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

In the 1960s the Wainwright State Office Building in downtown St. Louis, the meticulous work of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, narrowly escaped demolition before the state of Missouri purchased it in 1974. For years, the landmarked building has hosted government facilities and now the building is up for auction, and its future is again uncertain.

Politicians recently voted to sell the 10-story building (and its 3-story addition) to relocate state employees from downtown St. Louis to the suburbs. Bidding started at $5 million last week, and interested buyers are allowed to up the price by $50,000 increments.

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.

The 1891 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. Among its most recognizable features are its decorative elements, open courtyards, and the 16-foot ceiling and sky view roof located on its ground floor.

“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.”

Bidding closes on August 29.

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