Missouri Athletic Club

The Downtown Clubhouse: A Historic Treasure

The spirit of the Missouri Athletic Club has stood the test of time. Over the course of more than 115 years, thousands of members and guests have taken part in the time-honored traditions of the Club and celebrated some of life’s biggest moments together. Within the clubhouse walls, these same people have continuously fostered a decades-spanning spirit of camaraderie and friendship.

Many of these relationships began at Missouri Athletic Club’s Downtown Clubhouse, an iconic 10-story structure at 4th and Washington streets that has been a key historical asset to downtown St. Louis since the first brick was laid in the summer of 1915.

But it wasn’t an easy task to get to the initial brick-laying. Just a year prior, the original Missouri Athletic Club building, which opened in 1903, was destroyed in a fire. What hadn’t been destroyed, though, was the morale of the Club’s members and the tenacity of the acting Board of Governors. Just a few weeks after the blaze claimed the structure, they set about rebuilding what is still standing today.

Lauded local architects William Butts Ittner and George F. A. Bruggemann began the daunting task of creating a building type that was unknown to St. Louis at the time. The proposed structure would need to house everything from athletic facilities to hotel rooms – and still look cohesive and architecturally beautiful both inside and out. They opted for an exterior design that clearly displays the different functions the building would contain, done in the Renaissance Revival style.

The first and second stories were done in Bedford limestone with decorative cornices, and the walls above are composed of red brick enriched with terracotta. Stately windows allowed guests dramatic views of the city and below Washington and 4th streets from the second and third floors. The windows drew the eye up to the remaining top floors, which were accentuated by a pattern done in bricks from Hydraulic Press Brick, the city’s biggest brick manufacturer in the early 1900s.

Below the surface, the building’s bones were framed in steel, with concrete floor slabs anchoring the structure into the ground. With the fire still fresh in their minds, Ittner and Bruggemann made sure wood was used only for doors, windows, ornamental work and gymnasium and banquet floors.
Construction of the new building was made possible through $100 bonds, purchased by members. Some contributors, like Boatmen’s Bank and brewer August Busch, went above and beyond, purchasing $5,000 worth of bonds to kick off the financial campaign. When completed, the building cost $1.2 million and satisfied the tricky task of combining form and function in a multi-purpose space.

As the cornerstone of the building was laid on June 15, 1915, a speaker at the ceremony is reported to have expounded on his hopes for the new clubhouse. According to an issue of the St. Louis Republic, A.J. Shapleigh, a hardware wholesaler and business leader, said that “this building when completed will be the superior of all of the athletic clubs in the United States or the world – except possible for that beautiful club in Los Angeles, California.” The new Missouri Athletic Club facilities opened March 1, 1916, with a three-day celebration. According to records, 5,000 people attended the initial opening house event, and hundreds more attended a dinner dance the next evening.

They were likely wowed by the elegance of the building’s lobby, which to this day previews the grandeur of many other rooms of the MAC. Elegant flooring, done in grey marble squares, leads visitors through a stately wooden archway and into the main reception area. From there, members can access athletic spaces and dining and social areas.

One such space that’s been used for decades as one of the MAC’s biggest gathering spaces is the Missouri Room. This ballroom has hosted countless weddings, awards ceremonies, meetings and more, welcoming guests with its ornate ceiling, towering windows and sparkling chandeliers. Many details of the space were restored to their original beauty in the early 2000s, allowing guests to experience the classic room as it would’ve appeared in 1916.

Elsewhere in the Club, Ittner and Bruggemann’s state-of-the-art exterior design is mirrored internally, too, retaining the grandeur and character of its large public and athletic spaces from day one. The MAC quickly became a popular venue for socializing and entertainment among St. Louis businessmen, who admired the integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.

The St. Louis Art League, too, recognized the significance of the building at the time it was built, acknowledging the Club with a certificate that commended the “best work in architecture executed in St. Louis during the year 1916 as exemplified in its Club Building at Washington Avenue and Fourth Street.” The award also honored the “civic spirit, community pride, and love of beauty” exhibited by the Club. In the years since it opened in March 1916, the Downtown Clubhouse has welcomed thousands of guests through its doors to dine, celebrate and take part in countless athletic activities. Also, over the course of those years, the Club has made a variety of updates to its facilities to keep up with technology and meet the requests of its members.

These updates have included large projects like a sixth-story addition in 1927, a 1950 addition to house additional kitchen and office space, and extensive interior remodeling in 1959, along with periodic redecorating of guest rooms on the top floors to freshen up the design.
Most recently, the Club underwent major renovations at both clubhouses’ fitness facilities that included equipment updates and converting spaces into more usable exercise rooms.

In 2007, the Missouri Athletic Club established the Preservation Foundation to focus on preserving the history and architecture of the Downtown Clubhouse. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year, joining the ranks of other St. Louis institutions like the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, the Eads Bridge and the Gateway Arch. The Downtown Clubhouse is also said to be the longest-running building still serving its original purpose in downtown St. Louis.

Andrew Weil, the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, notes that over the decades the MAC building has stood at 405 Washington Ave., downtown has “transformed” around it.

“Washington Avenue rose and fell as the city’s garment district. The department stores thrived for decades and then closed one by one. The riverfront was cleared and replaced with the Arch. Hop Alley was cleared and replaced with Busch Stadium, before it was cleared and replaced by another Busch Stadium. The streetcars—which once were the lifeblood of the central business district—were discontinued, and the shoe industry largely moved overseas. More than half a million people left St. Louis City. Through more than a century of change, the MAC has remained true to its roots, earning its reputation as one of our community’s most stalwart institutions and an icon of downtown.”

While the inside of the building may not appear exactly as it did when the doors first opened in 1916, the exterior and many details of the interior architecture and décor allude to the rich history of the Missouri Athletic Club and the decades of festivities that have taken place inside the celebrated building.

This story was originally published in the July 2019 issue of the Cherry Diamond magazine. Read it in full here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s