The Century Building
The death of the Century Building is a story riddled with absurdities, overflowing with stupidity, and reeking of backroom under-the-table dealings. An abominable failure to comprehend the very nature of urban landscape pervades the decisions made throughout.
The first guilty party is the National Historic Trust, the nonprofit organization charged with defending the nation's historic architecture. The Trust inexplicably became involved in the fight --- to demolish the Century!!
As detailed at Save The Century, the Trust lent "tax-credit equity" to the Old Post Office redevelopment plan that insisted on tearing down the Century for a parking garage. STC also features a July 14, 2004 letter to the Post-Dispatch in which Trust president Richard Moe defends these actions, and essentially refuses to remedy this mistake because it would require an about-face. Apparently it's better to go down with the ship than acknowledge that it's actually sinking.
Moe also seems to breeze past the fact that, like the Old Post Office, the Century was elegible for National Historic Register status. As Landmarks Association of St. Louis pointed out in an urgent letter to members, the "isolated icon" approach to preservation has been discredited -- buildings are vastly more significant when they are preserved within a context, when multiple buildings can reinforce one anothers' historic presence. Tearing down one to (purportedly) save another is no longer an acceptable compromise.
Landmarks further points out that numerous buildings around the Century are currently undergoing renovation -- the Arcade, the Paul Brown, the Board of Education -- all without the supposedly all-important parking garage. Furthermore, a third development proposal has been put forward, which would restore the Century instead of obliterating it.
And still the Trust held their course. The mind reels.
Guilty Party #2: the City. When another development team came forward with an alternative proposal which would have kept both buildings intact, they were essentially forced by the mayor's office not only to retract their proposal but to denounce it and endorse the mayor's pet plan. Meanwhile, an alternative so flagrantly obvious that anyone who had ever visited the site could not help seeing it -- placing the proposed garage on a vacant lot RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET -- was never considered at all.
All that assumes, of course, that another parking garage in the neighborhood is needed at all.
As for the plan itself: Webster University will move into the lower two levels of the Old Post Office, while state judges (now housed in the Wainwright but looking for more space) move into the upper floors. The cost: demolition of the Century. A parking garage takes its place. The plan did not address the Syndicate tower at all; . In light of this, it is interesting to note that garages are also going up one block north and one block east; apparently the developers or their potential clients feel that's too far to walk. The now-vacant half-block north of the Old Post Office, the flagrantly obvious alternative, is not being used for a garage, but for an "urban plaza" -- an exercise in absurdity.
Vacant land (a more honest way of saying "urban plaza") is the last thing downtown St. Louis needs. The Gateway Mall, just two blocks south, is already under-used. The Arch grounds, a far more appealing green space, are only a few blocks away. Even closer is Mercantile Bank's absurd "urban plaza", only two blocks east -- an utterly useless space that does nothing for downtown St. Louis.
For this, the Century Building had to die.
The damage shown here, on the southeast corner, is superficial -- it was inflicted soley for the purpose of nullifying a pending court order to halt demolition. After this initial middle-of-the-night work, the site sat idle for a good two weeks. With the building so heavily damaged, the order became a moot point, and the establishment in St. Louis cleverly managed to drive the city another step forward on the road to mediocrity.
On the northeast corner, by contrast, the wreckers were also intending just to do some startup damage, but ended up taking out an entire corner of the building when they knocked loose key structural members. Unsupported, the top floor collapsed, pancaking down onto the floors below it, an uncontrolled chain reaction that sent an entire bay of the building crashing into the basement. Fortunately no one was injured. The Board of Education building across the street suffered a single cracked window and a heavy splattering of dirt and dust.