Considering a Creative Reuse of the Optimist Building

Considering a Creative Reuse of the Optimist Building
The Optimist International Headquarters as it currently sits

There is yet another proposal for the reuse of the former headquarters of the Optimist International organization. With an initial proposal by developer Covington in 2014 recommending significant alterations to the exterior of the buildings and a 14-story, 200-unit apartment complex constructed on top, which fizzled following the project’s inability to receive support for tax abatement. In 2015, Koman proposed another 14-story addition that would add over 300 units to the low-productivity CWE corner, though this project (which sought TIF funding rather than abatement) also failed to garner traction. Plans for the building stalled until 2021, when infamous developer Lux Living took the reins and proposed a new 7.5-story, 150-unit building that would completely replace the existing structure. 

Lux Living’s updated proposal, Lindell facing south

However, due to the headquarters’ inclusion in a 2013 survey of Mid-Century Modern buildings in the city, the Cultural Resource Office (CRO) recommended that the Preservation Board deny the demolition application, which they did after Chairman Richard Callow cast the tie-breaking vote. The Board encouraged Lux to consider a reuse of the building instead. Finally, after seemingly taking cues from the suggestions of preservationists, Lux hired HOK to design a proposal that keeps the existing pavilion, demolishes the newer portion to the east, and builds a new structure around the eastern and southern portions of the property. This new proposal marks a significant shift for Lux (and perhaps St. Louis developers generally), whose principal, Vic Alston, complained that “If you were to save that site and build on the 0.3 acres that are left, I almost view it as a poison pill. You would not be able to build that building, and you certainly would not be able to build it without a significant amount of subsidy.”

This should be considered a win for preservationists, the city, and the neighborhood. We held a developer accountable, demanded better, and now have a new proposal that brings roughly 150 new neighbors, preserves the most significant historical features of a building that has been empty for nearly a decade, and puts land that has been tax exempt since 1961 back on the city’s tax sheet. Lux said they won’t seek tax incentives. This is a rare example of city planning restrictions moving a project towards both more efficient urban design and preserving the most significant elements of a historic structure.

However, the CRO recommended the Board withhold approval of the initial Lux plan, which would have demolished the entire headquarters, as “the Optimist International pavilion is a High Merit building under the Preservation Review Ordinance, a contributing resource to the Central West End Historic District, and a significant element of the historic architecture of the City of St. Louis.” The CRO specifically focused on the design of the primary Lindell facade and pavilion, with some attention to the “more restrained work” of the eastern portion. In their recommendation for the revised plan, the CRO again recommended the Board reject the new design, stating that it “considers this proposal a demolition, as it calls for the razing of all but two walls of the pavilion. This project is an example of Façadism, the architectural and construction practice in which only the facade of a building is retained, and a new building erected behind it or around it. Façadism is not preservation.”

In this regard, the CRO hits the proverbial nail on its head: façadism is not preservation. Façadism is an adaptive reuse of a structure but should not be disregarded entirely. Done well, façadism can preserve the historical context of a city and its past, while allowing it to evolve to meet the needs of the present and future. Our cities are not museums; they are living, dynamic organisms meant to meet the needs of those who reside there. Façadism can contribute to a sense of place and provide a connection to that place’s past while allowing room to evolve. Despite there being a number of examples where façadism is done poorly, we in St. Louis don’t need to look far to see what some of the alternatives may look like. Preserving the majority of the significant structure while allowing for growth on the rest of the parcel is indisputably better than a column tucked away in the corner of a parking lot surrounding a QuikTrip on the Hill, or a small monument and plaque on an unassuming corner at Olive and Boyle that informs passers-by that the famous Gaslight Square entertainment district is buried beneath them. There may be philosophical arguments to be had about form vs function, the merits of various architectural regimes, and the purpose of preservation, though the CRO’s stance overlooks what should be the central concern of all cities: the people who live there.

Gaslight Square in the 60’s
Gaslight Square today (Olive and Boyle facing east)

By focusing on obstinately preserving buildings without considering land use, the CRO robs the city of an opportunity to evolve in a historically sensitive manner. By denying developers the chance to responsibly redevelop an outmoded, empty, and low-efficiency building, we are doubling-down on a form of architecture from a time when St. Louis was hemorrhaging population due to federally-subsidized white flight. New city construction attempted to imitate the architectural style of the suburbs from which our former residents had fled. Mid-Century Modernism promotes openness of space, clean lines, and organic forms that verge on simplicity, though this tends to be low-productivity. This works when land is cheap and abundant, but is not ideal for urban design. The Optimist Building’s large setback and prominence of parking extols a sense of isolation; a building that is only connected to the surrounding city because it has to be, while removing itself as much as possible.

The Great QuikTrip Column on Kingshighway

Lux Living’s new proposal preserves the most important features of the most significant section—the pavilion with its concrete superstructure—ensuring that the tenets of Mid-Century Modernism can be viewed clearly and understood. However, with the historic context in mind, the new proposal suggests that we move away from the inefficient land use, the isolation, and the deterioration of our urban environment while adding potentially hundreds of new residents and shoring up the city’s tax revenue. This proposal takes a monument to our city’s past, with the troubles and solutions of the time, and preserves them in an exciting new development, one that shows the current direction that we are headed: one of progress, of inclusiveness, and hope.

The CRO worries about setting a precedent, but I believe that when a developer wants to build here, they must do so in a responsible way. The current checks in place worked: Lux was sent back to the drawing board and forced to come back with a solution that made everyone happy, sending a clear signal to developers that we value our history, even the ugly or unjust, and desire to learn from and incorporate it into St. Louis’ next chapter. We should thank the CRO for defending our city’s immense architectural heritage, but give a developer who decided to try again the chance to contribute to that next chapter.