What Should Be: the St. Louis Mercantile Library Buildling

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Arguably the brightest part of post-recession downtown St. Louis is the progress of the Mercantile Exchange: specifically the redevelopment of STL Center and the Laurel, and the demolition of the visually oppressive sky bridge that once connected them. The removal of the sky bridge alone was enough to make a huge impact on the entire Washington Avenue corridor (only one more obstruction to go). The addition of the Blues Hall of Fame, a movie theater, and Pi’s highly anticipated downtown location are all big steps forward as well. However, the ultimate key for the area will be continuing this momentum and spreading the progress throughout the CBD, to streets that don’t have the panache and vivacity of Wash Ave.

The Mercantile Library currently sits vacant on the rear corner of the freshly renovated STL Louis Center, immediately opposite the shiny new facade of the redevelopment that’s been dubbed St. Louis’ Time’s Square. This often-overlooked building is part of the Mercantile Exchange and is maintained by the same developers, but there are currently no plans for its renovation. Located one mere block from Metrolink and in the heart of the Central Business District (just one of numerous nodes within the broader ‘downtown’), the building is strategically positioned to feed off and therefore help further connect the various nodes of downtown.

The Mercantile Library’s central location means it’s near various important points of activity in the happening northeast quadrant of downtown: (1) redeveloped STL Center complex, (2) Federal Reserve, (3) Met Square- downtown’s tallest building, (4) Arch Grounds, (5) Kiener Plaza, (6) City Garden, (7) Convention Center, (8) Laclede’s Landing, (9) Old Post Office Plaza, and (10) Wash Ave corridor.

The destiny of this particular site is critical to continuing the recent progress of improving connections through increased pedestrian activity within and between the various nodes of downtown. Hopefully, there will be enough momentum from the initial Mercantile Exchange phase to allow renovating this structure as a mixed-use building. While the building in its present state is nothing noteworthy, the building wasn’t always so forgettable.


{the second Mercantile Library building in downtown St. Louis}


{the 1956 remodeling}

Before the building was unfortunately clad in the mid-20th century, the Mercantile Library was a magnificent brick structure with fine brick detailing and large windows, sitting strategically in the middle of the Central Business District. Although presently hidden, much of its character still exists underneath the current facade.

^ Before: A disincentive for pedestrian activity, the parking garage (center left) is currently a bland and visually somber force on the area. The cladding of the Mercantile Library (center right) masks the grandeur of the original building without replacing its quality. The upper floors and large ground floor space are currently vacant, and the parking garage sits underutilized.

^ After: The Mercantile Library should ultimately be restored to its former glory and redeveloped as a mixed-use building within a vibrant section of downtown. The upper floors are ideal for light filled loft apartments, and a roof deck with Arch views would add to the appeal of the building. Downtown lacks a big box retailer, and the expansive space on the ground floor would be ideal for a single large retailer like Target. It would be located on Broadway, one of downtown’s most traveled corridors, and directly across from Macy’s, anchoring the MX to the south. Having a major retail anchor at this location will solidify the Mercantile Exchange as the premier retail section of downtown, and will send a positive message that downtown continues to become more livable.

The parking garage facade should receive a green wall that softens the feeling of the plaza, while adding nuance to the public space with new layers of color and natural textures. The modernity of the green wall and the new STL Center facade sharply contrasts the historic charm of the Railway Exchange (right) and the restored Mercantile Library. This juxtaposition attempts to bring out a certain dynamic energy that currently sits dormant within the plaza.

Let’s hope that the initial phase of the Mercantile Exchange is successful enough to truly spill over. The developer states: “the MX will link downtown’s most important residential, shopping and entertainment neighborhoods.” Let’s hope they can take the next step and make that statement undeniably true.

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  • Tom Bullard

    We need a Walmart Neighbor hood market downtown.

    • Rusty

      That’s sounds terrible, try Culinaria

  • Patrick Kleaver

    An update. I talked to another worker coming out of the old Mercantile Library building recently. He indicated that while it had been used for just “storage,” there were now discussions about converting the lower levels for parking (just what downtown doesn’t need more of!) and the upper floors to apartments. When this might actually happen is unknown.

    • John R

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Brandonview tackled this after the Alverne but I guess we’ll see. I was half-expecting them to bid on the Chemical at foreclosure sale but it looks like only the lender did. btw, I believe I read the Alverne will half some first-floor commercial space — an art gallery, iirc — but also have parking in the rear of the building on the first two floors or so; while not ideal perhaps that wouldn’t be too bad for the MercLibrary as well.

  • John R

    This building appears to have been vacant since 1998 when the Library moved…. The Chemical, LaSalle and Jefferson Arms have all been occupied more recently than that, I believe. So with the Arcade-Wright coming back online, does anyone know what building of decent size in the CBD owns the record for the longest vacancy?

  • jhoff1257

    Some good info about the Library on builtstlouis.net. The best site about STL that exists in my opinion.

    http://www.builtstlouis.net/opos/mercantilelibrary.html

    Sadly according to this the original facade and detail had been shaved clean off to provide a flat surface for the new facade.

  • Justin

    Here are some interesting blog posts from Vanishing STL about other buildings downtown that have be given a modern makeover. Its a shame how many of these building have been made uglier by these modifications. Luckily many of them can be changed back.

    http://vanishingstl.blogspot.com/2010/10/hiding-in-plain-sight.html

    http://vanishingstl.blogspot.com/2010/10/hiding-in-plain-sight-part-2-unmasked.html

    http://vanishingstl.blogspot.com/2010/10/hiding-in-plain-sight-part-3-living-in.html

  • John R

    Actually reading this post four years later is pretty depressing. The Washington side of the M/X development finally seems to be coming into its own with the several restaurants and Blues Museum opening, but the Locust side is quiet and as Patrick mentioned, the Mercantile Library has yet to move forward and perhaps has deteriorated in condition. And the notion that the Mercantile could host a Target and, coupled with the Macy’s across the street, could become the premiere shopping area, truly comes from a different era. Hopefully Brandonview can do something with the Mercantile Library and bring some life to this depressingly vacant part of downtown.

  • Patrick Kleaver

    Four years later, and the old St. Louis Mercantile Library building is sadly deteriorated.
    I walk by it every day. On the Locust Street side, the first floor has an automatic garage door installed; each floor above it has a similar size hole covered by plywood. Many of the windows are broken and there is a tree growing out of the roof at the corner of 6th and Locust! From time to time, the garage door is open and if you glance inside while walking by, you’ll see the first floor is totally gutted, with construction debris scatted about and vehicles parked between the pillars holding up the ceiling. Water drips down inside and out (whether it’s raining or not!).
    From time to time, I’ll see construction material delivered, but when I asked a man supervising the unloading if that meant a renovation was underway, he said the building is just being used “for storage.” It really appears blighted, and I am surprised it hasn’t been condemned by the city.

    • John R

      Patrick, I agree this has been a huge disappointment and the Locust side is disgusting. But the good news, hopefully, is that the building is in the hands of a new owner, Bradonview. This is the guy who is doing the mixed-use remakes of the Laclede Gas and Millennium buildings, etc. So hopefully something will come before too long,

      • Patrick Kleaver

        John – it’s good to know it’s in the hands of a new owner! If it’s the owner of the Millennium building, his incentive to rehab the Mercantile Library building would be all the stronger, since they share the same block. (It has to be disheartening for the new tenants in the Millennium to have such an eyesore as a neighbor.)

        • John R

          Yes, the Millennium Building (now called 515 Olive, I believe) and Mercantile Library Building are under Brandownview ownership. He also picked up a couple other parcels as well and now owns the whole square block except the LaSalle Building and old Paradowski spot.

          515 Olive is flanked by vacancy so I wouldn;t doubt he is motivated, but he also seems to have a lot on his plate with 720 Olive this year and Alverne Building planned for major work next year. If he can clean up the Locust side a bit in the near term and get a redevelopment together in 2017 that would be huge and really pick up foot traffic in the area.

          • Patrick Kleaver

            The same owner having the Alverne might explain using the Mercantile Library building as “storage” for construction material. Work on the Alverne seems to be going on steadily – earlier this year they installed new elevator equipment, and in the past two weeks they were doing extensive drilling on the first floor and created a major opening on the 11th Street side. From there, they were pouring concrete through an open space on the first floor to the lower level. I see workers coming in and out of the Alverne on a regular basis and from time to time, Locust is partially blocked off so trucks of construction material can be unloaded- perhaps from the “storage” at Mercantile Library?
            I wish the new owner all the best – I just hope he’s not spreading himself too thin. Remember the old Pyramid Company? That owner’s downfall seemed to be trying to do too much simultaneously. The empty Jefferson Arms Hotel is a lasting legacy. All the tenants there had to leave in anticipation of a major rehab, but the money ran dry and that building still sits forlorn and empty..

  • JakeBhat

    Making the building look as it did before it was mutilated seems economically unfeasible. And with the collection moved to UMSL, it  seems to be an irreversible loss to the city. But money can fix anything here … anybody got a billion dollars?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Maybe. It’s also very possible that the old ornamentation (terra cotta, windows, etc. etc.) were simply covered up with the rehab. There are quite a few buildings in town that had their originally detailing in tact behind add-on panels. What the building really needs is a tenant. An historic building may be more attractive to a possible tenant, but I think the current building could work too.

  • info

    The MX is open to all sorts of ideas and it is exciting to see this awesome building under discussion. The reality is that we would need a solid credit-worthy tenant to justify the upfront costs of applying for historic tax credits. Our plan is to expand the footprint of the MX in time, however, our focus for the near term is on attracting best-in-class retail to the MX and The Laurel. We have construction starting in early 2012 on MX Movies, Pi Pizzeria and other retail tenants are currently designing and pricing their plans for building out other retail spaces. Keep up the discussion and be sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheMXSTL) and Facebook. #js

    • Hasan

      Please email me regarding a solid credit worthy tenant. hasan at equities-portfolio.com

  • Rick

    If you never visited the Mercantile Library when it was housed in this building, you missed an awesome thing.  The outside of the building wasn’t the thing.  The contents were.  Now the collection is housed at UMSL.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I never visited the library before its (in my opinion) unfortunate move to UMSL, but from the photos, it appears very similar to the Cincinnati Mercantile Library – a great place to visit if you ever have the chance: http://www.mercantilelibrary.com/

  • Guest

    I have a great tenant for this building.  The William K. Busch Brewing Company.
    I don’t know if anyone has heard but the Busch’s are brewing again.  This time it’s true German beer.  To the standards of the Beer Purity Act of 1516.  Currently it is brewed in Wisconsin.  They do have future plans for a new Downtown St. Louis Brewery.  Can you imagine the traffic this would bring to the M/X?  Only question is could the building be renovated to house a brewery, maybe a few lofts for the Brewmasters on top?

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2011/11/10/domestic-bliss-busch-to-brew-again-in-st-louis/

    • Hasan

      Too small. They would outgrow this too quickly. They should build new on the bottle district site.

      • Alex Ihnen

        They could have a tasting room/brewhouse I guess. I’d love to see them near/around Union Station. If they really think they need room to grow, I’d like to see them spur development on the near North Riverfront.

        • Hasan

          Union Station area could be nice. North of Craig Heller’s Farmworks?

    • Guest

      No matter where it is located, I’m just happy they want to build a brewery Downtown.

  • Guest

    Great post.  It’s amazing to me how we covered up several buildings in this “Mid-Century” crap.  How could anyone think that building today looks better than it did originally?  I love the idea of Murals on the parking structures.  I would be ok with removing the parking structure (as with several others Downtown), but beggars can’t be choosers lol.

  • Hasan

    Developing this building is key to attracting tenants to the MX building (on the 6th & Locust side). And with the addition of new residences, this area will really take off.

  • I’ve always recommended using the exterior of that garage as six different large timelines of st. louis history – baseball, cahokia, public transit, the arch, lewis and clark, and mary meachum – you get local artists to design so big enough to read from the street and it gives a better set of focal points.

  • What a beautiful building under that ugly exterior! And it’s official, even a “green screen” on that parking garage doesn’t help. Worst in the city, for my dollar.

  • RobbyD

    Every time I walk by this area I wonder the same things…I couldn’t agree more with the intent and solution of this post.