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Fixing Mistakes at the Mansion House Complex

November 20, 2008 Downtown 12 Comments

The year was 1965. The Arch was finally under construction so those 40 city blocks that had been vacant for two decades were finally going to be active (somewhat) again. So the city decides to raze more blocks of the CDB (Central Business District).

This time they take out the four city blocks bounded by the new I-70, Pine, 4th and Washington. The cross streets of Olive, Locust and St Charles are all consumed by the project — creating a giant “super block” where four pedestrian-friendly block existed for over a hundred years.

In place of the numerous buildings that used to exist on these four blocks was built three residential towers connected by a parking garage and fronted by some low-rise buildings along 4th. The South tower is a Crowne Plaza Hotel. The center tower, set further back from 4th, is the Mansion House apartments. The North tower is the Gentry’s Landing Apartments. Each has different owners and the land is owned separately from the buildings.

Above: The 1965 Mansion House complex covers three city blocks East of 4th from Washington on the North to Pine on the South.
Above: The 1965 Mansion House complex covers four city blocks East of 4th from Washington on the North to Pine on the South.

From the above image you can see how the highway & Mansion House create a double whammy to separate the city from the Arch grounds. Myself and others have suggested we do away with the highway once the new river bridge is built. But that is only half the problem, we’d still be left with super block projects like the Mansion House.

Above: Looking South along 4th from Washington.
Above: Looking South along 4th from Washington.
Above: One level above street level a roof-top terracew over the garage connecting the three towers.  Retail stores were supposed to thrive facing this internalized area.
Above: One level above street level a roof-top terrace over the garage connecting the three towers. Retail stores, seen at left, were supposed to thrive facing this internalized area.

I like modern buildings. The forms can be appealing to my aesthetic, the minimal details contrast nicely with 19th Century neighbors. But, almost always the urban planning is horrible. What might be nice as a single building on a block with other buildings is stretched over four blocks.

Nothing will ever bring back what was lost 40 years ago. The thing we must now turn to is how to retrofit these projects so they are more friendly and conducive to the 21st century.

The following is a thought process about a design solution of overcome shortcomings of the Mansion House complex. It is not a fully vetted proposal with a rock solid pro-forma behind it. When this complex was built it used massive doses of Federal Urban Renewal money. Eminent domain was also used to take and assemble four blocks into one. So today the numbers on my suggestions may not add up. But I think the following needs to happen to invigorate this area and to reconnect the CBD to the Arch.

Pine, Olive, Locust & St. Charles streets all need to be cut through again. Amazingly this can be done without razing the three towers. You’d need to raze & rebuild the parking garage, however. By putting the streets back you can once again invite people to just walk down the block, which ever one they are on, and reach the Arch grounds.

So in my plan the three towers would all remain.

Above: Looking down from the terrace level to the front of the Mansion House.  Locust used to continue where the garage exit is now.
Above: Looking down from the terrace level to the front of the Mansion House. Locust used to continue where the garage exit is now.

The center tower, above, is set back the farthest from 4th. New structures along 4th would be 2-3 stories in height. They would help restore the sense of an urban street. Locust would run immediately along the North side of the center tower. The lobby for this center tower would now be entered from Locust.

The parking garage arrangement is very odd. My thought is you tear away all the garage, leave the towers, and fill in the holes. In the block Between the North & center towers you could build a new garage to serve both of those towers.

Memorial drive, formerly 3rd street, would be greatly improved by having more connections to the CBD as well as no longer having the back of a long parking garage fronting it.

Above: St. Charles street would be continued East along the North side of the North tower.
Above: St. Charles street would be continued East along the North side of the North tower.

By breaking up these four blocks back into four blocks we’ll eliminate this massive barrier without having to rebuild everything.  The towers will have their own blocks.  Each would get a more friendly face along 4th to replace the auto drives they’ve had for the last 40+ years.  The Northernmost block at Washington might get a nice 5-8 story mixed use building.

As I said, this is a design thought process not a workable for-profit project.  Still, much of the Mansion House complex is vacant.  Such a major reconfiguration could help breath new life into the area.

To see all 101 pictures in this set click here.


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    Interesting concept, but totally dependent on that big IF, if the the interstate goes away. Since 70 is above grade at the north end and below grade at the south end, it will remain THE pedestrian barrier as long as it’s in operation. In the meantime, the complex is an effective wall to both the freeway (good) and vistas of the park (not good). That said, what if an interesting raised pedestrian connection were created along the Locust alignment, between 4th and the Arch grounds, that would allow peds to cross over both 70 and Memorial Drive and to have access to the plaza on top of the garage? Definitely not ideal, but would be a significant addition to the two existing options, at Washington and Pine.

  2. The Masked Unit says:

    So what do we have to do to get 70 to go away? It seeams this is a once in a lifetime shot to fix the problems of the past. Its not like new mississippi bridges get put in often.

  3. Brian S. says:

    I love the idea of a 2-3-story structure to fill in the gap on Fourth Street in front of the center tower. That would be a relatively inexpensive, but very effective solution, both from an aesthetic and functionality standpoint. Another idea for the existing office/retail buildings would be to simply extend the ground floor space all the way to the edges of the buildings, eliminating the overhang (see second picture). The retailers would pick up a little extra square footage and the space would interact with its surroundings a little better.
    That overhead shot really shows what a waste of space this complex is.

  4. northside neighbor says:

    “So what do we have to do to get 70 to go away?” Heaven and earth will need to change places.

  5. Dennis says:

    I love the idea of “70 going away” in the downtown area. But I can just hear the opposition screaming now. There are some people that live in south city or south county that commute to north county to work and vis versa. What do we say to those people? I know. How about something like “Why don’t you MOVE to where your job is. I know I’m dreaming.

    [slp — we’d still have North-South streets. A boulevard would replace I-70]

  6. downtownworker says:

    The Mansion House is the worst. As someone who parks at the Arch and walks to my office, Hwy 70 and the Mansion House complex are very effective barriers to pedestrian travel.

    I love the idea of cutting through the complex and restoring the street grid. It’s frustrating to have to walk 2 or 3 blocks out of my way to get to where I want to go because the Mansion House garage is in the way.

    70 must go away. Esp. now that it gets dark earlier, walking underneath Hwy 70 to get to your car can be a bit spooky at times. I haven’t had any problems, but it’s dark enough for anyone to be hiding out along the walls and with the noise from traffic combined with the dark, pedestrians are pretty easy pickings there.

    I feel bad for tourists because this is what they see when they want to go to the Arch.

    Anyway, as someone who travels this area by foot daily, this is definitely a relevant and interesting topic.

  7. john says:

    It’s the Lou where highways, parking lots, SUVs and pickup trucks are more appreciated than livable streets. You can’t fix stupid.

  8. Tracy says:

    It sure is ugly down there. The entire area needs a facelift and more curb appeal.

  9. Colleen says:

    I work on the Landing just diagonal from this complex (Witte Hardware Bldg.) and agree – it’s a monstrosity that creates a barrier between the Arch/Landing and the more vibrant areas of Downtown. Actually, just this afternoon while running an errand my boss and I saw a bricklayer laying red brick “surrounds” about 4 feet up the columns of the Gentry’s Landing building on the Washington side. In front of hideous, vacant (and darkly tinted) storefront windows. We both laughed to each other and said, um, it’s gonna take a LOT more than that! This is absolutely a barrier for downtown workers, residents, and visitors alike and I think that your ideas are perfect examples of how a big impact could be made with relatively little disruption (i.e. only removing, then rebuilding the garage).

  10. Tim E says:

    It doesn’t help that your number one advocate looks out his corner office and sees a need for another museum. Nor does it help that no one in the National Parks sees the need to be connected to the rest of the city. I’m starting to think that National Parks sees the trench as their own moat protecting them from the urban jungle. I’m starting to wonder who is more of curse for this city, Danforth or the National Parks, since moving here.
    However, that doesn’t excuse the utter lack of vision from political leaders and advocates to propose and pursue profound changes even when an opportunity presents itself (In this case, I-70 being re-routed by the new Mississippi River Bridge). Instead of being discussed on the Mayor’s blog or the basic design work being hammered out from a grant we get the obvious discussion on a blog.

  11. ME says:

    I’m glad people like you are in the city. PLEASE present your ideas, they are great!

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