ST. LOUIS — For a city that once ran on streetcars, there’s precious little evidence of it left in the built environment.
But along Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, on the western border of St. Louis, the old Wellston Station still stands. A passenger waiting station built by United Railways Co. in 1909 on a major streetcar transfer point, it’s one of just a handful of buildings remaining from a public transit network that once crisscrossed the city.
“I don’t think people realize how significant this is and how little of our old streetcar infrastructure there is,” said Michael Allen, the director and architectural historian at the Preservation Research Office and author of the Wellston Station’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s a remarkably iconic building that really gives the Wellston Loop an identity.”
The years have taken their toll, though, since the last streetcar passenger used the station on May 21, 1966, the day the streetcars ceased rolling in St. Louis.
“It’s the last place where anyone got off a streetcar in St. Louis,” Allen said. “That was the end of the line.”
Despite its addition to the federal list of historic buildings in 2007, the building, also known as The Loop Pavilion, sat mostly unused on the city’s border with Wellston. A hamburger shop, Bus Loop Burgers, left years ago, and its sign still hangs on the front of the building along King Drive.
The St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority, the city’s land bank, has owned the building since regional transit operator Bi-State Development turned it over in 2006. But the LRA has been unable to find a buyer able and willing to invest in the structure amid the urban decay surrounding it.
A plan is finally in the works, however, from nonprofit Audubon Associates and Friendly Temple Church, which operates less than a mile away on King Drive.
Friendly Temple, led by the Rev. Michael Jones, serves as one of the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood’s few community anchors. It partnered with developer McCormack Baron Salazar in the redevelopment of the historic Arlington School and adjacent commercial and apartment buildings next to its church. It’s worked to open a child development center and a bank branch near its campus.
Late last month, the city’s LRA board voted to grant an option to a nonprofit affiliated with the church, which could acquire the building for a dollar.
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“I have a lot of respect for them and their commitment to revitalizing that area,” Landmarks Association of St. Louis Executive Director Andrew Weil said of Friendly Temple. “Anybody with a track record like them that is interested in that important building would be great.”
“Compared to Arlington School,” he added, “this is a tiny lift.”
Friendly Temple plans to maintain the building’s historic features, rehabbed for a ground-floor restaurant and upper floor meeting rooms. Plans call for a playground and greenspace on the large lot next to the building.
For the last 18 months or so, the church has been working on the plan with Audubon Associates, a group of business people who volunteer on civic projects in the region. One of its members, Eric Marquardt, has been the lead volunteer working to raise money and support from other groups for the project. Some of Audubon’s members have fond memories of the Wellston Loop area, back when it was a thriving business district and the Wellston Station building served one of the busiest streetcar transfer points in the country.
“The focus of this is on helping the current community, but because what used to be Easton Avenue was such an important commercial center in St. Louis, we find that there is a heightened level of interest because of the remembrances so many have of that community,” Marquardt said.
The cost of stabilizing the historic structure itself is estimated at about $600,000, Marquardt said. Plans also call for a new commercial building on the lot to house new businesses and adding a vintage trolley car, retrofitted for dining, to the land. In all it’s about a $4 million project, he said. About $300,000 in federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is available for some stabilization work, Marquardt said, and the team is hopeful that, in addition to private donations, some federal stimulus money might also be put to use on the effort.
“It’s an exciting project,” Marquardt said. “Having community ownership is critical, so having Friendly Temple as the owner is the right thing to do.”
The street has new lights and some longstanding businesses, but crime and blight still an issue.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who represents the area, pushed to get the building on the historic register in 2007. The St. Louis Development Corporation, which operates the LRA, has used federal HUD funds to begin stabilizing the building in recent years, he said, and some of that money remains unspent and must be used soon.
“It’s very timely,” he said of the plans for the structure. “It’s always been a dream of mine that some developer could really take advantage of it and make a destination place of it.”
Boyd said many St. Louisans remember the area as “the shopping mecca of the region” back in the mid-20th century. He pointed to new efforts to begin to spur some life in the area. On June 26, the Black Wall Street 314 festival is scheduled to be held just down the street from the Wellston Station building in the 5900 block of Martin Luther King Drive. And he said he’s begun talking with Wellston Mayor Nate Griffin about collaborating on economic development that crosses the invisible city-county line dividing the once-thriving Wellston Loop.
“When you look at what Joe Edwards did with the (Delmar) Loop, why couldn’t we do it?” Boyd said. “It was amazing how they erased that line.”