It all started with some motorcycles.
The year was 1999, and Steve Smith was looking for a place to keep a couple of vintage motorcycles. He had three young children at home and had run out of room in his garage, so he set out to find a small building on the fringe of downtown St. Louis where he could restore the bikes as a hobby. He happened upon a building for sale at 3323 Locust St. in the Grand Center Arts District.
“When I bought the building, I would’ve never imagined 20 years later what that would lead to,” he says.
Smith is the CEO and a founding member of architecture company Lawrence Group. He started the company with two of his fellow University of Kansas design school graduates in 1983 and has been growing his company ever since. One of Lawrence Group’s biggest clients, Saint Louis University, approached him in the early 2000s about buying the building he was storing his motorcycles in, and Smith agreed and moved his collection to another building nearby.
“When my motorcycle collection had become a big motorcycle collection,” Smith says, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to open it to the public and make it a unique ‘art of the motorcycle’ exhibition?’ That’s what led to The MOTO Museum.”
The museum opened at 3441 Olive St. in 2007 and contains almost 100 unusual bikes – mostly from Europe and around the world.
“It was a hobby on steroids,” Smith says. “[The collection] went from four motorcycles in 1999 to about 100 in 2006.”
When visitors to the museum inquired about hosting events in the space, Smith was enthusiastic about the idea but had no way to provide food for fundraisers and parties. This led to the development and opening of Triumph Grill in 2008 and the eventual opening of Hotel Ignacio next door, as well.
“Over the years, one thing has led to another – never with any real master plan,” he says. “It’s all been opportunities presenting themselves and acting on them. It’s also been realizing that both Grand Center and its great institutions are great places to be investing time and treasure to make a greater neighborhood.”
On Friday, Sept. 28, Grand Center Inc. honored Smith for his accomplishments at its annual gala, One Thousand and One Art Filled Nights. The event at The Big Top helps the Grand Center Arts District continue to establish its role as a world-class arts and business district. Smith says he’s humbled by the honor and will continue to work on making St. Louis a better place to live.
“Every community has its challenges, and we have ours, but I feel like we’re at the cusp of a new chapter in the history of St. Louis,” he says. “It’s rewarding to be a part of it.”
As the city moves into autumn 2018, there are nearly $8 billion in projects happening between the Gateway Arch grounds and Washington University in St. Louis. Grand Center and St. Louis’ midtown sit in the middle of that area geographically, making it an ideal hub for innovation and investment.
“As a region and country, we’re moving from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy,” Smith says. “The knowledge economy is tethered to institutions of higher education and innovation, and Grand Center is the center of St. Louis’ creative and artistic core.”
Smith and Lawrence Group currently have many projects in the works for the area, including the Saint Louis University Hospital, the first phase of construction for City Foundry STL, and the Angad Arts Hotel, opening Nov. 1.
That one-of-a-kind hotel is being promoted as the first in the world where visitors can book a room by the mood they’re in. The rooms have four themes: tranquility, rejuvenation, happiness and passion. The themes are primarily manifested in color, with blue for tranquility, green for rejuvenation, yellow for happiness and red for passion. Smith is visibly excited when talking about the hotel, noting that while it may not be for everyone, everyone who visits it will have some sort of opinion on leaving.
“We’re going to have wonderful arts exhibits throughout the hotel, an incredible roof deck and a wonderful chef,” Smith says.
As for the future of Grand Center, Smith sees it progressing in growth and development as people continue to flock to the area.
“Grand Center is at an interesting point right now, because it was founded and formed to try to rebuild what was at the time a bunch of empty buildings and lots,” he says. “You drive there today, and there are no empty buildings. The next generation of Grand Center is going to be new construction and more housing for sure. Over the coming years, I see the district itself not only as a destination for the arts but also as a neighborhood where an increasing number of people live.”
In addition to introducing entirely new ideas to St. Louisans, Smith is passionate about preserving what’s been here for decades. He notes that one thing that sets St. Louis apart from cities like Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; or Charlotte, North Carolina, is its architectural heritage.
“One thing we’ve really been focusing on is taking historic treasures of St. Louis and rebirthing them,” he says. “When people come from out of town, they’re blown away by the quality of our architectural heritage. It’s a differentiator and I think it’s something St. Louis needs to more aggressively boast about.”