Nothing is left of downtown St. Louis' original buildings that were erected upon the city's founding in 1764. An impressive collection of historic and contemporary architecture still exists there nonetheless, much of it preserved from the mid-19th century, when St. Louis was bursting at the seams as the nation’s fourth largest city, often the result of tenacious efforts by preservationists who understood the value of repurposing these historic structures. Our tour through downtown’s architectural highlights features the first skyscraper, two modernist masterpieces, a pair of historic homes and more than one winner of a national design competition.
The oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi (1834) is actually the fourth church built on the site that was reserved for church use by St. Louis founder Pierre Laclede. The Greek Revival building now stands just to the southwest of the Gateway Arch, and is open for worship and tours.
Originally built in 1839, this Greek Revival building is topped by a cast iron dome—spectacular on the inside—that predates the one on the U.S. Capitol. Slaves were once sold on the courthouse steps, and the suit that resulted in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision —which helped foment the Civil War—was initiated here. The Old Courthouse is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as is the Gateway Arch, and tickets to the Arch are sold here. Admission to the Old Courthouse is free.
Old Post Office
This grand Second Empire granite building at Olive and Eighth streets was built over quicksand in 1873, an engineering challenge that was met with pine log pilings, cotton bales and four feet of concrete, which explains why it has never cracked nor settled. The sculpture by Daniel Chester French that sits atop the façade is reproduced in the lobby. Inside, among other uses, you’ll find a branch of the St. Louis Public Library.
Once part of a private street in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, the three-story mansion was the home of Robert Campbell, who made a fortune in the fur business. Now a museum, the meticulously restored home contains many original furnishings and is open for tours.
The modest house south of Busch Stadium is the only structure remaining from a block of row houses, primarily because it was the boyhood home of Eugene Field, author of “Little Boy Blue” and “The Calico Cat.” St. Louis schoolchildren raised money for its preservation —and were thereafter admitted to the resulting museum for free. Curators of the house discovered another compelling story within its walls. Eugene’s father, Roswell Field, was the attorney who initiated the suit for Dred Scott’s freedom at the nearby Old Courthouse, eventually resulting in the aforementioned Dred Scott Decision. Today, the Field House Museum celebrates both men.
This former tobacco factory (1874) at 727 N. First St. in Laclede’s Landing, downtown’s oldest surviving district, sports a spectacular cast-iron façade. Inside you’ll find the Old Spaghetti Factory; outside, you can prowl the cobblestone streets and find more converted warehouses providing homes for restaurants, breweries and the Wax Museum.
Louis Sullivan’s now-modest 10-story building (1892) at 709 Chestnut St., decorated with his signature vocabulary of inventive organic forms, has come to be recognized as the first expression of the modern skyscraper, breaking from load-bearing masonry and relying on its steel frame to maintain structural integrity. Now a state office building, the structure rewards up-close inspection of Sullivan’s decorative genius.
St. Louis Union Station
Yet another national competition resulted in the magnificent train station that, in its heyday, accommodated some 260 trains a day for 22 railroads. Theodore Link and Harvey Ellis are credited with the Romanesque Revival structure (1894) that includes one of the city’s most spectacular interior spaces—the Grand Hall—and the famous “Whispering Arch.” Shops, restaurants and a hotel now occupy the main building and the enormous train shed. Across the street, Carl Milles’ fountain sculpture is one of the city’s best pieces of public art.
At the peak of its glory in 1896, the city commissioned a national design competition for its City Hall, won by a Harvey Ellis design based on the Paris Hotel de Ville. Still a head-turner, the building anchors Memorial Plaza at Tucker Boulevard and Market Street, which also features Soldiers’ Memorial and court buildings.
The handsome Italian Renaissance building by Cass Gilbert won a national design competition in 1912 and was recently renovated from head to toe. Step inside and stroll through the building’s grand spaces for a peek at its incredible collection of decorative ceilings. Olive and 13th streets.
The building at—you guessed it—700 Market St. was designed by Philip Johnson in 1977 for the General American Life Insurance Company. Johnson’s striking design slices a three-story office building in half diagonally and raises the resulting west triangle to create a six-story structure pierced by a cylindrical rotunda. Now occupied by Missouri.Spire, Inc., the building served as one of the locations for the George Clooney film, “Up in the Air.”
Part building, part sculpture, Eero Saarinen's dramatic 630-foot high stainless steel arch, completed in 1965, makes the St. Louis skyline one of the most recognizable in the world. Taking the shape of a catenary curve, the line described by a freely suspended chain, the Arch represents the city's role in the westward expansion of the U.S. An enormous project to better connect the Arch grounds with the rest of downtown is not yet complete, but the Arch is still open for visitors. Get timed tickets for the ride to the top at the Old Courthouse.