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The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station: PGAV on storytelling and design

Existing_shed_view_corridor st-louis-aquarium

The new St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station opens in 2019. It is being designed by world leading themed entertainment and architecture firm PGAV Destinations. And like all the best attractions, it will start with a story.

In this fourth post from the team behind the aquarium, we hear about how storytelling fits into the design process.

By Emily Howard, PGAV Destinations.

emily howard PGAV destinations (1)The greatest attractions start with the greatest stories. At PGAV Destinations, that driving philosophy is the engine behind every future family photo album. Once a compelling, rich, memorable tale is written, only then do the lines on the blueprints take shape, the guest flow choreographed, and the flavor of ice cream considered.

So how does one connect the rich stories found at the bottom of the sea to those hammered from steel train tracks sprawling across the North American continent?

This was the unique and invigorating challenge we faced when the firm was hired to design the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, coming in 2019.

Union Station

The aquarium’s home will be the stunning St. Louis centerpiece constructed in 1894, Union Station. With more than 100,000 daily passengers traveling through its Grand Hall during WWII, Union Station grew in the 1980s to include retail, event spaces, and restaurants. It is also home to an elegant bar with an acclaimed vault ceiling laser projection show.

otter FreshWater exhibit st-louis-aquarium x (1)

This was brought back to its grandeur through the vision of Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM). With its honorarium on the National Historic Registry, and connected to a AAA Four Diamond hotel that could not be closed for the duration of construction, Union Station presented a myriad design challenges to preserve the beloved building and respect the hotels’ guests and staff.

Union Station is 1.3 miles from the banks of the Mississippi River and 570 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It may not seem therefore, like the fitting footprint for the aquatic wonderland that it’s destined to become. As rain plummets to Earth’s surface, it drains to vast watersheds across the continents, feeding and flowing into the rich biospheres of muddy, teeming, and wandering underground and surface rivers. These bodies of water, packed with a diversity of flora and fauna, find their ways to the planet’s seas and oceans – deeper than mankind can even explore – and beautiful and mysterious for their reefs, deep blue expanses, and canyons containing 97% of Earth’s water. The trip a single drop of water takes is part of an immense, global expedition fueling incredible biodiversity.

st. louis aquarium at union station shark tank )

Exploration and transportation

The solution to uniting these seemingly diametrically opposed themes came in the idea of exploration and transportation. St. Louis was founded on the fronts of wagons pulled by teams of mules and horses in 1764. It exploded in size in 1848 as people from around the world came to outfit their expeditions to the famed gold mines of California. Union Station was completed in 1894. Rails accelerated passengers from the busiest train station in the world to every corner of North America that steel tracks could be laid. The very first interstate highway in America goes straight through St. Louis.

Travelers continued to get their kicks in the air as Lambert Airport evolved in the mid 1900s. This sent St. Louisans in a matter of hours where rails and wheels took weeks to reach. St. Louis, situated on the confluence of the Mighty Mississippi and “Big Muddy” Missouri River, has been the hub to see the world for over two and half centuries; and although not every Midwesterner can reach the ocean, St. Louis surely intends to bring the ocean to them next year.

In short, you come to Union Station to go on a journey through the world’s waterways. So how does that story translate into a future world-class aquarium?

St. Louis Aquarium Mississippi River Exhibit
Mississippi River Exhibit

Beautiful animals, amazing spaces

PGAV Destinations brought to the table more than five decades of attraction design, partners, and consultants, while LHM brought exceptional expertise and hands-on knowledge of providing premium hotel experiences and comfort to diverse travelers. While LHM had conducted an exhaustive national survey of America’s aquariums to catalog elements that would serve St. Louis best, PGAV helped the team to adapt their knowledge of hospitality to becoming incredible hosts for animals, underwater plants, and daylong guests on the move. Coupled with the animal care expertise of ZoOceanarium Group, the stage was set to provide something truly unique with beautiful animals in amazing spaces.

St. Louis Aquariumentry clock pgav zooceanarium

Combining subtle undertones of nostalgia and time travel, the Grand Lobby Clock was one of the first elements PGAV conceived. We asked, “how do we connect Union Station to the aquatic world in a way that’s uniquely St Louis?” The immense clock harkens to the days of riders checking the departure times of their trains. However, tomorrow it will contain a multitude of fish swimming among cogs and Station theming.

A motif of steampunk industrial, utilitarian design will also appear throughout the entire space. This will run from the interior trees – with gears for leaves – to the immersive experience of the touch-tank. Seeing water brimming with life behind an acrylic panel is a starting point. But actually getting your hands wet and feeling scales smoothly slide by brings a connection to waterways that is immensely central to the aquarium.

Touching pool at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station
The Touching pool at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

The St. Louis Aquarium Foundation

Situated on the confluence of the two greatest rivers in North America by volume, St. Louis Aquarium will have an essential conservation message in the form of the St. Louis Aquarium Foundation. This non-profit organization will also be the cornerstone for the take-home environmental actions of all guests. It will also be a key message point about the aquarium’s conservation efforts.

Bob-OLoughlin Lodging Hospitality Management lhmChairman and CEO of LHM, Bob O’Loughlin continues to expand Union Station’s history as a hub of journeys in the form of education. He is facilitating the presence of multiple regional educational attractions within the train station. He is also encouraging guests to continue outwards and explore all greater St. Louis has to offer.

From a deep emphasis on the local species that live and thrive beneath the surface of these two great rivers, to the digital globe in development by Moondog exploring the world’s waterways, to a Shark Canyon, immersing guests in the world of sharks on the edge of the abyss, the Aquarium will teach guests how their actions near local waterways affect the world’s entire water system.

Local heroes

PGAV Destinations has long experience and tested expertise in creating themed attractions. As a result, we understand the pacing of an experience and what makes the world’s theme parks and museums excel and we help our clients’ incredible visions get built. The construction of the design is now in the hands of McCarthy Building Companies Inc., an enthusiastic team excited to create something truly unique in their hometown.

Existing_shed_view_corridor st-louis-aquarium

McCarthy has been a trusted source of construction and project management throughout the St. Louis region for decades. PGAV is proud to partner with them in leveraging their expertise. When the St. Louis Aquarium opens next year, guests will be able to spend an entire day at Union Station. They will enjoy the world’s waterways, riding the Ferris Wheel, dining out, seeing a breath-taking lake show, and more. It all will have begun with the journey of a vision for a new downtown St. Louis. And the design to make it happen.

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