Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis’ Midtown neighborhood began to bustle as residents, educational institutions, and businesses moved west from the city’s downtown and Mississippi River banks. The World’s Fair of 1904, a celebration of the Louisiana Purchase’s centennial, helped popularize the area, which became known as the city’s “second” downtown.
The area flourished as an arts district after the city’s symphony hall was built in 1925 and a host of theaters opened, but it declined after streetcars were shut down in the 1960s, suburbs sprawled west, and buildings were abandoned. The restoration of the symphony’s Powell Hall and Fox Theatre spurred another revival that led to the founding of the Grand Center Arts and Entertainment District in 1980. The 300-acre development now brings in 1.7 million visitors annually to events, restaurants, and nightclubs.
But residential life took longer to return. Under former St. Louis mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr.’s leadership as president and CEO of Grand Center, the area’s nonprofit redevelopment firm, more vacant buildings are being filled, including the eight-story Metropolitan, originally designed as offices by Mauran, Russell & Garden in 1906–07, which has become work–live spaces for artists. The goal was to keep them affordable so occupants wouldn’t be priced out as real estate values rose, says Schoemehl.
Minneapolis-based Dominium Development & Acquisition purchased the Metropolitan’s site for $2.6 million from a bank that foreclosed on it and hired architect Vince W. Ebersoldt of Ebersoldt + Associates in St. Louis, experts in historic adaptations.
They faced a tough challenge. “The building was in as bad a shape as I’ve probably seen,” says Dominium partner Jeff Huggett. Ebersoldt concurs: “It had some major structural integrity issues due to years of exposure to elements and lack of care and maintenance.”
Yet, they proceeded because the location was close to Powell Hall, other arts facilities, and St. Louis University; it offered views of downtown and its iconic Arch; and the building’s ornate façade, spacious interior, and big windows would appeal to the target demographic.
The developer repeated the approach it had used to rehab other old buildings and receive state and federal historic and low-income housing tax credits. It retained much of the original structure, which involved propping up or replacing reinforced concrete slabs that comprised the floor structure.
The lobby and corridors on lower floors were largely intact and could be restored to their original state, but upper floors had been demolished and needed new corridors, which were built in original locations using marble flooring that survived. New public spaces were designed for shared artists’ studios, socializing, and fitness.
The 72 one- and two-bedroom lofts range from 600 to 1,400 square feet and rent monthly for $650 to $825. A committee established art criteria to select tenants. Within a month of leasing this past August, all units were taken, and there’s a three-year waiting list.
Robert Duffy, associate editor of The St. Louis Beacon and formerly with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, considers it a positive addition. “It has added strength and a sense of daring. Ten years ago, everyone had given up on the corner. Today, the building helps establish an attractive sense of entry into Grand Center. But the heart and soul are inside, where a congregation of artists adds conspicuously to the sense of substantial renewal.”
Schoemehl also views it as a change agent. “We saved a worthwhile building,” he says, “and we look forward to more music clubs, retail, and residential development, along with significant streetscape improvements.”