A. W. Fagin Building


1880-1888, demolished c.1913

Location: Olive Street between Ninth and Tenth, St. Louis, Missouri
Architect: Charles B. Clarke, St. Louis, Missouri
Remodeled: c.1896
The Fagin Building from an 1890 article The Fagin Building from The Architectural Record, April-June, 1893

This 12 story building, 152 ft. high, was the first skyscraper in St. Louis. A St. Louis architect, Charles B. Clarke, who had married Aaron W. Fagin's daughter Nancy, designed the building. The design was the subject of much controversy at the time. It was featured in Architectural Record magazine in a section entitled "Architectural Aberrations" (deviations from the proper course of architecture).

"Up to date, and so far as we know, the Fagin building is the most discreditable piece of architecture in the United States. "

Despite Architectural Record's hatred for the design, some architectural historians consider it one of the most progressive buildings of its day. The architect utilized a glass curtain wall, which Architectural Record called "nothing but a sash-frame," along the whole front of the building. The curtain wall was trimmed with simple granite columns and abstracted stone sculpture. Architectural Record compared this act of "protruding rough stones and leaving capitals and bases off from columns" to a man walking outside in his underclothing, declaring it to be "a disregard of elementary decencies."

Clarke's individualistic design for the building was unique to be sure, was vaguely reminiscent of the work of Frank Furness, of Philadelphia (alluded to by the critic). Note the vast amount of glazing and the immense size of the bay windows compared to the adjacent buildings. Clarke is said to have paid special attention to daylight and ventilation in the offices, probably one reason behind the extensive use of glass.

A brief biography of Clarke published some years after his death called the Fagin Building “his last work,” noting:

“A study of pictures of that building will show that Mr. Clarke was several years ahead of the modern school of architectural design who believe that an office building should be mainly of glass.”

Detail of the upper part of the facade, 1890 Upper part of facade, 1893, note unique style of ornament
and experimentation with bold stone forms
Detail of large office windows, 6th-8th floors Detail of central tower element and stepped gable
Main entrance and storefronts on sidewalk Detail of cantilevered oriel windows, 6th-7th floors
The Fagin Building was extensively altered c.1896 and renamed the Burlington Building, shown here in 1909 Detail of the heavily remodeled upper floors (with the tower of the Odd Fellows Building in the background)
Detail of the storefronts, which appear to retain the original granite columns Detail of lower stories of the tame new facade

The Fagin Building was later remodeled and renamed the Burlington Building, possibly in the mid-1890s. Aaron W. Fagin’s will mentions mortgages to the Burlington Building Company, so it is possible that the remodeling took place before his death in 1896. During these alterations, the oriel windows and bold granite were stripped off and a much more conventional classical facade in brick was built in its place. The only part of the original facade to remain appears to have been the granite storefront columns, although the storefronts seem to have been moved outward several feet to produce a much shallower reveal. The Fagin-Burlington Building seems to have been demolished around 1913 to make way for the Arcade Building, designed by Tom P. Barnett and Fred C. Taxis. The Arcade Building was completed in 1918, and presently sits vacant awaiting development funding.

Aaron W. Fagin (1812-1896), the owner of the building, was the first cousin of my 4th-great-grandfather, John Martin Fagin. Charles B. Clarke's work seems to have been almost entirely forgotten after his death. The J. O. Pierce House ("Cracker Castle") and the Central School at Chillicothe were both featured in a 1928 publication entitled Missouri’s Contribution to American Architecture, which commented on the "ugliness" of the Pierce House. The Fagin Building seems to have only survived in its original form for about eight years and remains largely unknown among architectural historians.

Further reading on the Fagin Building:

The Fagin Building. Excerpt from The Architectural Record . Vol. II. No. 4. April-June, 1893. pp.470-472.

The Fagin Building. Article from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Supplement, February 8, 1890.