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Postcard from St. Louis: New aquarium shines spotlight on rebounding downtown

Postcard from St. Louis: New aquarium shines spotlight on rebounding downtown

The former Union Station in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. | Courtesy photo

A spectacular new aquarium in part of a stately 1890s former train station — the kind once prominent in many cityscapes — has put downtown St. Louis in the spotlight.

The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station opened to a sold-out crowd of visitors Christmas Day following two years of construction, which wasn’t always easy given the confines that come with repurposing historic buildings. This columnist had the opportunity to visit in the final few weeks before opening, when workers were hurrying to finish before 1 million gallons of water could be piped into the 40-something exhibits and displays.

The 11-acre space within the old train shed is a fantastic example of urban renewal, not least because the original architecture was seamlessly incorporated into the design by St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations. Another St. Louis company, McCarthy Building Companies, handled construction.  

Many visitors will be surprised this is in St. Louis. However, the aquarium is just what the Gateway to the West, as the city is called, needs. The aquarium’s 1.5 million expected annual visitors will find downtown in and around the former train station unquestionably on the rebound.

St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station was designed to incorporate the former train station’s original 1890s design. | Dennis Lennox

One favorite design detail is actually new: The bold central arch, a hallmark of Union Station’s original Richardsonian Romanesque-influenced style, at the entryway was flawlessly executed by PGAV’s architects.

Notably, the aquarium incorporates aquatic elements native to its location in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Yes, you can touch a bamboo shark or feed a stingray, but the first exhibit visitors encounter is everything you find on the bottom of the mighty Mississippi, at least minus the stuff you don’t really want to see.

This is actually the latest redevelopment of Union Station, where attendees of the 1904 World’s Fair would have arrived.  In its heyday before commercial train service ended in 1978 as many as 100,000 passengers came through here every day. By the 1980s, a downtown shopping mall grotesquely occupied the space.

More recently, other parts of the National Register of Historic Places-listed building were redeveloped by Lodging Hospitality Management, the same company behind the aquarium, into the aptly named St. Louis Union Station Hotel. Part of Hilton’s Curio Collection brand, the hotel has tremendous potential if management can focus on delivering the details, amenities and services of an upscale hotel.

If you go

The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station is open most days 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with extended hours Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $18 for children under 12.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.