Climb So iLL
By Dawn Klingensmith
The brick power plant built in 1937 to serve the City Hospital in St. Louis was constructed with one purpose in mind. Aptly described as both stately and irregularly massed by architectural historian Michael R. Allen, the building soars on one end to accommodate eighty feet of vertical space specifically designed to house power plant equipment. A towering smokestack is further testament to the plant’s single purpose.
After the hospital closed in 1985, plans to convert the building into a steam plant serving downtown St. Louis fell through. It remained empty for years, deemed of little use even by looters, who stripped surrounding buildings of copper wires and pipes. Highly visible from Highway 44, the derelict hulk of a building “was not very good advertising for the city,” says Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
While in service, the power plant had been good for one thing and one thing only. Bereft of purpose, it was seemingly good for nothing.
But developer Chris Goodson purchased the ten-acre hospital complex from the city in 2004 and has not given up on the building. In 2010, he came across brothers David and Daniel Chancellor, who weren’t about to give up on their dream. The Chancellors had been searching for a building to house a climbing gym with a fifty-five-foot climbing wall already on order from a Bulgarian manufacturer. Finally, their search led them to the power plant, which met their requirements for multiple tall walls and fall zones.
“All that huge, uninterrupted vertical space would be a challenge to overcome for any other development, but in the case of a climbing gym, it was anasset,” Andrew says.
Not that they didn’t face challenges. Touring the plant for the first time, they encountered holes in the roof. “It was a perfectly sunny day, but it was raining inside the building because water had pooled overhead from a couple of days before,” David recalls. “It was insanely raw—lots of exposed steel. People joked it reminded them of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the 1985 film set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
“Everyone saw it and thought, ‘We have to make it work.’ It’s too good of an opportunity to preserve this building without destroying its character,” says Brent Crittenden, project architect at Urban Improvement Company.
Today, the power plant houses Climb So iLL, short for Southern Illinois, where the brothers are from. Open for one year, Michael calls it “a testament to the transformative power of adaptive reuse.” The Landmarks Association of St. Louis, which bestowed upon the building a 2012 Most Enhanced Places award, says it successfully “preserves the industrial character of the building while creating a unique and stunning contemporary space.”
Every effort was made to enhance the structure’s tactile sense, Brent says. A wall of rusted steel and glass was lightly cleaned and then clearcoated and reglazed. “There’s still a layer of corrosion, but it’s sealed inside,” he says. “We even retained some of the graffiti.”
Inside, the soaring wall is dotted with colorful hand grips and footholds as well as sculptural climbing structures shaped like a tulip, an elephant, and an eyeball “about the size of a minivan,” David says.
Basement-to-ceiling windows give climbers a view of the Arch.
The eight-million-dollar renovation is part of the ongoing redevelopment of the City Hospital complex, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Chris’s Gilded Age development firm first converted the main hospital building into condominiums in a thirty-million-dollar overhaul. The old Laundry Building became Palladium St. Louis, an event space for weddings, corporate events, and galas. Different in form and function, these original buildings are unified by a Georgian Revival style.
The power plant stands among them as an exemplar of adaptive reuse—and as very good advertising for the city.