The Railway Exchange Building was developed by the Monadnock Realty Company, a company financed largely by money that Thomas McKittrick secretly diverted from the Hargadine-McKittrick Dry Goods Company. Assembling the land, much of it leased and on expensive terms, began as early as 1907, before the merger of the Famous Shoe and Clothing Company and the William Barr Dry Goods Company. The site encompassed the Julia Building and various smaller buildings. The Barr Company, then owned by Hargadine-McKittrick, occupied the Julia building and most if not all of the other buildings on the block. The Julia Building was one of the largest retail structures in the City at the time but was in poor condition. In 1911, May Department Stores purchased the struggling Barr Company from Hargadine-McKittrick with the understanding that it would vacate the present building and occupy the lower floors of the large building that McKittrick was planning. By 1912, David May had combined Famous and Barr companies into the Famous and Barr Company, temporarily quartered in the former Crawford’s building on Washington Avenue and other connected buildings.
Mauran, Russell, and Crowell, then located on the 16th floor of the Chemical Building, served as master architects. H. H. Humphrey designed the heating and wiring. Ronald J. Grant designed the plumbing. The Westlake Construction Company, which had recently constructed the Hotel Jefferson and a building for Stix, Baer, and Fuller, acted as general contractor. The Foundation Company, of New York, constructed the foundations, which employed large concrete caissons. Foundation work was complete by early 1912, and construction finished in 1913.
Famous and Barr was to occupy the basement through the seventh floor of the new building, with additional space on the eighth floor for elevator hoists and water tanks.
The remaining floors were configured for office use. Some were preleased to railroads and other large firms and built accordingly. Others were built with standard small professional offices, many with sinks to support medical and dental practices.
The Kingston Building
Concurrent with the construction of the Railway Exchange Building, the Kingston Investment Company, a separate firm controlled by David May, developed a building on Saint Charles Street containing loading docks at grade, a warehouse for Famous and Barr on upper levels, and a power plant below grade.
The Railway Exchange Building had no loading dock in its own footprint, which gave it the benefit of fronting all four surrounding streets.
The Kingston Building, as it was known, supplied steam and electricity at several voltages to the Railway Exchange Building. The plant idled from May 1st to October 1st each year and passed through power from the Laclede Gas substation in the Dominion Building just to the west. The turbines output 250 volts, with transformers to step down the Laclede Gas voltage from 4,160 volts and rotary converters to generate direct current for elevators at 250 volts and for other devices at 125 volts.
Will Levy was the architect for the Kingston Building. Black Masonry and Construction Company served as the general contractor, with the Foundation Company performing the foundation work as at the Railway Exchange Building.
The new Famous and Barr store in the building opened on Monday, September 8th, 1913 to great fanfare. The office portion of the building proved to be less successful, and McKittrick lost control of the building. May began purchasing the land under the building.
Separate entrances and banks of elevators served the store and the office building above. Elevators used direct current and were controlled manually with rheostats. The store and the Building had central vacuum cleaner systems. The Building’s system was reportedly never used.
Surviving construction drawings do not show it, but Famous and Barr installed a pneumatic tube system for conveying sales slips and payments from sales stations to cashiers, who then sent back receipts and change. One such room, likely installed during the 1928 expansion, survives with some piping and its main fan in the space marked as a bakery on the original plumbing plans for the sixth floor. Its last use was as a kitchen storage room.
An ice cream shop in the basement and a soda fountain at ground level made use of a sophisticated central refrigeration system, with a brine tank in the sub-basement to keep coolant flowing even when the chilled ammonia was not.
A central kitchen on the sixth floor supported the main dining room and the employee cafeteria. Paneling and flooring from the main dining room survives to this day in the break room.
The basement balcony and the second floor had ornamental fountains.
The building benefited from an aggressive fire protection scheme including wire-reinforced windows, sprinklers, dual fire pumps, and enclosed fire stairs. It also included provision for fire engines to provide water pressure in the event of a pump failure. The scheme secured exemption from city limits on building size but made a large atrium, as was becoming common in new department stores, impossible.
In 1928, Famous-Barr expanded considerably, taking over the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth floors. The main light well had previously begun above the seventh floor. New trusses installed over much of the profile of the eleventh floor allowed for a roof over the entire well below that point, with an auditorium filling some of the space on the ninth and tenth floors. The ninth floor included a new beauty salon.
At this point, Famous-Barr had 26 customer elevators (12 added in the northwest and southeast corners of the building since original construction), 4 employee elevators, 2 freight elevators, and 2 express elevators to the ninth floor borrowed from Railway Exchange. Corporate and store offices took the eleventh floor, and house functions like the cafeteria, the hospital, the water tanks, and the elevator hoist rooms for customer elevators took the twelfth floor. It was necessary for employee and freight elevators to serve the twelfth floor, so they had a separate hoist room on the 13th floor.
In 1937, the Railway Exchange Building likely began receiving electrical power and steam from Union Electric, and the power plant in the Kingston Building closed. The office floors received service at 4,160 volts in two feeds from the north side of the building, with switchgear on the mezzanine and transformer rooms on the 16th and 17th floors. The store received power from the downtown underground pool at 208 volts. The loss of direct current service required installing a motor-generator set for each elevator. Removal of the power plant made way for a chiller plant, in the former coal and ash space, connected to a cooling tower atop the Kingston Building. By 1939, the Famous and Barr store was air conditioned, and, by 1940, much of the Building was also air conditioned. All equipment was reportedly by Carrier.
In subsequent years, both Railway Exchange and Famous-Barr (as the store was now known) invested in automatic elevators, and Railway Exchange replaced its main banks of eight elevators with banks of six larger elevators (with one missing on the Locust side and the oversized freight elevator on each side remaining). The improvement in efficiency allowed Famous-Barr to remove its auxiliary customer elevator banks entirely and to remove three of four employee elevators from service.
Later elevator modernization projects also included solid-state rectifiers and allowed the removal of the motor-generator sets for all store elevators and the south bank building elevators. Rebuilt store freight elevators used alternating current motors with variable frequency drives.
David Farrell, who had joined Kauffman’s (May’s Pittsburgh store) in 1956, became President in 1975, Chief Executive Officer in 1979, and Chairman in 1985. Compared to his predecessor Stanley Goodman, who was very particular about goods, David Farrell was very particular about operations and people. May began significant investments in energy management systems and remote control systems, allowing for a concurrent reduction in electrical use and electrician headcount. Eventually, a new division, May EMS, sprung up to design energy management systems for the stores, taking part of the 14th floor. Johnson Controls was the initial technology provider, with CSI I/NET 2000 adopted later. May EMS developed some custom hardware, including lighting control panels.
Safety requirements required the installation of backup generators for the north and south electrical buses for Famous-Barr. Both generators were installed on the twelfth floor in 1983. They moved to the fifth and second floors, respectively, when the store downsized in 1994.
Saint Louis Centre
As the downtown streetscape deteriorated and suburban shopping options proliferated, May sought to build a shopping mall to the north of the Railway Exchange Building, connecting to the Stix, Baer, and Fuller store on Washington Avenue. It eventually partnered with Melvin Simon and Associates to develop Saint Louis Centre, which eliminated Saint Charles Street and spanned Locust Street and Washington Avenue with large three-storey bridges containing stores.
The project required parking, and it also required demolishing the Woolworth’s store, so it was necessary to demolish the two blocks to the east of the project site as well. The north end of the site received a new office tower for Edison Brothers, and the rest housed a parking garage with Woolworth’s at ground level.
The project also required demolishing the Kingston Building, which still housed many critical services for the Railway Exchange Building and Famous-Barr. Saint Louis Centre was designed and phased to ensure uninterrupted service, with a new loading dock connected to a new combined tunnel/warehouse under Saint Louis Centre.
Land clearance began sooner, but construction began in 1984 and finished in 1985.
The basement and sub-basement of the Kingston Building containing the chiller plant remained, but the cooling tower did not. A new cooling tower atop Saint Louis Centre, adjacent to the Saint Louis Centre cooling towers and chiller plant, connected to the old chiller plant. By 1984, the original 1939 chillers were in poor condition and were not running at their original design capacity, which itself was not sufficient to meet the growing cooling needs of the building. May Centers, which at this point managed the Railway Exchange Building (excluding Famous-Barr) and May’s stake in Saint Louis Centre, executed an agreement whereby the Railway Exchange Building could purchase chilled water from Saint Louis Centre, transmitted via piping between the Railway Exchange chiller plant (located below Saint Louis Centre) and the Saint Louis Centre chiller plant (located atop Saint Louis Centre). This arrangement, and the addition of a new 600-ton chiller plant on the roof of the Railway Exchange Building, supplemented the failing chillers until a complete rebuilding of the Railway Exchange chiller plant in 1996 with new equipment by York.
Since the closure of the power plant in the Kingston Building, the Railway Exchange Building had received steam from Union Electric. The steam prices had increased dramatically, and the demolition of the Kingston Building provided easy access to the basement. The many May entities involved elected to install two large low-pressure boilers for heating and two smaller high-pressure boilers for other applications. These boilers operated from 1984 to 1987, approximately, at which point Union Electric offered a more competitive steam price.
Growing Company, Shrinking Store
Attaching to Saint Louis Centre on floors two, three, and four required removal of some of the north facade, several windows, and a significant portion of the second floor mezzanine.
May Department Stores, the owner of Famous-Barr, grew steadily, as did its need for office space. The computer room, on the east side of the ninth floor, required progressively more space, more power, more cooling, and more uptime.
In 1986, May installed a new 13.8-kilovolt electrical service, with feeders from the same Gratiot Street and Ashley Street switchyards feeding the 4,160-volt service. A manual transfer switch on the first floor mezzanine combined to provide a single service to a transformer room on the 12th floor, which initially served the 12th and 13th floors, the computer room on the 9th floor, and the recently installed rooftop chiller plant.
In 1988, in order to protect against a hypothetical hostile take-over leveraging its low valuation, May sold 50% of May Centers to a joint venture of Prudential and Melvin Simon and Associates called PruSimon. May Centers continued to operate from the 15th floor even after PruSimon bought the rest of the venture in 1992 and renamed it CenterMark.
In 1993, the Railway Exchange Building was losing premium tenants to new buildings in the area. Law firm Armstrong Teasdale had vacated the 19th floor for new quarters in Metropolitan Square, and Deloitte Touche had moved to a new building on Market Street.
At the same time, May Department Stores collectively had enough buying power to attract the interest of manufacturer representatives wherever it was located. David Farrell accordingly ordered the relocation of May Merchandising from rented space in Manhattan to the Railway Exchange Building.
The move, which occurred in 1994, required seizing all Famous-Barr space above the eighth floor. Escalators above the seventh floor were removed, the auditorium was filled in, and Famous-Barr ultimately removed all retail functions from the basement and the basement balcony and capped those escalators. From this point forwards, the basement housed house functions like signmaking, woodworking, painting, display merchandising, advertising photography, and training. At some point, the telephone room on the basement balcony assumed control and some routing function for all Famous-Barr stores.
The newly vacated space on the upper store floors was detached from store power and attached to the corporate power from a new transformer room on the ninth floor. May Merchandising ended up taking the west side of the ninth floor, the entire tenth floor, the northeast corner of the eleventh floor (where the Famous-Barr executive offices had been), the twelfth floor, the west side of the eighteenth floor, and twenty-first floor. Much of this space was for conferencing. The entire twenty-first floor was dedicated to this purpose and included guest workstations with printing capability.
Building management technically had dominion over the non-store floors, but May Merchandising was a powerful force and had a fairly complete set of keys. It turned vacant offices into sample storage rooms at will, often without consultation with Building management and without paying rent. Building management enlisted the help of Building staff to track such activity with the intent of sending rent bills for the commandeered space.
The End of May
David Farrell retired in 1998. Gene Kahn became Chief Executive in 1998, with Jerry Loeb holding the Chairman job for a short time. In 2004, after a bidding war hotly contested with Federated Department Stores, May purchased Marshall Field’s, which now constituted the entire Dayton-Hudson portfolio of traditional department stores. Dayton-Hudson had renamed itself Target Corporation after its most successful division. Some administrative operations for Field’s moved to the basement of Railway Exchange.
In spite of acquisition activity and trials of a wide range of new shopping concepts, May was struggling to remain competitive. Federated Department Stores, its smaller rival, bought it in 2005 following the ouster of Gene Kahn.
Federated Chief Executive Officer Terry Lundgren came to speak in Saint Louis following the purchase and reportedly, in an unscripted moment, said, “we’ll keep this store open… as long as we can,” with a notably pregnant pause.
Macy’s sold David’s Bridal and Lord and Taylor to reduce acquisition-related debt and rebranded all May stores Macy’s. It consolidated company-level management of stores across the midwest, as far east as Pittsburgh, under Macy’s Midwest, headquartered in Saint Louis. Brian Keck, a human resources executive, got the top job at Famous-Barr in advance of this move, leaving Ira Pickell without a job. His office on the southwest corner of the 5th floor sat empty, and Brian Keck moved into the office adjacent to Gene Kahn’s mahogany palace on the 11th floor, cutting a hole in the wall to allow access between the two spaces.
Macy’s moved quickly to eliminate the Saint Louis staff, with most of May Merchandising eliminated in 2006. Terry Lundgren paid a visit and personally handed out final paychecks to many staff.
Another reorganization in 2008 eliminated Macy’s Midwest and Brian Keck. By 2009, the regional office was gone, with Chicago and Houston picking up the territory. The Customer Information Center, a call center on the east side of the 18th floor, was closed at some point. Other casualties included the advertising department (with most operations on the eighth floor and a photography operation in the basement), software engineering (mostly on the 19th floor), energy management (on the 14th floor), the legal department (on the 17th floor), the Midwest Data Center (on the 9th floor, with incidental building-related operations remaining).
Remaining Federated functions in the building included the Macy’s store from the first floor to the seventh, district offices and limited regional functions on the ninth and tenth floors, and various central shops in the basement. In 2010, Federated sold the building and the parking garage to a partnership of Rick Yackey and Bill Bruce and removed central trade shops from the building. Federated leased back five floors of the building (1, 2, 3, 9, and 10) for approximately $5-million per year for five years. The store downsized into floors one through three on a tight budget.
The vast amount of vacant space in a building set to operate for several more years created an opportunity. Jay DeLong of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association and Kevin Farrell of the Downtown Partnership won backing from their respective organizations to launch an office space for small technology companies. It was formally known as the Technology Entrepreneurship Center but adopted the name T-REx, short for Technology at Railway Exchange.
Some data center equipment, including the uninteruptible power supply, moved to the old Bridgeton call center. The store downsized to three floors in 2010 and closed in August of 2013, leaving the main chiller plant out of service. Other tenants, including a law firm on the sixteenth floor and T-REx on the twelfth and thirteenth floors, were gone by spring of 2014. A consolidation of districts reduced Federated management headcount, and the survivors relocated, mostly to Bridgeton. The last non-Federated tenant was the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, in the process of renaming itself RISE, which moved from the sixteenth floor to the former T-REx space on the twelfth floor to benefit from the continued operation of the corporate chiller plant in the waning months of Federated operations. The building closed shortly thereafter.
A pipe breach in 2016, caused by electrical work on Locust over the tunnels, flooded the basement and subbasements and caused extensive damage. Crews worked through 2017 to demolish partitions and to remove debris. Elevators remained out of service.
Text by Frank Trampe, last updated 2020.