When the trend of downtown living gained momentum in St. Louis after 2001, a number of the Gateway City’s vacant brick-and-terra-cotta buildings were rehabbed for residential use. Some had been part of the area’s heyday as a manufacturing center, including its “first in shoes” status. Work stopped with the 2008 recession but picked up afterward with some vintage gems still waiting to be salvaged.
One of the most iconic was the 19-story Arcade Building, constructed in 1913 in a Gothic Revival style with a vaulted and buttressed interior and a two-story shopping arcade that replicated the style of early, indoor Italian gallerias. Many residents today recall stories of older relatives shopping and working there or in the connected Wright Building, constructed two years after the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Together, the two structures became known as the Arcade-Wright Building. Abandoned after 1978, the building was designated a city landmark in 1980, then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
The relic was ready for a new life, and Pyramid Properties planned to convert it to a condominium. The timing proved ill fated, however, as the subprime-mortgage market crashed, followed by Pyramid’s demise. When the economy recovered, the building was taken over by the city, which used brownfield tax credits to clean it up. Finally, in 2014, Dominium, a Minneapolis-based developer that had successfully completed other adaptive-reuse projects in St. Louis, purchased the building with several partners for $9.5 million. The team used a combination of federal and state historic rehab tax credits.
“The beautiful Arcade Building seemed a logical step after our prior work [in St. Louis], since it was larger,” says Dominium’s Jeff Huggett, project partner and vice president of development and acquisitions. In fact, its 500,000 square feet made the Arcade-Wright the largest apartment renovation undertaken in St. Louis in decades.
The developers, who renamed the building Arcade Apartments, found other reasons, as well, for its appeal: It stood on a stop for the mass-transit MetroLink; was across the street from the rehabbed 1872 Old Post Office building, a hulking landmark inspired by Napoleon III’s modernization of Paris; and sat a half block from the city’s first downtown grocery, Culinaria, owned by a local chain. In addition, Dominium, which has more than 24,000 apartment units in its portfolio, knew occupants would be attracted to the abundant light from more than 2,500 windows—many more than 20 feet wide—and some ceilings equally as tall.
Because of the economic shift, Dominium revised the concept from condos to market-rate apartments and added highly sought affordable artists’ lofts and space for Webster University, which has its main campus in the suburbs but wanted a more visible satellite than it had occupied in the Old Post Office building.
All seemed aligned, except for the challenge of transforming a large, vacant building that had experienced water damage and contained outdated plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems. To receive tax credits, the project team saved as much as possible, including a grand stair connecting the old shopping arcade’s levels. The team installed new systems and elevators, followed Enterprise Green Communities criteria, and focused on quality to compete.
Among the toughest challenges was carving out the building’s 282 residential units, since few floors were the same, which meant the floor plans couldn’t be repeated easily. The architects developed 85 layouts for the 202 affordable artists’ lofts and 80 market-rate apartments. Those occupy the third to 18th floors along with 11,000 square feet of shared artists’ studios. The Webster University rooms are grouped on floors one and two and a mezzanine.
The building now reflects a look back—and forward. The exterior and lobby mimic its past grandeur with a nod to today in the form of a new entry canopy with LED lighting. Designer Melissa Metzler of BKV Group in Minneapolis worked with the architects, Paul Hohmann and Vince Ebersoldt of locally based Ebersoldt + Associates, to transform the units into modern, hip residences with polished-concrete floors, exposed ductwork, and open plans.
Metzler took her cues for colors from the building’s rich palette and punched them up to look fresher. The artists’ lofts, with one, two, and three bedrooms, measure 650 to more than 2,000 square feet and rent for $675 to $900 monthly. The market-rate units range from 650 to 2,500 square feet and lease for $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
The developers spent $118 million and have been pleased that over 250 leases have been signed since last December. Arcade resident Missy Kelly, with Downtown STL Inc., which represents area businesses and residents, relocated from the suburbs with her two teenagers. “I wanted to expose them to diversity and culture by living in the city,” she says.
Other residents have come for a variety of reasons, including the downtown’s growing entrepreneurial hub. The only downside of the more vibrant scene is that few old buildings remain for embarking on similar magical transformations.