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Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building is up for sale in St. Louis. But will it stay?

Sound the Alarms

Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building is up for sale in St. Louis. But will it stay?

The Wainwright Building (w_lemay/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

During urban renewal, in the 1960s, the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis narrowly escaped demolition. Thankfully, the meticulously crafted tower by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler from 1891 was purchased by the state of Missouri in 1974. It has since hosted government facilities but now, the Wainwright Building’s future appears uncertain once again.

Missouri politicians recently voted to sell the 10-story building and relocate state employees working there to the suburbs. Bidding started at $5 million last week, and interested buyers are allowed to up the price by $50,000 increments. Bidding closes August 29.

Proceeds from the sale will be used to buy a new government facility in nearby Chesterfield, a suburb 40 minutes west of downtown St. Louis. Missouri Governor Mike Parson, Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe, and Attorney General Andrew Bailey cited crime in the area and rising costs as the main drivers behind the decision to sell.

Among the Wainwright’s most recognizable features are its decorative elements, open courtyards, and the 16-foot ceiling and sky view roof located on its ground floor. The tower was landmarked in 1968 by the National Register of Historic Places and declared a local landmark in 1972.

Still, the sale has some preservationists worried. “This is an example of what happens when real estate value is decoupled from reality,” said Jonathan Solomon, cofounder of Preservation Futures.

“The state would too often rather understand the built environment as a fungible asset than something that requires stewardship and care, even if that means seeing a historic building become a hole in the ground,” Solomon continued. “This is exactly what just happened in Joliet, Illinois, with the demolition of the Will County Courthouse the same year it was listed to the National Register of Historic Places.”

Wainwright Building
The Wainwright Building today (w_lemay/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Today, the Wainwright Building is considered by many to be one of the country’s first office towers. Frank Lloyd Wright called it “the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as Architecture.”

It predates many of Sullivan’s most well known buildings like his only tower in New York City, the Bayard-Condict Building, and Chicago’s Sullivan Center—which is now home to what Gen Z TikTokkers call “Goth Target.”

“The state is an appropriate owner of architectural heritage, and in some cases is relied upon to be the owner of last resort,” Solomon told AN. “It’s a shame that after saving the Wainwright Building from demolition, the mechanisms to ensure its preservation as an anchor of downtown St. Louis seem to be outside the scope of the state’s understanding of its own role and responsibilities.”

Solomon continued: “Tragically, we are seeing this happen across the country like at the Thompson Center in Chicago, Austin Williams’s William J. Hobby Jr. State Office Building, and Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center.”

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