“St. Louis ... occupies, as it were, a cultural principality all its own.” — Howard Mumford Jones
The Laurel Building has a rich history, which you can learn about here. But the areas surrounding the MX district have equally exciting stories to tell.
- The Lindell Hotel
- Laurel Street
- Loading Dock
- The Tunnel
- Books and Gardens
- Mercantile Center
- Shaughnessy Distilling Company
- Henry Shaw’s House
- Columbia Theatre
- Cocked Hat Bowling
- St. Louis Life Insurance Building
- Charles Valentine Riley
- Leopold Ackerman
Upon completion in 1863, the six-story, block-wide Lindell Hotel (on the site of what is now The Laurel) was reputed to be the largest hotel in the nation. But four years later, it was destroyed by an equally spectacular fire. The hotel was rebuilt on the site, and Henry Shaw moved parts of the destroyed hotel to form a picturesque ruin in Tower Grove Park.
Washington Avenue was first known as the more utilitarian North F Street, a name applied in 1821. In 1826, the city of St. Louis renamed its east-west thoroughfares with the names of trees, following the convention of Mayor William Carr Lane’s native Philadelphia. North F became Laurel Street until 1835, when it was named Washington Avenue from 3rd to 11th Streets.
Few people know that the loading dock serves Macy’s department store via an underground passage. Macy’s is located one block south of the MX in the Railway Exchange Building (built in 1913). Originally, Famous-Barr was located on the lower seven levels of the building and required a large loading dock. Deliveries could not be made on the crowded streets surrounding the store, so the company built the dock and tunnel that are still used today.
Before construction began on the Eads Bridge in 1869, it was clear that railroad tracks would have to be buried under St. Louis. A double-arched, two-track freight and passenger tunnel was opened in 1875 to connect the Eads Bridge with the rail yards south of downtown. The tunnel, which begins to bend south at 7th Street, is now used for MetroLink, St. Louis’ light rail transit system.
In the early 20th century, 700 Washington Avenue was home to the Blackwell-Wielandy Book and Stationary Company. Founder Frank Wielandy, who dropped out of school at 13, was the city’s leading advocate for thrift gardens. Wielandy’s thrift garden campaign led to over 710 acres of gardens planted in the city by 1921.
In 1972, the Mercantile Trust Company proposed building Mercantile Center, which included four similar towers of heights from 26 to 51 stories on the 600 Washington site and the block to the west. The US Bank Tower, completed in 1976, was the only one built.
From 1896 to 1916, Shaughnessy Distilling Company occupied the building at 500 N. 7th Street. The liquor distributor’s brand names included Club House, Coal Port, Grandee, Leroy, San Bois, Shaughnessy Rye Malt, and Shaughnessy's Special.
Henry Shaw, founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden, was a canny investor who left extensive income-producing property to the institution after his death in 1889. In 1850, Shaw built a three-story brick townhouse at the southwest corner of 7th and Locust Streets. The ornate house was designed by George I. Barnett, an architect and fellow Englishman. Shaw purchased the property at 610 Washington in 1876 for $30,000. While most of Shaw’s property near the Garden was sold off by the 1920s, this lot was owned by the Garden until 1974. Although no longer on the site, the house still stands. Shaw’s will stipulated that his house be moved to the Missouri Botanical Garden upon his death, and it was moved to a site on Tower Grove Avenue in 1889.
At the southeast corner of 6th and St. Charles Streets, the elegant Columbia Theatre was completed in 1898. The theater featured some 1600 electric lights, more than most people had ever seen before. Among the features of the opening program were Filli’s Performing Dogs, including a Russian poodle that played “The Last Rose of Summer” on the piano.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many bowling alleys and billiards halls were located downtown. One of the most popular bowling games was known as “cocked hat bowling,” which used a smaller ball and only three pins. At 413 – 417 N. 6th Street, the Royal Billiard Hall claimed to have the largest cocked hat bowling alleys in the world, as well as the “finest and handsomest” room for billiards.
One of the most magnificent commercial buildings ever built in downtown St. Louis, the six-story St. Louis Life Insurance Building at 6th and Locust streets was completed in 1874. Architect George I. Barnett employed a refined Italianate style for the building, which used native Missouri granite and limestone for its cladding. Atop the building were 13 groups of Roman-inspired statues, two of which are now found in Ironton, Missouri.
In 1874, Missouri’s first state entomologist moved his office into the St. Louis Life Insurance Building. His was undoubtedly the only office in the area to host a vast study collection of live insects behind glass. Riley’s minute observations helped solve the Great French Wine Blight of the 1860s and 1870s and led to his appointment as Entomologist to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Throughout the 20th century, the four-story building at 610 Washington Avenue was the Sonnenfeld Millinery Company’s wholesale warehouse. Leopold Ackerman purchased the company in 1894 at the pinnacle of a life that that began on a poverty-stricken farm in Villmar, Germany in 1863. After arriving in St. Louis at age 16, Ackerman rose to become one of St. Louis’ most prominent Jewish businessmen.