By J.P. Hoornstra
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: You slip out the back door of your hotel and step into a fully enclosed shopping mall. Inviting stores stand dangerously close to the nightstand where your wallet rests. Equally close: Enough restaurants to guarantee you won’t eat at the same place twice all weekend.
For a consumer getaway to St. Louis, the Union Station Marriott serves as a logical starting point. But first, some history. For years after its 1894 grand opening, this was the biggest and busiest train station in the world. After two rounds of renovations – a $150-million overhaul in 1985 and a $20-million touch-up in 2010 – it’s also become a fine place to spend a weekend.
In town for a business conference, we found most of the original structure intact, including a canopy over the current mall that once sheltered 32 different tracks. While St. Louis’s symbolic “Gateway to the West” may be a massive arch, this wonderfully re-imagined train station was once the real gateway – and it still looks and feels like a 19th-century transportation megalopolis.
Without the bustle, the massive building might seem cold and cavernous. But given its pedigree and patina, there’s a warmth here, too. Floor to ceiling, the colors are vibrant, and the décor is consistent with the station’s Late Victorian architecture. Dotting the hallways are authentic pieces of furniture, such as grandfather clocks and lamps that would spark a lively discussion on Antiques Roadshow.
The hotel is cleverly organized around the property, which is certainly called for when fitting 517 rooms into a former train station. Some face Market Street, with its picturesque tree-lined park and magnificent fountain sculptures. Other rooms offer more modest views, and still others can only be accessed by a walkway that leads out of the lobby and into the mall courtyard. These rooms are closest to the gym and pool – ideal for a hot summer’s day.
Standard rooms are spacious and offer totally modern amenities, but you won’t necessarily want to linger. The second-floor lobby lounge was once the station’s “Grand Hall.” Surrounded by lampposts that once lit the way to waiting train cars, it’s a great place to relax and take in scenery. A pristine model train sits inside a glass case at the top of the staircase.
The pièce de résistance is a stained-glass panel above the main entrance, featuring women representing San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York – the three main U.S. train stations during the 1890s. Made from hand-cut Tiffany glass, it looks right at home in the cathedral-like Grand Hall.
Hunting for more 19th-century remnants, we stumbled upon a boarded-up theater on the property’s west end, and a huge EXIT sign embedded in the original tan bricks above the 18th Street exit doors. One little-known secret: The original Union Station tunnels still run below the hotel, closed off to foot traffic.
Wander into the mall and you’ll find the property’s history chronicled on a series of signposts around the courtyard. These make for a good self-guided tour and offer interesting nuggets of trivia. Of special significance: It was here in 1948 that Harry Truman held up the Chicago Tribune front page erroneously declaring Thomas Dewey the victor in the tight presidential election.
During its heyday, the courtyard was called “The Midway,” a hybrid waiting room/shopping mall/promenade/social center/fairground. It still serves some of these functions, offering some only-in-St.-Louis shopping experiences.
Take, for instance, the Memories Museum, located on the second floor facing the hotel and full of exhibits to delight train enthusiasts.
Anything that can fit the insignia of Budweiser, St. Louis’ hometown beer, can be found inside the first-floor Bud Shop. (We were attracted by a trucker’s cap but decided to pass on the outdoor heat lamp.)
St. Louis is also a baseball town, and the Cardinals Clubhouse is its merchandise mecca. Jerseys, caps, collectibles, novelty items — if it has the Cardinals logo, you’ll find it here.
While slowly perusing the second floor on a Monday afternoon, we heard a song break out downstairs. The clapping and singing was coming from Fudgery, a Southeastern institution where fudge-makers lead free, raucous, interactive demonstrations throughout the day. It’s great fun for anyone, and the fudge is delicious.
Just don’t let the sweets spoil your lunch or dinner. Landry’s, separated from the main mall by a small lake, specializes in seafood with entrees ranging from a modest eight-piece fried shrimp to the Crab Feast – Alaskan king crab legs, baked crabmeat au gratin, and a jumbo lump crab cake, served with angel hair pasta tossed with crabmeat and vegetables. Sadly, this feast might not leave room for Landry’s delicious (and gigantic) bananas foster.
Two off-site culinary recommendations: Pappy’s Smokehouse serves, quite simply, the best barbeque in town. Once featured on an episode of Man Vs. Food, Pappy’s pulled pork, sweet potato fries, and sweet tea hold up against anything found in Texas.
For dessert, trek to one of the two Ted Drewes locations for a wide array of frozen custard flavors. It looks like nothing more than a quaint outdoor shack, but locals flock to Drewes in droves and leave happily satisfied.
Try burning some calories by paddling your way around the lake. Rent a small blue paddleboat with one, two, or three friends for $4 a person, and designate a driver who can successfully navigate around a water fountain – or be prepared to get wet. Formal hours of operation are not posted; however, there was a porter by the dock on the weekend, but not when we returned for a second visit on Monday.
That such new life has been breathed into Union Station is no small feat. It’s still home to a functioning train station (reduced to two tracks), a mall, hotel, conference center, and parking lot — in addition to being a living piece of history listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks.
The exterior is that of a Victorian-era castle, one that boosted St. Louis’s reputation and helped the city land the 1904 World’s Fair. Now, it may be the world’s only castle with penny-pressing machines and a Panda Express.