Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.
A husband-and-wife historic restoration team in St. Louis has injected new life into a local landmark built by the “father of skyscrapers.”
By the time Amy and Amrit Gill set about restoring the Union Trust building in downtown St. Louis, it had the usual markings of a century-old building that had sat mostly vacant for a few years. The windows needed repairs; the elevators were breaking down; parts of the terra cotta facade were deteriorating; the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems all needed updating. “And there was a lot of green shag carpeting,” Amy Gill says.
It was nothing the Gills hadn’t seen before. The husband-and-wife team behind development firm Restoration St. Louis have restored or rehabilitated a number of old buildings around the city, and have opened hotels in historic structures in Davenport, Iowa, and Sioux City, Iowa, as well.
But the Union Trust building, built in 1893, had a history that made it extra special. It was designed by architect Louis Sullivan, the so-called “father of skyscrapers,” and his firm Adler & Sullivan. It was the second building he and his firm designed in St. Louis. (The first was the 1891 Wainwright Building, which is credited for being the first successful use of steel-frame construction and is said to be the first true skyscraper.)
In December 2018, the Gills’ unveiled the building in its newest iteration, the Hotel Saint Louis, a 140-room hotel with 14 apartment units and a penthouse on the top three floors.
It was a three-year, multi-million-dollar effort, with the Gills putting their full force into honoring Sullivan’s design.
The Gills brought the building’s facade back to its original state as much as possible. Some of its original features were lost in a 1924 alteration, including its arched entrance and 15-foot gargoyles. And large, round windows on the second floor were replaced with the square windows that are there today. But its terra cotta trim and cornice, arched windows, upper-floor columns, and terra cotta lion heads were still intact. “[The facade] needed a lot of love, but now it’s in fantastic shape,” Amy Gill says.
Inside the building, the Gills faced one big challenge: There were no existing photos of the interior, meaning the Gills had to do their best detective work.
“We actually contacted several Louis Sullivan [experts] and they were shocked that they couldn’t find any interior photos,” Amy Gills says. “So reconstructing it meant a lot of guessing.”
But once the Gills began working on the interior, they made some crucial discoveries. Buried underneath five layers of ceilings in the lobby was original plasterwork, which they were able to replicate. And they re-created the original stained-glass roof in the atrium, also buried under layers of plaster.
The Gills retained the original stonework on the elevator landings. Each floor had a different type of stone, including Tennessee marble, white marble, and terrazzo.
On the ground level, the Gills opened Union 30, a new restaurant offering a mix of classic dishes, traditional St. Louis fare, and comfort food. Its name references the building's original name and its city landmark number.
And on the rooftop, the Gills added a pool and a cocktail bar they named Form—a nod to Sullivan’s famous philosophy, “Form follows function.”
The Gills added several St. Louis-specific touches throughout the space. They turned photographs of the building’s cornice into wallpaper, which was hung in the hotel rooms. The headboards in each room have an arch design, referencing the city’s most famous landmark. And the minibars are stocked with locally-made snacks.
Amy Gill thinks Sullivan would approve of their touches. “All the risers on the staircase have a fleur-de-lis design, which is our city symbol,” she says. “I think he wanted [the building] to speak to St. Louis.”