Wednesday, August 5, 2009

St. Louis Architecture: Union Market

It occurs to me that I haven’t done a history post in a while. That’s due primarily to the fact that I haven’t had time to do one. These aren’t entries I like to rush so I’ll apologize now for the long absence.

And while it’s been several weeks since I took the photos you’re about to see, I still have photos from other buildings I need to write about that I took last fall. That said, I’d better get crackin,’ eh?

Today, I’m highlighting Union Market – not to be confused with Union Station. (Union Station is on the outskirts of downtown and predates Union Market by about 30 years.) However, both sites have undergone dramatic renovations in recent years and now serve very different uses from their originally-designed purposes. Union market covers an entire block on the edge of the heart of the downtown business district, bordered by Broadway, North Sixth Street, Lucas Street, and Convention Plaza.
At that location, Union Market continued a tradition of marketing established on the same site circa 1866. Supposedly, the northern part of the property was made up of a collection of wagon markets.

When it opened in 1925, the product of a $1 million allotment (of an $87 million bond issue), Union Market was reported to be the second-largest market of its kind in the world. From its National Register of Historic Places application in August 1983, citing a 1925 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story:
“Located on the ground floor of the four-story building, the market area displayed terrazzo floors, white enameled brick walls and stalls with glassed-in showcases –features designed to achieve a "perfect sanitary condition at all times." In addition, a fish market in the southwest corner and a restaurant were both partitioned off from the main area. In the center of the south side of the market area, a mezzanine floor was reserved for the market master's office and a waiting room; the balcony surrounding the mezzanine provided space for band music performances. Truck delivery was received directly in the basement which was divided into space for employees' lockers, vegetable cleaning and storage of refrigerated foodstuffs and fish; a special elevator was provided for the transport of fish to the market floor. A special feature of the building was the 600-car garage which occupied the upper three floors.” (NV note: This is one of the earliest examples of indoor parking in downtown St. Louis.)

The first market to depart from 19th century conventional red brick classical forms, the buff brick and white terra cotta building “evoked an Italian Gothic spirit and presented impressive monumental facades on all four elevations.”

But the stardom of the structure would burn at meteoric temperatures. Within two years of its November 1925 opening – a three-day celebration – it was reported that the "finest market in the nation. . . if not an actual failure, it is obviously not a success."

Only 20 percent of the market stalls were occupied. And despite being hailed architecturally as a "thing of beauty" with "every known devise for handling food cleanly and attractively," the new market was already obsolete. Chain stores with lower prices, neighborhood stores, and the advent of both home delivery service and shopping by telephone had collectively conspired to kill the market’s business.

Even so, the fire didn’t burn completely out. Conversion of a portion of the building to a bus terminal in the mid-1930s as well as a steady clientele for a handful of niche market tenants, kept things going for another five decades. Then, declining occupancy prompted the city to close the market in the fall of 1982 and seek redevelopment in the private sector. At that point, the city had hitched the market’s hopes to the construction and development of the nearby St. Louis Centre. I remember the buzz surrounding St. Louis Centre in the 1980s because as a high school kid, I was working part-time just across the street from it. (Unfortunately, St. Louis Centre’s star burned completely out within a decade and it clung to life with just a few businesses until a few years ago. That building has only just reopened as a collection of inter-connected condominium units.)

In 1990, Drury Inn restored the building and it is now their Convention Center property. In this picture, if you look around the circle window, you'll notice the lighter bricks. That's where they had to be replaced because someone recently drove through the wall!

I go by this building every day so I see quite a lot of it. I remember going there in the mid- to late-70s (which, if you go through the paperwork on the NHRP application link farther up you can see some of the places that were there) with the mother. It’s yet another place with deep childhood associations that I’m so glad someone has restored rather than razed.


Jenni said...

Agreed St.Louis has great architecture and some of the older homes, especially near the park are swoom worthy. LOVE IT.

plumbelieve said...

Hi NV,

I love your history lessons. I could spend entire days just roaming around St. Louis or any historic sight for that matter. I even find myself watching late night history channel stuff. I guess this happens more and more with age...not that I am old or anything.

NV said...

Jenni -- Thanks! Yes, St. Louis is definitely home to some great architecture.

PB -- Thanks! Glad you enjoy them, too. I really like doing these as there is just SO much to see here. I have so many buildings to see and share, just downtown!

rcrets said...


I've been trying to find more information on Union Market and appreciated your article.

I work right next to Union Market (555 Washington). Our company pays for our parking, which happens to be inside the southwest side of the Union Market building. If you'd like, I would be happy to send you some pictures I have taken of the interior for your blog: it really is a gorgeous building inside as well. Such a shame that they converted half of it into a garage.


NV said...

That would be AWESOME, Ryan! you can send them to thisdmnhouse AT gmail. com (or use the link on the blog home page)

And you work in 555? ADORE that building! And it's ancient. Has quite the history ...

Kristen Darr said...

I park in this building as well - in the "basement" right next to a giant "Union Market" sign that looks like it used to be affixed to the building. I didn't know what Union Market was ... which is why I'm here :)