On the outskirts of downtown St. Louis sits a neighborhood with historical roots that run to 1836, when Victorian settlers built and founded Lafayette Square, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
A decade after the neighborhood’s inception, St. Louis founded its City Hospital on the edge of the historic Lafayette Square. It thrived for more than a century, but in 1985, the original St. Louis City Hospital closed its doors, and the 12-building, brick complex stood abandoned for nearly 20 years. It wasn’t until 2006 that the city began multi-million-dollar renovations to the complex, transforming the majority of the remaining buildings into condominiums and apartments.
In 2012, one of the original hospital complex’s appendages—a power plant building constructed in 1937—caught the attention of Stacy Hastie, chairman and CEO of Environmental Operations, a firm that helps its partners limit environmental risks. He and his wife, Carol, purchased the building, and approached Vern Remiger, owner of St. Louis–based architecture and design firm Remiger Design, to turn the old power plant into an upscale full-service restaurant.
Remiger and the couple had worked together on past renovation and design projects, and by the summer of 2013, they had completed and opened Element, a dining concept heralding “contemporary comfort” as its core objective. The group worked collaboratively to design the two-story restaurant, composed of a dining room, a bar and lounge, a dining terrace, a lounge terrace, and a small, private dining room.
“We engaged the entire team from the get-go,” says Cara McKedy, interior designer at Remiger Design. “Because of that, we had a very comprehensive approach to the design, to the business side of the restaurant, and to the food that would be delivered.”
The group created an atmosphere that preserved the original integrity of the building while simultaneously infusing a modern edge to match the neighborhood’s latest revitalization efforts. Since the building exists within a historic neighborhood, limitations existed regarding modifications that could be done to the building. This caveat, however, aligned seamlessly with the team’s vision for the restaurant.
“We really wanted to celebrate the raw beauty of the old powerhouse,” McKedy says. For example, a robust steel structure exists on the lounge level of the building, and the team chose to leave it exposed. Additional lighting celebrates and showcases the steel structure’s aging process.
“We had this juxtaposition in our minds between the historic and the industrial,” McKedy adds. “The new, modern, and sleek kitchen—along with some beautiful furniture pieces—were incorporated to [connect] what was an older, historic space with the new, up-and-coming neighborhood, revitalizing it and bringing it into the future, making it current for today.”
A 74-seat dining room surrounds the three-sided contemporary kitchen, providing guests with the opportunity to watch chefs prepare their meals.
“With the menu, we don’t do a lot of manipulation with the food that we serve; we do a lot of natural foods,” Element’s executive chef Brian Coltrain says. The seasonal menus prepared by Chef Coltrain and his team parallel the restaurant design’s aesthetic.
“The building and the menu are both extremely modern and kind of industrial, but at the same time, it’s an ode to nature,” Chef Coltrain says. “[The building is] all brick and hard metal, but then you get these nice soft wood tones going throughout. The original idea was a nod toward old history, but then [transitioning] to this new, soft, natural feel.”
A collaborative spirit lives on within the walls of the restaurant, even post-design. Like Element’s original design team, Chef Coltrain believes teamwork in the kitchen creates a warm, inviting atmosphere for patrons and employees alike.
“I will have a handful of ideas,” Chef Coltrain says, “and then have a team meeting with all the chefs, and we just start talking and throwing out more ideas, and we essentially develop dishes together.”
Element releases a new, seasonal menu every four to six weeks. For instance, the chefs rolled out an early spring menu at the beginning of April, and it was a consummate collective effort. “Most restaurants have the executive chef who creates the menu and just says, ‘This is what you’re doing; implement it,’” Chef Coltrain says. “But here, we’ve spent the past month and a half talking and testing menu items, letting each other taste things, and asking each other’s opinions. We’re definitely a team more than just the traditional brigade system where it’s executive chef, sous chef, and line cooks. We love it.”
Trust and collaboration in the kitchen stem, in part, from Stacy and Carol Hastie, the building’s original visionaries. “They have pretty much given me complete freedom with what we’re doing,” Chef Coltrain says of the restaurant owners. “It’s even more amazing to have the support of the owners.”
While fresh, locally sourced ingredients are a significant part of Element’s appeal, the building’s rich, historical ambiance also keeps guests coming back for more.
“We always promote the restaurant as [being] within the power plant building of the City Hospital,” Chef Coltrain says. “It’s obviously contemporary, but when you sit down in the chairs, and you lean against that exposed brick, you always kind of feel that warmth. It feels comfortable and like it’s a solid building.”
Chef Coltrain also enjoys listening to stories from patrons who have called Lafayette Square home since the City Hospital’s thriving days. “It’s really nice because we actually get a lot of older folks who come in … and now they’re eating at a restaurant in the space where they used to work.”
McKedy also appreciates this human connection aspect of the restaurant. “It’s great and fun as a designer to work on a project that you can share with friends and family,” she says.
While the days of generating power are gone, the restaurant still provides an electric atmosphere with a warm ambiance in its new role as a dine-out option for Lafayette Square and its multiple generations of neighborhood dwellers.