History of the Arcade Building

Nestled in the heart of downtown St. Louis, the Arcade-Wright Building (it’s actually two connected buildings!) stands as a testament to the city’s rich history and architectural splendor. This iconic structure has witnessed the ebb and flow of time, evolving from its early 20th-century origins into a cherished landmark that continues to captivate locals and visitors alike.

The Golden Age of Arcades

The Arcade-Wright Building’s story begins in 1906 when the 18-story Wright Building was constructed by architectural firm Eames & Young. At the time it was built, it was the tallest building in St. Louis and nicknamed “the giant of downtown,” according to Built St. Louis. (I haven’t been able to find any mention of the original use of the Wright Building, but it appears it was probably an office building. If anyone has this history, please reach out!)


The Arcade Building followed in 1919, wrapping around two sides of the Wright Building. Architect Tom P. Barnett, renowned for his work in the Beaux-Arts style, was tasked with designing a structure with the Arcade addition that would not only serve as an office building but also stand out as a symbol of St. Louis’s growing prosperity. Arcades were becoming increasingly popular in America and Europe, and St. Louis’ Arcade was the largest in the world as of 1920. Its hallways spanned an entire city block and featured ornate vaulted ceilings.


The Gothic Revivial Arcade quickly became one of the most sought-after and prestigious locations in the city. The shops lining the halls offered a wide array of goods: fine jewelry, chocolate, children’s clothing, linens, corsets, flowers, millinery. In addition to the two primary retail floors, there were five more floors of retail space. (This is where the Regulation offices are.housed!) Doctors and dentists were on the 9th and 10th floors. Corporations were on the upper floors.

"Saint Louis - the Market House of the Great Southwest - the Most Centrally Located City in the Country and the Greatest Inland Port in America, Now Has the Largest Arcade Building in the World. The new Arcade at Eighth near Olive and Pine streets contains over 163.000 square feet, or more than eight acres, of rentable area, subdivided Into more than 200 retail store rooms and nearly 800 offlces."

Challenges and Preservation Efforts

The mid-20th century brought both challenges and opportunities for the Arcade Building. Economic downturns and changing urban dynamics led to the closure of some businesses, and the once-thriving Arcade lost some of its former glory. The last businesses in the Arcade finally closed in 1978.

Efforts to restore and preserve the Arcade Building gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s, with community activists and preservationists working hand in hand to safeguard its architectural integrity. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, recognizing its significance in St. Louis’s history and architecture. The building continued to sit empty, however, until its renovation began in 2014.

Revitalization

In the 21st century, the Arcade Building has experienced a resurgence, becoming a focal point for urban revitalization efforts. The building was rescued from a state of ruin, having sat empty since 1978. Adaptive reuse projects repurposed part of the building for Webster University’s downtown campus (although the University has moved out as of late 2023). The remainder was renovated into mixed-income apartment housing. Extensive effort has been put into preserving original details of the building that give glimpses into its grand commercial past.

Today, the Arcade Building stands as a shining example of successful preservation and adaptive reuse, offering a peek into St. Louis’s past while embracing the energy of the present. Its rich history, coupled with ongoing efforts to maintain its architectural grandeur, ensures that the Arcade Building will continue to be a cherished landmark for generations to come.