A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part II:  Property Types

Period 2 - The Victorian City and the Street Car (1870-1900)

Commercial Structures

Central Business District Cast Iron

While the use of iron for commercial buildings began before the Civil War, it was not until afterward that its full impact in architecture was felt. Initially cast iron was used for decorative elements on residential buildings; soon it appeared in ground floor storefronts. During the 1870's, the use of cast iron construction became widespread: it was believed that cast iron was more fire-resistant than masonry or heavy timber construction. The use of cast iron allowed for buildings larger in scale, with larger expanses of glass.

Most commonly, cast iron was used on three and four-story buildings. 720 North 2nd Street is an excellent example of the changes this new construction technology made possible. The building's front facade is primarily glass, with only a minimal amount of wall surface: the cast iron columns of the storefront are slender and delicate, with classically-inspired capitals. The large windows are two-over-two, and cast iron cornices are placed above storefront and parapet.

The full development of the cast iron commercial building is exemplified by Raeder Place, at 721-27 North 1st Street. The building was constructed in 1875, the design of William Raeder, one of the leading St. Louis architects in the period after the Civil War. The building is six stories tall, and eight bays wide. Even more than the building at 720 N. 2nd Street, its structure seems to be mostly glass beneath a light screen of cast iron detail. Intermediate cornices appear at each story, supported by slender columns interspersed with paired windows. The building is crowned by a cornice of brackets and modillions.

Central Business District Masonry Buildings

The use of cast iron suffered a series of setbacks in the 1880's that led to a waning in its popularity as a construction material. It became clear after a series of disastrous fires across the country that cast iron was not as impervious as once thought, and in fact melted at high temperatures. For a brief period, load-bearing masonry became once again the preferred method of commercial construction.

Richardsonian Romanesque Style

Although Richardson designed no commercial structures in St. Louis (his firm was responsible for three residences), the Richardsonian style was influential with local architects, who frequently borrowed both his handling of form and his detailing. The Richardsonian Romanesque style was pervasive in commercial design for a brief period from about 1888 to 1894. During that time numerous buildings in St. Louis and throughout the country referenced Richardson's work in Boston and Chicago. The same characteristics that define Richardsonian house design-bold, rough-faced stone; deep window recesses; and heavy, round arches-distinguish Richardsonian commercial buildings.

The Bell Telephone Company Building (now the Hartley B. Comfort Building), located at the corner of 10th and Olive Streets is perhaps the best example of Richardsonian commercial design standing in St. Louis. The building was designed by H.H. Richardson's successor firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, after Richardson's death in 1890. The seven-story building has load-bearing masonry walls, and illustrates a classic device of Richardsonian commercial design: strongly-marked vertical bays; arches rising several stories; and window stacked in patterns whose arrangement is reordered and recombined at every story. The building's primary window configuration is a paired window with transoms. This window is doubled on the second and third stories, single under a round arch on the fourth; in threes on the fifth. The sixth story groups the window in fours, under smaller arches; and the top story has smaller paired windows in twos. Throughout, the building displays a variety of rough-faced sandstone detail.

The Lambert Pharmaceutical Building, at 2007-10 Locust, is another fine example of the Richardsonian style. Designed by Thomas Annan in 1891 (Samuel Sherer added several bays to the west in 1902), the building is four stories tall and sits on a rusticated sandstone base. Paired windows of the second and third stories are arranged vertically in bays, and capped with large semi-circular transoms set under heavy brick arches.

Late Victorian Design

Late Victorian commercial design filled a transitional period from the decline of traditional, load-bearing masonry buildings with their massive wall surface and classically-derived decorative elements, and look toward the rise of the modern tall office building, which began with the use of steel frame construction in the last decade of the 19th century.

The Merchants Laclede Building, at 408 Olive, designed by Stephen D. Hatch, was constructed in 1889. Widely advertised as a "fireproof" building, it has a wrought iron frame with hollow brick firewalls behind its facade brick. The building is an early attempt to organize exterior elements of a tall office building as if it were a giant column, with articulated base, shaft and capital. This device was soon to become conventional in tall building design. The first two stories of the Merchant Laclede (the base) are stone, with the six upper stories in brick. The verticality of the "shaft" is emphasized with pilasters that extend from the third story to the parapet, and by a semi-circular projecting corner bay. A pyramidal tower and a turret at each corner once projected above the building's roof line, and gave the Merchants-Laclede a far more Victorian appearance than it has today.

Tall Office Buildings

A watershed in the development of the office building occurred in the early 1890's. With advancing technology, it became apparent that steel, because of its structural strength and its ability to withstand fire, was a preferable structural material to cast or wrought iron. The development of steel frame construction (a skeleton of steel beams and columns that forms the structural support for the building) meant that exterior walls were no longer required to carry the building's weight: they became "curtain" walls and could be made from a variety of materials and organized in a number of different ways. In addition, the steel frame allowed buildings of many more stories than masonry construction. Steel made possible the first truly new property type in centuries: the tall office building. Searching for an appropriate vocabulary to express these new buildings, a talented group of architects in Chicago succeeded in revolutionizing commercial design.


Louis Sullivan was the first to successfully express this modern architectural vocabulary. He felt that the new building type called for the creation of a national style, eschewing European precedents. The exterior of the new office building should reflect its interior structure, and interior functions as well. Ornament, where it was used, must be derived from Nature, rejecting classical references and the ubiquitous arches. To articulate the building's interior structure, Sullivan used a pier and spandrel system: narrow vertical members rise from the ground story at the location of the steel columns; horizontal panels between these piers are placed at floor locations. Although Sullivan did not design the first steel frame building, he was responsible for the first in St. Louis, the Wainwright Building.

The Wainwright Building, 101 North 7th Street, was designed in 1890 by Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler. Although not a complete realization of Sullivan's philosophy, the building is nevertheless one of the first great expressions of the new American building type, and a masterpiece of Sullivan's work. When constructed, the Wainwright was surrounded by office buildings of similar scale, and not isolated as it is today. But its exterior design was radically different for St. Louis, and appeared almost severe in comparison with other downtown buildings. The Wainwright has the three-part system of base, shaft and capital: the first two stories, commercial space, are expressed as a base devoid of ornament, except for large, deeply recessed windows. Through the next seven stories, the offices, narrow piers extend without interruption; decorative spandrels are set at each floor level. The capital formed by the upper story, a service area, is a continuous band of Sullivan's signature intertwined ornament, pierced by small porthole windows. The Wainwright Building is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation given by the Department of the Interior.

The Union Trust Building, 705 Olive, designed by Adler and Sullivan in collaboration with St. Louis architect Charles Ramsey, was constructed at the corner of Seventh and Olive Streets in 1893. The Union Trust has a yellow brick and terra cotta sheathing. The original two stories of commercial space (greatly altered in 1924) form a giant base upon which rises a ten-story office tower and exterior light court, with the same pier and spandrel system found in the Wainwright building. The upper two stories and attic are unified by bands of windows, separated by slender columns with foliated capitals. The elaborate spandrel panels have an abundance of Sullivan ornament and terra cotta lion heads. A replica addition to the building, by the St. Louis firm of Eames and Young, lengthened the 7th Street facade in 1905.

The influence of the Wainwright and Union Trust buildings was immense. Many downtown office buildings designed later by local firms were inspired by Sullivan's work. The Rand, Johnson and Rand Building, now called the International Shoe Building, at 1509 Washington, was designed by Theodore Link in 1909. It is a restatement of Sullivan's Wainwright Building, with a heavy base, slender multi-story pier columns and naturalistic ornament, although restrained by the influence of the later Art Nouveau style.

Chicago Style Office Buildings

For a brief period during the 1890's, Adler and Sullivan office design was a standard in St. Louis. By the turn of the century, however, the work of a number of other Chicago architects had come to influence the tall office building. The Chicago style, as their work came to be known, stressed verticality and an increased emphasis on the external representation of interior structure, and came to revolutionize the design of downtown office buildings.

The Chemical Building, at 722 Olive Street, was constructed in 1896 by Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb, with a matching addition constructed in 1903. The building displays some of the last cast iron detailing in St. Louis. The commercial space of the ground floor is cast iron, with red brick and terra cotta on upper stories. Influenced by Holabird and Roche's Tacoma Building in Chicago, the Chemical Building is an atypical Chicago Style example because it does not utilize the characteristic pier and spandrel system. Instead, the building features undulating bays of oriel windows. Compared to earlier office buildings, the facade appears lighter and more like a decorative screen for the building's interior structure. This structure is still expressed by brick piers between sets of windows; however in this instance, the floor levels are heavily emphasized with ornamental string courses above and below each row of windows, in counterpoint to the building's verticality.

Other Commercial Buildings

Department Store

Department stores began to spring up in cities all over the country during the 1860's and 1870's, offering for sale a variety of consumer products, and combining in a single building goods once carried only in individual hardware, drygoods, clothing, and other specialty stores.

The former May Company Department Store, now known as 555 Washington Avenue, began as the Italianate Bradford-Martin building, designed by Francis D. Lee with Thomas B. Annan in 1875. At the turn of the century, it was purchased by the D. Crawford Drygoods Company who commissioned Weber and Groves to create an elegant department store. The May Company, an early St. Louis drygoods concern, acquired the building in 1904. The five-story structure, with elaborate Renaissance Revival detailing, is dominated by Weber and Groves' dramatic central bay on Washington Avenue, where the entry is deeply recessed beneath a highly ornamented half-dome. The exterior of the building was meticulously restored to its early appearance in 1987, including reinstallation of its missing cornice.

Neighborhood Commercial

The same technology that influenced downtown commercial design came to impact smaller commercial buildings in St. Louis' outlying neighborhoods. Cast iron became standard storefront material during the first part of the Victorian Period. The glass area of the storefront continued to expand, while the structural members became taller and more slender.

The building at 1000 Geyer, in Soulard, is a good example. The height of the storefront dominates the building: tall, ornamental cast iron posts support an overscaled lintel detailed as a full entablature. With the exception of the mansard roof and its profusion of dormers, the rest of the building is relatively simple and takes a clearly secondary visual role.

At the intersections of major streets, larger commercial buildings were constructed, composed of rows of storefronts, with residential and occasionally office space above. The building at 1923-37 Park Avenue, in Lafayette Square, is an example of the expanded commercial block. The three-story building features as many as five separate commercial spaces on the ground floor. In comparison with the somewhat later 1000 Geyer, the commercial first story of this building has less impact, and its appearance is much closer to that of nearby residences.

Was this page helpful?      

Comments are helpful!
500 character limit

Feedback is anonymous.