St. Nicholas Hotel
819 Locust Street
Architect: Adler & Sullivan, with Charles K. Ramsey associate architect
Altered: 1905, as the Victoria Building
Architect for alterations: Eames & Young
The St. Nicholas Hotel was one of four structures in St. Louis by famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (and remarkably, the only one demolished.)
This was the second St. Nicholas Hotel; the first at 813 4th Street was destroyed by a spectacular fire in the early hours of a bitterly cold January night in 1884, leaving the ruined building's walls covered in up to two feet of ice after an agonizing battle by the city's fire department.
Site demolition for the replacement structure, designed by Adler & Sullivan, began in early 1893. Eight stories in high, "absolutely fireproof", the hotel opened in November 1894.
The top floor contained what the Post-Dispatch hailed as "the country's finest ballroom", placed under the lofty gabled roof which allowed a large cleaer span of space - a gesture emulated by the nearby Holland Building a few years later. Two massive chandeliers, fine woodwork, and a painted mural adorned the space. The adjoining great balcony would have afforded a fine view of the surrounding city.
With little fanfare, the hotel was purchased by Marlborough Realty and Building Company, a syndicate headed by former East St. Louis mayor Melbern M. Stephens, and was closed in May of 1905, as announced by the Post-Dispatch in an April 7th notice. Plans for its renovation were announced in July.
The building was remodeled into office space (with a restaurant and Turkish bath in the basement) and renamed the Victoria Building. The remodeling added two new floors and expanded the building two bays (35 feet) to the west. Much of Sullivan's original design was lost, including the gabled roof, the ornamented balconies, the arcaded upper level below the gable, delicate tracery railings on top of the bay windows, and the entire streetfront including the arched entryway. Salvaged terra cotta panels from the balconies were installed in the new design, but the building's distinctive massing was lost.
The Victoria Building was a first-rate office building in its time; even through the 1960s it was well occupied - until 1971, when A.G. Edwards moved out, leaving over a hundred empty offices in their wake. The building went into foreclosure, and the insurance company that inherited decided to demolish rather than pour money into a renovation.
When the Victoria Building's pending demolition was announced, two of the city's leading architectural critics - citing the bitter loss of Sullivan's original design - could find little reason to save it. A few spandrel panels and other trim details were saved by researchers.
The site was a parking lot for decades. In the mid-2000s, the last surviving building on the block fell, and an urban plaza was developed on the unused space.
Some of the building's original doorknobs may be seen here.
St. Nicholas Hotel. 407 North Eighth Street. - pre-remodeling image from the Missouri History Museum.
The St. Nicholas Hotel and the Victoria Building - a thorough history by David J. Simmons, for the Society of Architectural Historians
St. Nicholas Hotel Briefly Returns, from Preservation Research Office
Louis Sullivan and the St. Nicholas Hotel, St. Louis, MO - from The Doorknob Collector, a newsletter from the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America, 2005
The St. Nicholas Hotel as constructed to Louis Sullivan's designs. This and other photos on this page from the Historic American Buildings Survey collection.
The Victoria Building as remodeled by Eames & Young, photographed in 1940. Though discounted by the contemporary press, the remodel cleverly repurposes the ornamental panels of the balcony to form a bracket around the top floor windows, giving definition to the building's top floor. Less convincing is the egg-and-dart entablature below the cornice - a Classical device ill-suited to a Sullivan building.
A detail from the previous image reveals a richly furnished streetscape. Among the businesses inhabiting the Victoria Building in this scene are Heffern Neuhoff Jewelers, Albert Aloe Opticians, Johnnie Brock Cards and Gifts, Neumode Hosiery, a cigar store, Senate Loan & Finance Company, Millard's Clothiers, Dempsey-Tegeler & Co., and, prowling about the upper bay windows: Doctor Wolf.
"Come Upstairs & Save", implores the neon sign of Krisman Frey Jewelers. Sullivan's snowflake spandrel panels made a fine backdrop for such an enterprise.
Images from the Historic American Buildings Survey.
1906: the Victoria Building in a tinted postcard
2006: the same corner. A parking lot stood on the site from 1973 until 2008.
2008: the long-awaited urban plaza which fills the half-block today.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the Saint Nicholas Hotel's snowflake panels hangs on display, alongside other salvaged bits of Louis Sullivan's and other famed architects' work - a necropolis of lost civic art.