The St Louis Cotton Belt Freight Depot is located at 1400 N 1st Street in downtown St Louis. It is an abandoned railway stop on the old cotton route. The city decided to paint a giant mural on it a few years ago and it has since been featured on several lists of Best Things to do in St Louis. It has also been included in the National Register of Historic Places starting in 2004. I first heard about it from a list online and took a short 10 minute car ride down to see it.
When you cross the little railroad crossing just past the building with the worn out advertisement for toothpaste, you come upon a giant, industrial-looking structure lathered in graffiti. You walk around the behemoth until you see a mint green sign that reads “Cotton Belt Freight Depot”. It is old. It is dusty. Some windows are boarded in. You look down at your phone to see if this is the same place you were meant to come to. It is. You look down at your shoes to see if you made good decisions for all the walking. You didn’t. It’s hot and it’s only getting hotter – so you jump around the back and then you see it.
The entire building is a mural. I’m talking about a nearly 250 foot long and 60 foot high mural that the city painted. It’s breathtaking. Partly because it is an achievement and the fact that someone took the effort to paint it boggles the mind. But also partly because of where the building it located. Or maybe it’s how you have to find the building. It might even be because no one will ever quite feel comfortable there.
The inside of the building is completely covered in graffiti. The only real way to describe the scale of the effort is to go down there yourself – but the only appropriate way to describe it to you here is as an evolving art piece. There are poems pasted onto other poems, graffiti drawn on other graffiti and writing on the walls. For an abandoned railroad station, it is strangely grandiose. For something that should feel like walking into building out of an old Hitchcock movie, it is remarkably disarming and awe-inducing. I’ve never met the Queen but having been to the freight depot I can quite well imagine what it must be like to wait in the wings of the palace to see her. The space has a culture so unique to itself and the city of St Louis that one cannot help but feel a little intimidated by it, as though looking at everything on its walls from the wrong side of a peephole.
And really, that’s all there is to it. There is great graffiti on the walls – homages to fallen friends and rails against the capitalist culture of which the depot is a product. I will not butcher them by trying to describe them to you – look them up. Or better still, go down there yourself. The physical drawings and poems are incidental to the depot – it is something big enough to make you feel small. That’s why you should go, because it’s nice to be overwhelmed by something so incredible.