Garment District®


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Washington Avenue - Downtown St. Louis, MO.
Once lined with shoe & garment manufacturers as well as department stores, today Washington Avenue is home to many loft apartments & condominiums, wedding & event venues, hotels (one with a rooftop bar & pool), restaurants, cafes & bars, the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Center, corporate headquarters, City Museum, the National Blues Museum and much more.

Nothing remains of Colonial St. Louis on Washington Avenue except a high limestone bluff into which one hundred and ten years after the founding of St. Louis, James Buchanan Eads ran a railroad tunnel.

When you cross the Mississippi River from Illinois to St. Louis you enter this tunnel from Eads’ Bridge and you exit it at Busch Stadium – some eight city blocks west and south of where you entered – having traveled but one segment of The Lou’s labyrinthine underground; the only one in fact that’s still accessible to the public.

What local architects refer to as the canyon of Washington Avenue would be unrecognizable to Jeremiah Connor of County Roscommon, Ireland who laid out the widest street in downtown St. Louis in about 1819, right down the center of his Common Field property, and then deeded it to the community on condition that it be named for President George Washington.*

An auctioneer by trade, the first sheriff of St. Louis and later its treasurer, Connor** had the foresight to retain ownership of one hundred and fifty feet of land on either side of the road that ran from Fourth Street twenty-one blocks to the west, today Jefferson Avenue.

He envisioned businesses springing up all along this thoroughfare and over the centuries, the prosperity of downtown St. Louis (or not) could pretty much be read in the street scape of Washington Avenue. So many of the city’s historic and architectural landmarks would be erected on what had been Jeremiah Connor’s property – James Eads’ triple arched bridge, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassebaum’s Convention Center, Isaac Taylor’s monumental warehouse for Liggett & Myers and the south end of Bob Cassilly’s City Museum to name a few.

Both St. Louis University and Washington University spent their early years on Washington Avenue, some eight blocks apart, on opposite sides of what had become a fashionable boulevard. They were bordered by elegant townhouses, churches, hotels and shops that gave way to department stores, garment factories, and warehouses – like those of Liggett & Myers between 9th and 10th Streets, Jacob Goldman at 12th & Washington and Ely Walker between 15th and 16th Streets – all three of which have been renovated as residential buildings with shops at street level.

By the turn of the 20th century Washington Avenue had become the central nervous system of one the nation’s busiest garment districts. Today the American Institute of Architects Office and the Landmarks Association of St. Louis are handsomely housed at street level within the Lammert Building, designed by Eames & Young for Hargadine-McKittrick, the oldest dry-goods company in St. Louis and Commerce Realty Company.***  Washington Avenue would enter the 21st century with more distinctive turn of the 20th century landmarks intact than any other street downtown.****

From the poetic, 19th century lines of 555 Washington Avenue to the streamed lines and notched corners of the Mercantile Tower, from Gyo Obata’s elegant salutes to Louis Sullivan’s designs for the Wainwright Building (those rounded windows and leafy, terra-cotta, relief designs on the Convention & Visitors Center) to Theodore Link’s lotus columns on the International Shoe Company Building (now Hyatt Unbound Collection’s The Last Hotel), Washington Avenue reflects the evolution of commercial architecture in St. Louis from the gilded to the modern age.

With the 1999 Washington Avenue street scape project complete and the re-invention of St. Louis Centre as Mercantile Exchange (“MX”) finished with the Laurel Apartments revision of the grand, old Stix, Baer and Fuller Department Store, a key portion of the downtown revitalization puzzle has fallen into place. Washington Avenue has resurfaced as a city street with tremendous energy and geographic potential, limited only by the vision of the dreamers and shapers of the St. Louis prairie. Dream on!

References: *Streets of St. Louis, William B. Magnan, Right Press, Inc., Groton, CT, 1994; **; ***St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts, Carolyn Hewes Toft with Lynn Josse, Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc., 2002; ****A Guide to the Architecture of St. Louis, George McCue and Frank Peters, University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Illustration Credit: “Perspective Drawing of The Eads Bridge at St. Louis” by Camille Dry, from Pictorial St. Louis 1875 – in the public domain at

Maureen Kavanaugh, author — visit Maureen’s blog by clicking here.

St. Louis has a rich history in the fashion industry. From the late 19th century until the end of WWII, the city was second only to New York in terms of garment manufacturing.

The Washington Avenue Garment District® once claimed more shoe manufacturers than any other street in the world. In the mid-1950s, the number of clothing manufacturers in St. Louis tripled, thanks in large part to the junior dress category, which got its start on Washington Avenue.

The Washington Avenue Garment District® is located along Washington Avenue, and bounded by Delmar Boulevard to the north, Locust Street to the south, the Eads Bridge & Mississippi on the east, and 18th Street on the west. The buildings date from the late 19th century to the early 1920s. They exhibit a variety of popular architectural styles of those years, but most are revival styles or in the commercial style that would later come to be known as the Chicago School of architecture. Most are large multi-story buildings of brick and stone construction, built as warehouses for the St. Louis Garment District®. Many have terra cotta accents on their facades. After World War II, the decline in domestic garment production and the preference for single-story industrial space led to many of the buildings being vacant or underused due to functional obsolescence.

Notable Garment District® buildings:

  • Ely and Walker Dry Goods Company Building (1906-07), designed by Eames & Young, now a residential loft building.

  • Lesser-Goldman/Ferguson-McKinney Building (1901) at the northwest corner of Washington and W. 12th, also designed by  Eames & Young. It is “A half-block in size and enriched with classical, round arches with voussoirs and keystones, quoins, and a copiously enriched cornice, the building was in keeping with the standards of architectural design of “the great commercial warehouses which are making Washington Avenue a monumental street.” The building has piers defining 13 bays on its Washington Avenue facade and nine bays on its Tucker Boulevard facade. It has distinctive quoins. It has several large, round-arched openings with voussoirs. The main entrance, at center of the Washington Avenue facade, is surrounded with terra cotta work and set with a large scrolled keystone. Above, windows are in sets of twos or threes separated by brick mullions or pilaster-like piers. At the seventh story, “the piers curve to form round arches with keystones. Spandrels between the stories are ornamented with scrolled corbels.”

A virtual museum of late 19th and early 20th century warehouse architecture clad in brick, stone, and terra cotta, this monumental corridor imparts one of downtown St. Louis’s most cohesive vistas. Washington Avenue, a monumental corridor through downtown St. Louis, resembles an urban canyon with stately showcase buildings. Enhanced landscaping, new street furnishings, custom lighting, and improved sidewalks were part of a $17 million renovation in 1998.

The view west, from the foot of the Eads Bridge, is of an urban canyon lined with showcase buildings that create a distinctive sense of place through their attitude, size, scale, and materials. The avenue’s building stock reveals the artistic considerations that figured prominently in the creation of buildings that often served as both corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities. The impressive architecture and scale of the avenue reflects the rich history of St. Louis, a city once on the nation’s western fringe that grew to become an industrial powerhouse and population center of national significance. Washington Avenue gradually lost its vitality because of a decline in domestic garment production following World War II. Its functionally obsolete buildings stood vacant or underused. In the 1980s, loft rehabbers arrived but, unable to create a sense of community or security, their attempts to spark an economic revival of the area fell short. However, a move to list two segments of the street on the National Register succeeded in 1987. It was the State of Missouri’s 1998 adoption of a historic rehabilitation tax credit that resuscitated Washington Avenue by making large-scale reuse projects financially feasible.

More than $100 million — poured in soon after. Meanwhile, the city began implementing its 1999 Downtown Now! Development Action Plan, focusing first on Washington Avenue’s streetscape. Using $17 million in state and federal funds, it expanded public amenities, installed custom lighting, added and improved street furnishings, and enhanced landscaping and sidewalks. Innovative pavement types were varied to calm traffic. A zipper-and-stitch-like paving pattern down the center of Washington Avenue — highlighted at night by LED-lit buttons — pays tribute to the history of the Garment District®. Pedestrian-friendly Washington Avenue is popular with bicyclists, dog walkers, and stroller pushers as well. The street maintains a shared-use bicycle lane and is part of the city’s bicycle network. Two subterranean light rail stations serve the street — one at the historic Eads Bridge and the other at 6th Street. A “curbless” stretch between Tucker Boulevard and 14th Street gives the appearance of an unimpeded civic space, lending itself to street festivals and celebrations.

An increasing number of Washington Avenue’s buildings boast large, elaborate, colorfully lighted signs. The street is punctuated each night with neon, boldly declaring its vitality. Office workers and tourists join a growing downtown residential base – currently around 8,000 – in supporting street-level retail and outdoor dining along Washington Avenue, part of a major employment center and adjacent to a convention center, sports venues and civic buildings.

Historic Heritage

• Originally called North “F” Street, and then Laurel to match the downtown St. Louis convention of naming east-west roads after trees, street’s name was changed again in 1835 when private owner donated street to city with proviso it honor President George Washington

•  Established as distribution and jobbing center for east coast goods at close of Civil War

•  Evolved as hub of city’s wholesale and light manufacturing industries. Companies — some of national/international prominence — produced dry goods, shoes, clothes

•  As city’s historic center of commerce and home to dozens of historic structures, Washington Avenue runs through heart of two National Register districts (est. 1987)

•  Buildings retain fashion industry naming conventions — Bee Hat, Knickerbocker, Fashion Square

•  LED-lit median down street’s center highlights zipper-and-stitch paving pattern in a bow to Washington Avenue’s garment-district legacy

•  Platted (1823) by private owner as “a major artery for the city,” Washington Avenue was originally 80 feet wide and 1.5 miles long

•  Eads Bridge, first bridge to span Mississippi River at St. Louis (1874), is start of Washington Avenue; location reflected street’s prominence as burgeoning commercial corridor and ability to accommodate traffic

•  Avenue evolves organically from east to west; individual blocks have own character but unified by size, scale, materials; from turn-of-the-century revival style masonry buildings to steel-and-concrete frame structures expressing Chicago School functionalist principles

•  City’s Downtown Now! Development Action Plan (adopted 1999) identifies Washington Avenue as one of four focus areas; resulting $17 million streetscape project expands public spaces for café seating, public art and street performances; enhances linkages to adjacent destinations; installs street furnishings, custom lighting; enhances landscaping, sidewalks; traffic calming

•  Missouri Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (1998) spurs major reuse projects totaling more than $100 million along avenue; 25 percent credit for qualifying rehabilitation expenditures

•  Removing three-story skybridge between 6th and 7th Streets reconnects that segment of Washington Avenue with downtown St. Louis; unobstructed view between Eads Bridge and 18th Street

•  Loft development begins in early 1980s. Lack of financial incentives, safety concerns slow progress; development takes off following passage of tax credit (1998)

•  Downtown, centered on Washington Avenue, sees residential base climb to around 8,000; purveyors of goods and services open street-level shops and restaurants

•  Avenue is part of major employment center, close to civic buildings, convention center, sports stadia; 80,000-plus office workers and millions of tourists a year support restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques

•  City Museum — interactive exploratorium for all ages – opened in 1997 in former shoe factory; attracts more than 700,000 visitors annually.

•  Pedestrian experience enhanced by street-level retail and public open spaces. Wide sidewalks encourage walking.

•  Shared-use bicycle lane is part of Bike St. Louis, city’s extensive 70-mile bicycle network

•  Washington Avenue served by two underground MetroLink light rail stations, one at Eads Bridge and another at 6th Street Downtown Trolley, a circulator bus, connects Washington Avenue with other downtown St. Louis attractions; bus routes also cross or travel along street.

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