Cool St. Louis Architecture and History

We know in Chicago that we’ve got the Midwest’s biggest city, with famous architecture, world-class museums, and a trendy food scene. So how could any other Midwest city compare, right? If you’ve been following our blog you respect our perspectives on architecture, history and travel, so please trust us when we say – GO TO ST. LOUIS.

This under-rated Midwest city may not have the quantity of attractions as Chicago, but its unique character as a frontier metropolis on the Mississippi and the high quality of St. Louis architecture makes it well worth a long weekend “detour” from Chicago.

My brother was in St. Louis for business with an MPI Congress last summer, so that’s what sparked my visit. With just two days to visit, we certainly packed in our St. Louis architecture and history.

St. Louis ArchitectureLet’s start with a quick bit of history: St. Louis was originally part of Louisiana, back when it was a large region around the Mississippi (seems obvious but I never knew it!). Ownership flipped from French to American. Lewis and Clark left the city to head to the Pacific in 1804 and settled here upon their return.

As an early city, St. Louis was the “gateway to the West,” meaning that a ton of money flowed through its railroad and Mississippi port. With all this capital, the city of St. Louis ended up with some remarkable architecture, from early industrial buildings to the leftovers of the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympic Games. Like Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, the buildings in St. Louis were to be temporary, but fair proceeds made a structure into a permanent Jefferson Memorial with a great history museum open today. Leftovers from the fair were also used for the Saint Louis Zoo, which is still around and free today.

Like most cities, the population of St. Louis has declined for several decades, and the city has become infamous as a place of racial tensions and the failed housing development of Pruitt-Igoe (see the documentary).

Now let’s dig in to some of the sightseeing highlights in the St. Louis area.

See Striking Architecture

St. Louis architecture was once widely famous, particularly from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. The architecture of downtown St. Louis is an eclectic mix of early skyscrapers and post-modern mistakes, and the neighborhoods have cute, red brick homes from the late 1800s. The Wainright Building by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan gives me chills it’s so beautiful. I’d love to write an entire post about it (stay tuned).

Union Station, strangely not a train station anymore but a hotel and mall, looks like a castle on the outside (kind of gaudy) but go inside and you’ll discover over-the-top ornamentation unlike just about anything in Chicago.

St. Louis Architecture

St. Louis Architecture Tiffany GlassTiffany stained glass over the main entrance.

St. Louis Architecture Architectural Detail

The Fox Theatre

The Fox Theatre makes the Oriental Theater in ChicagoSt. Louis Architecture Fox Theater  look like something just made for the kiddies. My brother, who is not an easily impressed person, said it was the most impressive theater in America. I listened to him (at least this time), especially since he has seen tons of theaters across American because he used to work with Broadway productions on tour.

When we stopped by the Fox Theater in the afternoon, it was of course closed. I asked a guy cleaning the lobby if we could go inside for a peak. Like the Oriental Theater of Chicago, this grand structure was originally a decked-out 1920s movie palace. Just as you walk into the entryway, the brass metalwork adorns every possible corner of every single door. The dome on top looks like a medieval pendant, and some sort of face or creature bedecks the walls.

Fox Theater St. Louis Architecture St. Louis Architecture

2. Crawl, Climb, and Slide around the City Museum

The name doesn’t sound all that exciting, but wow. I wish Chicago had such a museum. An artist took an old shoe factory and made it into a playground for children and adults. Space becomes utterly confused with caves and caverns connected by bridges and tunnels made of re-purposed architectural parts. You don’t just walk around – you can crawl, climb, and slide your way through spaces. You will slide down chutes without any idea as to where they go!

Additionally, the museum has an eclectic collection, like architectural artifacts, insect specimens, the world’s largest pencil, and even robots. You can learn about “Corn Dogs through the Ages.” The roof is a sort of playground with a school bus hanging off one side and a giant praying mantis sculpture. Here’s a picture of my brother crawling around the museum. St. Louis architecture City Museum Architectural Relics

Connect with Native American History at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

A twenty-minute drive from the city you’ll find one of the very few UNESCO World Heritage sites in North America. See this label and it means the place is especially significant to the cultural heritage of all of humanity. A permanent Native American city existed here for more than 1,000 years. Why haven’t we ever learned about this in school?! They had specialization of labor like any other city, as well as sophisticated systems of food cultivation. The big whigs of the tribe had the “other people” build giant mounds to live on with the chief having the highest mound. Cahokia St. Louis architecture HeritageBefore going here I had talked to someone who had been to Cahokia and he said, “Yeah, it’s just a big mound. Really wasn’t that special.” Sure, lots of things aren’t special if you don’t know the background. If you went to Stone Henge, it probably wouldn’t be that amazing without any history either. A meteor crater isn’t the most visually significant thing if you don’t know a giant hurtling stone slammed into the earth, for example.

These mounds were made over centuries by the Mississippian people, as they were called, and they used wicker baskets to haul dirt to make mounds 10-30 stories high. That would be about the height of two Chicago City Halls on top of one another. Woah, right?

Tour by Bicycle

Tons of bike paths in this city! St. Louis, like Chicago, is really bike-able (aka flat), and there are 11 miles of riverfront paths! It was 104 degrees when I was there so I sadly didn’t get to take advantage of renting a bicycle to explore St. Louis and its neighborhoods.

food st. louis architecture pappys smokehouse5. Eat Delicious Food. St. Louis also has a lively food scene. No matter where you go right now people are indulging in creativity with cuisine, and this movement is not at all isolated to big cities. First of all, Pappy’s Smokehouse‘s ribs were tender, sweet, smoky. Everything you could ever want in pork. At Local Harvest, I tried a sharp local cheese, Nicoise salad with house-smoked river trout, and a killer chocolate cream pie (which they get from Sugaree Bakery). Sidney Street Cafe is another good one, too.

Anyone convinced to visit St. Louis now?

–Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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