Building History, Building Promise

How 501 North Grand went from troubled past to bold present

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a building — especially one with a cultural backdrop as complex as the BBBSEMO headquarters’ in St. Louis — holds countless stories. Here’s just one that explores what it took to make 501 North Grand an agency and community home.

In Winter 2005, Becky Hatter, CEO and President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, was driving through Midtown St. Louis with closing paperwork for a new office space when she got a call. It was Todd Epsten, a BBBSEMO board member. And he had three messages.

The first was a directive: “Do not deliver that contract.”

The second was a question with directive urgency: “Have you seen the Woolworth’s?”

501 North Grand (2004)

“Yes,” she told him, “I’m actually sitting here looking at it right now.”

“Can’t you see it?” Epsten said.

“Of course I can see it,” said Hatter. And she could – not only from her car, stopped near the building to take Epsten’s call, but also from the Olive/Grand second-floor window, where she’d stood just a year earlier when she’d visited the site as an potential prospect. “But Todd, it’s so much more…”

The “more” on Hatter’s mind was primarily funds and footage. The $4M budget that the agency’s Board of Directors had approved for a new building was already a very large sum. To add an historic gut rehab on a 60,000-square-foot space… $4M surely wouldn’t cover it.

Getting Big Brothers Big Sisters into 501 North Grand was a pretty tough sell for other reasons. For one, the building had a knack for resisting redevelopment, which had been attempted by several for-profits over the 14 years the site lay in disrepair. What’s more, the surrounding (and burgeoning) Grand Center Arts District was almost exclusively made up of arts and entertainment venues/entities; and neighboring St. Louis University was on expansion-track in Midtown, too.

Epsten’s third message was pushback, charge, and encouragement all in one: “Why are you so worried about the details?”

Hatter ultimately accepted Epsten’s challenge, along with his promise of significant monetary and other support for the effort. And soon, BBBSEMO’s senior staff and its Board of Directors were on-board to meet that call, too.

Vince Bennett, a two-time board member serving when the agency initially started searching for a new home back in 2004, cites two of the key factors driving the decision.

Watercolor rendering of projected Big Brothers Big Sisters rehab (2006)

“We’d outgrown our former space on Lindell in the Central West End, and needed something that could accommodate growth,” he says, and notes the equal weight of place. “It also had to be strategically located for both mentors and mentees – along transportation lines, and in a central location.”

When it was clear that 501 North Grand satisfied those basic priorities, imagining the edifice as BBBSEMO’s future home turned into actually building – and paying – for it. And figuring that piece out caused what lawyer David Richardson jokingly refers to as “brain damage.”

“Having Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, who ultimately wanted to co-own the building, was a huge hurdle,” Richardson explains. Hatter and the board were broaching uncharted territory in terms of financing, he says, and that required “coming up with a structure respected and blessed by the IRS, and the State of Missouri could accommodate, because historic tax credits and not-for-profits are not a natural fit.”

Richardson says all that complex head-work produced an innovative, winning approach. “At the end of the day, state and federal historic tax credits and new markets tax credits made this an economically viable project. Without them,” he says, “the agency would’ve been better off leasing space, or finding a vacant lot to put up new construction.”

In addition to being a sound business decision, rehabbing the building at the corner of Grand and Olive also gave Big Brothers Big Sisters a chance to return something to the surrounding community.

Alderperson Marlene Davis, a consistent BBBSEMO supporter over the 10+ years she’s served St. Louis as an elected official, saw the agency’s to move to Grand Center as doubly valuable to her ward.

“When BBBSEMO came here in 2008,” she says, “this area — especially when you talk about Covenant Blu, and the JeffVanderLou neighborhood — 75% of families there were low-income. That has changed, but we still have one-parent households, and a child could definitely benefit from having a Big. And Big Brothers Big Sisters provides a service and citizens have had better cultural enrichment opportunity through it that they probably would not have any other way.”

Davis also has fond personal memories associated with the site. “When I was a child growing up, we frequented the store a lot with my mother and other family members; and later on, before Woolworth’s closed, I took my own children there,” she says. “For it to sit there, abandoned… there was something lost. I wanted to see that building re-purposed, and I thought there was good purpose for BBBSEMO to be there.”

And be there it has. In fact, BE THERE was the agency’s official promise when it moved into 501 North Grand in 2008 – not as a passive tenant, but a bold contributor.

Mr. Bill Smith, BBBSEMO’s longest-serving Big Brother with Little Brother (1989)

“Before we started becoming active in the Grand Center community,” says BBBSEMO’s Hatter, “I wanted to make sure we could really add something of value. I did not want to be taken as the little nonprofit lady who only wanted tickets to arts events.”

“Our building sits at the intersection of North and South St. Louis, and of great wealth and culture and disenfranchisement and isolation,” she continues. “Being here gives us a unique perspective and requires us to do more, particularly when it comes to addressing racial and economic equity.”

Recognizing the building’s past as a site of segregated lunch counters and protests for equality has been crucial to keeping that promise to BE THERE for all. Hatter recalls the moment BBBSEMO’s longest-serving Big Brother, Mr. Bill Smith, visited the space as its very first guest.

“We walked into the building, and Bill stopped and started to cry. Then he looked at me. ‘I can still remember the way they stared at me when I would walk in here years ago…’ I told him, ‘Bill, I am so sorry for those years. But you, and everyone else, you’re always welcome here.’”

“That moment,” Hatter says, “I realized this building was powerful, and that for some reason, after so many years, it’d been placed in our hands. I believed it was my job as CEO to make sure 501 – and 519 – North Grand stood for something bigger than our one agency.”

First Family Dinner at ANEW Rooftop (2017)

Since the grand opening of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ headquarters a decade ago, the agency has grown tremendously in program and size. Just last January, BBBSEMO officially opened ANEW Test Kitchen + Rooftop – an innovation that was part of the agency’s building plans from the start – to invite all to come together around food and purpose, and to provide space for building new relationships and partnerships.

“Over the past 10 years, we have worked to make sure our agency is stable and thriving,” says Hatter. “We are ready to keep growing, and continue investing in ways that improve our support for young people and our community.

“Back when we started that process of getting into this building, there were a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Hatter says, smiling, “and some thought we might not make it. If the last decade’s any lesson, you can expect us to keep doing the unexpected. And every effort will be aimed at fulfilling our promise to BE THERE.”

Photo credits: Built St. Louis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cory Miller

About the Author

Kristy Fairbanks