By Sam Levin
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On a clear March day in downtown St. Louis, young professionals and preservationists unfurled their signs, pulled out bullhorns and called the media for an old-fashioned rally. About 100 members of Metropolis and Build St. Louis marched up and down the 900 block of Locust Street, waving signs and chanting. "Save our Syndicate!" they shouted. "Parking lot? I think not!" The focus of their efforts was the Syndicate Trust building, a hulking brick-and-terra-cotta 17-story skyscraper and its attached property, the 100-year-old Century Building, which occupy the entire block directly west of the Old Post Office. Both structures, considered pivotal in the development of the central pocket of downtown, could soon have a date with the wrecking ball if owner Mark Finney gets his way. Where the Syndicate now stands, Finney envisions a state-of-the-art parking garage that will hold more than 1,000 cars. Finney's vision has preservationists seeing red.
Several protesters were waving signs reading "Demolish Finney" and "Finney have a heart."
Unfortunately, it was a case of a right cause and a wrong villain. The protest would have been more appropriate had it been held on the steps of City Hall. For the past eight years, since Finney bought the building, the city has stopped him from demolishing the building. But it has never bought it from him or found a developer willing to pay market price.
"If someone wants to save the building, then they can step up and buy it," Finney says.
And he couldn't care less if he is viewed as the antichrist of historic preservation.
"I'm a businessman," he says. "The only reason I'm called greedy and people don't like me is because they haven't been able to get me out of my position. That includes the city, the preservationists and all the other forces who have tried to move me off."
The new administration of Mayor Francis Slay and his development czar, Barbara Geisman, promises to get downtown projects going. They've been negotiating with Finney for several weeks now. So far, no deal. The last two mayoral administrations also came into office vowing to develop the Syndicate Trust Building. The promises proved as empty as the 17-story building looming over the corner of Ninth and Pine.
Walking down the central corridor of downtown, around the Old Post Office square, it is easy to see the significance of redeveloping the Syndicate Trust. The area is rich with historical architecture but short on vibrancy. Vacant old buildings with ornate cornice work and swirling cartouche motifs can be seen through large wooden fences painted with bold urban art. Many have scaffolding surrounding the first two floors, giving the feel of an unending remodeling project. There are glimpses of hope. The construction site for the new convention center hotel bustles with the roar of a backhoe. 'For Sale' signs for Loftworks condos are visible in the upper windows of Locust and St. Charles streets. Foot traffic, however, is mostly generated by pedestrians waiting for Bi-State buses. Few, if any, walk the streets just to shop. If they do, they must navigate an ominous chain-link-and-plastic fence blocking portions of the sidewalks.
This is a far cry from the early 1900s, when urban life centered around the Old Post Office, which was completed in 1884. Its opening effectively shifted downtown west from the river's edge. Between 1887 and 1907, more than 75 office buildings were erected in the new downtown business district, a speed rivaling that of contemporary Chicago. With its wrought-iron ornaments at every floor, the Syndicate Trust opened in 1907, adjacent to the Century Building, a limestone theater, built in 1896, with arched windows facing the Post Office. The first eight floors of the Syndicate Trust housed the famous department store Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney. Naysayers predicted the store would close in less than a year because it was too far west but were silenced the moment the store opened its doors. The press heralded it as "the acme of Twentieth Century triumph in department store making." By 1912, the two buildings were connected by a seven-story addition, and they have been considered a massive single structure ever since, with 705,000 square feet.
Over the years, the building has housed historic tenants as well. On the 10th floor, the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis planned strategies to extend the right to vote to women. Among the League's first members were Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening, and Charlotte Eliot, mother of poet T.S. Eliot. In the late 1950s, the Congress of Racial Equality protested the lack of African-American clerks at the Scruggs store and demanded the opening of its restaurants and lunch counters to black customers.
By the late '60s, the call of suburbs and strip malls started taking a toll on downtown. Scruggs closed in 1967, spawning a decline from which downtown has never really recovered. In August 1971, a Post-Dispatch article lamented the less-than-50 percent occupancy of the Syndicate Trust, quoting real-estate agent William Hirschi, who was confident he could turn it around. "You might call me a specialist in taking over a sick building and filling it," he said. Filling it proved easier said than done. Such tenants as Southwestern Bell, Cass Bank and Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum came and went. An interior renovation of the building in 1980 did little to improve the situation.
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