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Students To Unveil New Plans For Railway Exchange Building

Brett Loehmann, a graduate student in the Sam Fox Design and Visual Arts program at Washington University, photographs the Railway Exchange Building on Sept. 17, 2014.
Sid Hastings
Washington University Photos

A graduate architecture class wants to change the Railway Exchange Building.

The 1.2 million-square-foot, 100-year-old building at Locust and Sixth streets in downtown St. Louis was once home to the Famous-Barr flagship store and its parent company’s headquarters. It was converted to a Macy’s store in 2006, but that closed last year.

Now students from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis are working with Downtown STL Inc., formerly Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, and the building’s owners to give the building a new life.

“I think that given the context of St. Louis as a shrinking city and the change in the population trend that the downtown is seeing today, the understanding of this as a possibility of having a new life to this building that is so important to St. Louis is something that inspires us and gets us into this imagination of possibilities,” Sam Fox assistant professor Catalina Freixas told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday.

Freixas’ students had only one restriction: “The historic facade, which was constructed in 1914, it needed to stay there,” student Caitlin Milligan explained. “We could not touch it. We needed to not only preserve it, but also make it part of your project.”

Students also had to use at least 250,000 square feet of the space — less than a quarter of what’s available.

With few restrictions and no budget to worry about, students were free to explore the space and neighborhood, creating an ideal project for the experimental architects-to-be, Freixas said.

“What most of us did in our studios, we kind of designed in two tracks,” Milligan said. “We did a formal study of the building, like ripping out floor plates, making a courtyard a little bit bigger or cutting out part of the walls. And another one was actually programmatic studies: What is in downtown? What needs to be downtown?”

Student Michael Politte imagines natural light, an indoor stadium and residential space.

“One of my strategies is getting light from the 12th floor down to the first floor,” he said. To do that, he spent a lot of time studying how and where sunlight hits the building in each season. “As (sunlight) penetrates the building, what angle does that penetrate the building and what is its maximum potential for light penetration as the sun courses through the downtown area? So it also relates to the buildings around it and how tall they are and where.”

Milligan imagines a mixed-use space.

“What I’m proposing is a mix of retail, residential, performing arts, bars and restaurants,” she said. “They take up just smaller portions of the building, so you’re not trying to do a one-solution-fits-all.”

Both students said their proposals were created for millennials — people near their own age.

“There’s a lot of offices downtown, and just the environment I feel like kind of inhabits that stance,” Politte said.

Freixas’ students have been working on their plans since August, and will present them on Dec. 10.

Instead of renovating it, though, why not tear down the building and create something new?

“I think that is not a sustainable way to go,” Freixas said. “I think Europe has that culture of trying to look up other opportunities, of rebirth of buildings before knocking them down, and I think starting to think about this in America, especially in post-industrial cities where the building stock is so big and where the buildings are beautiful and solid so they can still have years to work, I think this is a great opportunity.”

Besides, Milligan said, “if it’s easier to do that, why haven’t you done that already? There’s something about this building, about this facade that’s stuck to people’s ribs. Let’s capitalize on that. Let’s make something out of that, and let’s reuse this building.”

Related Event

Downtown STL community event

  • When: 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 10, 2014
  • Where: Railway Exchange Building, 600 Locust St., St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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