ST. LOUIS – It seems like it’s back to square one for downtown’s Railway Exchange Building, formerly Famous Barr. The historic building was condemned nine months ago after being ravaged by squatters and looters.
They have returned, cutting their way through boarded-up windows and doors. There were open entry points on all four sides of the building as of Wednesday.
“Every day I see them stealing wire, copper, every morning. I get my coffee, just looking over, it’s crazy,” said Jerome Young, who lives across the street.
That craziness stopped for a few months, he said, when the building’s Florida owners hired on-site security. They stopped paying for it a couple of months ago and here we go again: A city crew was boarding up the same hole Wednesday that they boarded up nine months ago.
“It’s really, arguably, one of the most important buildings in our downtown, in our city, in our region,” said Alderwoman Cara Spencer (Ward 8). “For those reasons, I think our city should be pulling out all of the stops.”
She’s calling on the City of St. Louis to take emergency action to secure the 1.2 million square-foot building that has occupied an entire square block and a place in St. Louis’s heart as the former Famous Barr store.
The city has already covered the estimated $38,000 cost listed in the March permit to demolish the pedestrian bridge from a vacant parking garage that was a gateway into the building and its faded glory.
A fire department search-and-rescue dog fell to its death during a search of the building for a reported homicide victim. A body was never found.
The building’s owner is being sued for defaulting on a loan to buy the building in 2017, but the trial date has been pushed back nearly 20 times in the past three years.
Still, city stakeholders remain optimistic. They plan to meet next week to try to find a way to gain control of the building and map a new future.
“It is not atypical for a project of this complexity to take two years just in conceptualization, planning, financing,” said Kurt Weigle, senior vice president and chief downtown officer for Greater St. Louis, Inc.
“I would expect it may take that long for us to get to the point where we are putting a shovel in the ground, but I think all along the way, we’re picking up momentum. I think hospitality use of some sort, multifamily, which most people would call apartments, I think will probably be part of it, and then getting back to its roots: some retail component on the ground floor.”
“This is an asset for all of us,” Spencer said. “They don’t make buildings like this anymore. Have you seen the terra-cotta on this thing!”
The problems may be back, but for nearly 110 years, that passion for the building has never left.