better ending to the grand plot originally conceived of by Kessler.

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photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

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photograph by Amanda Krebel

Map:
Mini-Flood8

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