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People & Places

Staff Pick

Best Old Building 

St. Louis City Hall

There might be no structure less like the Gateway Arch than St. Louis’ City Hall. The Arch is geometric perfection. City Hall looks like several haunted houses huddled together, with its towers and dormers looming over Tucker Boulevard and Market Street. City Hall is a grimy, gorgeous building, and it deserves appreciation, even if one would be hard pressed to call it pretty. Still, if you squint, you can make out the ghostly impression of the exterior’s original colors, the pink-hued granite and stunning orange sandstone that once drew comparisons to a “sumptuous French chateau” after its completion in 1904. But that gaudy comparison fell away over the next decades of coal smoke, which left City Hall’s skin stained with soot. Dark blotches creep on the sandstone, across the faces of clocks that haven’t moved in decades. Further damage to the exterior was caused by what the city called “a poorly executed acid cleaning.” Inside, however, a measure of City Hall’s sumptuousness still exists: Beyond security is a rotunda of pearlescent white marble, where a massive staircase climbs beneath a soaring ceiling four stories into the sky. Its many murals echo the World’s Fair era of St. Louis, a time when the city seemed at the brink of bridging the Old World and the New. Today, City Hall’s bruised exterior might seem shoddy compared to the Arch, visible in the distance. But preserved in the building’s battered face is the story of St. Louis’ many confluences at the turn of the twentieth century, when its leaders chose to make a City Hall so fabulous, so colorful, so studded with towers and dormers and ornament that, in a way, it might as well have been a 630-foot-tall stainless-steel monument. Today, City Hall is completely out of place, and yet it belongs. It tells the story of its city. Its biggest dreams and dumbest mistakes. It may look like someone rolled it in charcoal, but City Hall shows both the beauty of things changing and staying the same. And for a building, that kind of beauty is so much more than skin deep. — Danny Wicentowski

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