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McClellan: These old bones get a face lift

McClellan: These old bones get a face lift

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“It has great bones,” said John Berglund, and I felt an unexpected jolt of pride. He was talking about the former Post-Dispatch building on Tucker Boulevard. Berglund’s task is to turn that 20th-century landmark into the anchor of a 21st-century “Innovation District,” which could revitalize the city. Big dreams, indeed. Berglund has $80 million and great bones to work with.

The idea belongs to Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, which is described as a mobile payment company that markets software and hardware payment products. His partner was fellow St. Louisan Jack Dorsey. They established headquarters in San Francisco. That is where the action — and the software engineers — were located.

But what if Square were to establish a major presence in St. Louis? How would it attract the talent such a presence would require?

McKelvey thinks you start with a building. He was a guest on “Donnybrook” on KETC (Channel 9) a couple of weeks ago. He said the building should make a person feel special. He talked about a place that would “make angels sing.”

Berglund is the architect-engineer who is in charge of the project. I visited this past week.

First of all, it is a behemoth of a building. Six stories above ground, two underneath. It was built to be a newspaper building and function was more important than form. The subbasement, 30 feet below the street, is where railroad cars used to carry the paper to the presses. From the presses to the loading dock. On the upper floors all sorts of Dickensian trades were practiced — inserters, mailers, engravers, linotype operators (who could read upside down), salespeople and the newsroom crowd of reporters, photographers and editors.

Former Post-Dispatch building under renovation

The former Post-Dispatch building was bought by Square. It is currently under a complete renovation. The old newsroom was on the fifth floor of the six-story building, and the center of the roof of the sixth floor has been removed to install a huge skylight. The ceiling in middle of the fifth floor has also been removed and a staircase has been installed for access to the floor above, as seen Friday June 5, 2020. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

Berglund began the tour by showing me the old lobby. It will remain the old lobby, a retro place, a reminder of what once was. The new lobby will not open to Tucker Boulevard on the west, but to Cole Street on the north. That is philosophical. McKelvey wanted the lobby to face Cole to recognize the untapped potential of the largely African American population on the north side.

The Post-Dispatch bought the building from the Globe-Democrat in 1960. I’ve seen photos of the Post-Dispatch newsroom of that era, but I knew the men only from stories. In the photos they were white men wearing white shirts, but in the stories they were colorful characters. There were lockers in the restroom, and the men kept their bottles in the lockers because it was considered unprofessional to get drunk at your desk.

What would they have thought of facing the lobby to the north as a shoutout to inclusion? Was inclusion even a word?

From the lobby we headed to the basement and the subbasement. The basement used to hold boxes and boxes of old notes, stuff that reporters couldn’t bear to throw away and wanted to hold for future reference. Can you imagine what sort of stuff that would be? Rumors, half-truths, maybe whole truths but unsubstantiated. Things too good to just let go of. Thousands of would-be scandals ticking away in the darkness of the basement.

The new basement, which will include a workout area, will be airy and light. In fact, an atrium rises from the subbasement to the sky. Natural light is a big part of the new design. An old press remains as a remembrance of days gone by. A balancing act with the past, Berglund called it.

The loading docks will be part of a cafeteria. Our old cafeteria on the second floor, the Weatherbird Cafe, is gone.

Former Post-Dispatch building under renovation

The former Post-Dispatch building on Tucker Boulevard was bought by Square. It is currently undergoing a complete gut renovation. The old printing press on the first floor will remain, and a coffee bar will be installed at one end of the floor. A stairwell down the middle of the floor will lead to the basement level, seen Friday June 5, 2020. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

We wandered up toward the old newsroom on the fifth floor. Piles of wallboard and bundles of insulation were stacked on the floors. Workers are getting ready to start putting things together after tearing things up. Those old bones did not yield easily. To clear up the basement meant cutting through 4 feet of steel-reinforced concrete.

The fourth floor gives access to an outdoor patio. It too faces north.

The first thing I noticed on the fifth floor was a hole in the ceiling. A skylight.

This is a work in progress, so I did not get a feel for how things will look in the end. It does seem clear that everything is being done in a first-class way and that Berglund shares McKelvey’s vision of a special building.

Because of Square’s investment, the city has declared the area from Cole to Washington Avenue and the Convention Center to 14th Street as the “North of Washington Innovation District.”

Wait a minute. The Missouri Bar and Grille is also part of an innovation district?

Yes, the redone Post-Dispatch building is just part of the plan, Berglund said. St. Louis has so much to offer. To employers, low rent. To workers, affordable housing and great neighborhoods. If Square shows that St. Louis can attract high-quality workers for the tech industry, the city can be revived.

“We want this to be a starting point. This is Jim’s gift to St. Louis,” said Berglund.

Admittedly, he got some help. It is too expensive to shift around the old bones without it, Berglund said. Historic tax credits, Brownfield credits and tax-increment financing were all used to take 900 North Tucker from one century to another.

As far as the building goes, I hope the future will be as good as the past was fun.

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