Bringing St. Louis Centre Back to Life

A few months ago Macy’s bought the May department store chain. The St. Louis based company owns the Famous-Bar and Lord and Taylor department stores as well as some specialty clothing stores. For many years when I was growing up, the downtown Famous was the flagship store of the retailer. A square white building with an ornate facade dating back to the 1800’s, the building was about ten stories tall and took up an entire city block. Directly across the street sat its competitor; Stix, Baer, and Fuller. Famous was like an old, rich uncle while Stix was his matronly sister. One had merchandise crammed to the rafters and a bargain basement, while the other was rather upscale and sparse. Around Christmas time all of the windows at the ground level of the Famous-Bar department store were decked out with decorations and mannequins that moved. Every year us kids were bundled up and taken on the short bus ride downtown to look in the windows and check out the entire seventh floor, which was solely dedicated to Santa and all of his minions. One of the appeals was to ride the old creaky wooden escalator and try to guess what was on the next floor that was coming up.

By the 1980’s, sales at both of the giant stores had surrendered to the shopping malls and strip malls. Dilliards bought out the Stix chain and eventually closed the downtown store, leaving Famous as the sole downtown shopping experience. The old train station a few blocks north had been revitalized and turned into an indoor mall, but the station still wasn’t technically in downtown; it was really on the near south side. Then in 1985, St. Louis Centre was opened. It sat across from the Stix building and a bridge was built, linking it to the rest of the block. The Centre was opened with great fanfare and touted as the rebirth of a struggling downtown. Instead, it became a high profile symbol of decline. For years it just sat there broken, with empty shops and broken windows.

Now there are plans for a re-birth, but not with shopping. As with most of the rest of downtown, developers say that housing is the key. A leading developer of lofts in the downtown area has agreed to buy the Centre as well as the Stix building, an adjacent office building, and the old Jefferson Arms Hotel. While planning to keep some retail shops on the first floor, the rest of the space will be turned into condominiums with price tags reaching as high as $900,000. Plans call for removing the aluminum green-and-white cladding and replacing it with a mostly glass exterior. The upper floors of the building would be terraced and most of the condos would look out onto an open courtyard with a swimming pool.

There seems to be a growing trend across the country to combine luxury living with a shopping experience a few doors down from where you live. Many of these projects also have office space. Work live and shop, all in the same building. Talk about eliminating the commute. I still think that the bus ride was part of the fun.

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