Rich In Revitalized Landmarks, St. Louis Is On A Roll
Long before architect Eero Saarinen’s great landmark rose on the Mississippi fifty years ago, St. Louis was once the fourth largest city in the country and exploded with wealth and activity. Simultaneously with the Summer Olympics, the 1904 World’s Fair was an event of a magnitude that is seldom seen today.
Fortunately, while the entire United States has lost much of its historic architecture from that period, St. Louis still has much to admire.
Photo credit: Dan Donovan / St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
The inauguration of the new Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis this summer caused a stir when an interactive museum was added to the bow and for completely transforming its landscape into a visitor-friendly venue (see my earlier story here). After seeing the arch, visitors will find a great time to do it today Furthermore Explore the past of St. Louis. And unlike in many other large cities, all hits are easy to get to on foot and by bike from one another.
Just across from the Arch in downtown St. Louis, visitors can explore the city’s grand Washington Avenue and get a glimpse of the Missouri Athletic Club and its 1916 Renaissance Revival clubhouse. On the National Register of Historic Places, the club is the first of many historic buildings that line the avenue for miles along some of America’s largest retail, office, and manufacturing buildings where the sounds of shoe and clothing factories and printing machines were once buzzing in the air.
Photo credit: Bill Boyce / St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
A few blocks west, the former 1906 Grand-Leader department store is now a two-year-old museum with a theme that is as much a heart of the city as any it claims to be. The National Blues Museum is modest in size but fascinating in presentation. It takes visitors from the African roots of music to tribute to local stars from Josephine Baker and Chuck Berry to Tina Turner.
In a huge corner area on the ground floor of the museum, the Sugarfire Smoke House stays open until they run out of groceries. At lunchtime, the crowd queues for lunch outside for the famous grill.
In recent years, many Washington Avenue landmarks have been given new life as apartment buildings and are now part of the Loft District. One of the most beautiful, a red brick warehouse from 1906, now called Ely Walker Lofts, was built by the renowned team of Eames & Young architects. The original Ely Walker Dry Goods Company was co-founded by David Davis Walker, the namesake of his great- and great-great-grandchildren, President Bush.
Photo credit: McElroy Fine Art Photography / St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
Thanks to the new LimeBike Share program, launched in April, whose dockless bikes can be found everywhere and cost just a dollar an hour, you can easily get around the beautiful outskirts of St. Louis. Just head west as the pioneers did and travel through Forest Park, one of the most beautiful urban spaces in North America that has recently been used to restore wetlands.
The 1904 World’s Fair was held in Forest Park, for which Cass Gilbert was great The Beaux-Arts St. Louis Art Museum is the event’s last remaining building (and like all public museums, it’s free). In 2013, architect David Chipperfield added a low glass and stone wing. The museum is currently concluding its blockbuster show “Sunken Cities” with ancient finds in the Egyptian port of Alexandria and also houses the world’s largest collection of Max Beckmann works in the world. St. Louis was the post-war residence of the German expressionist painter.
Photo credit: Burt Remis / St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
On the north side of Forest Park, the Missouri History Museum is next to the St. Louis Zoo, the park’s other beautiful cultural monument. The small permanent exhibition dedicated to the 1904 World’s Fair – officially the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition – is a fascinating chronicle of that era of highly fashionable and gross ethnic display that took around 10,000 workers six months to build a small town. Try to pull this off today.
By December 2, 2018, the museum had assembled Panoramas of the City, a visually appealing series of panoramic photos from the early 20th century that were blown up. From a Lindberg reception in Forest Park to after a tornado in 1927, photographers photographed the city with the Kodak Panoram # 4 model. Other scenes range from social balls to an anti-lynch protest in which a black and white man are seen shaking hands. Who were they and what became of them?
Photo credit: Gordon Radford / St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
Right behind the Forest Park you will soon be able to park your LimeBike and ride the Delmar Loop Trolley, which is currently under construction, through the Delmar Entertainment District. Restored and recreated vintage trams are used as a real heritage line.
Hop back on a LimeBike and head south to explore the Missouri Botanical Garden. Before even strolling through beautiful micro-landscapes of botanical wonders, you’ll be greeted by all 2,300 pounds of Dale Chihuly’s blue chandelier hanging in the front lobby. The garden’s Climatron greenhouse is housed in a cool geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller.
As you head back towards the city center, you’ll admire beautiful homes as you pass the city’s southwest Lafayette Square, a neighborhood with the highest concentration of mansard roofs in the country. In his 30 hectare park is a bronze version of a marble by George Washington by the French master sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
If you cycle through the neighboring Soulard area, with its more humble red brick (besides shoes, St. Louis was a leading center for brick making), you can’t miss the sprawling Anheuser-Busch Brewery, whose buildings feature wonderful cast iron work. Various tour themes take guests to the stables and some beautiful ones Clydesdales, while the Company History Tour is also a story of St. Louis itself.
Back downtown, Cass Gilbert’s impressive central library is hosting an exhibition entitled Working in America through October, a local version of a tour project based on oral stories by Studs Terkel and photographed by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynsey Addario.
The grand old post-war post office on Olive Street was built in granite and cast iron in the style of the Second Empire. Today a small exhibition there shows the construction and history of the original customs house and post, as it was called. Panels document the public efforts of the 1960s to save them from destruction. It is unimaginable to imagine the city without it.
Just south of Washington Avenue are numerous beautiful 1920s buildings, such as Shell’s curving former Art Deco headquarters and the old Southwestern Bell Building with a number of striking setbacks. The former headquarters of the Missouri Pacific Railroad is now an apartment complex whose Art Deco grandeur and grand lobby have been restored.
It’s only ten stories tall, but the red sandstone, iron, and steel Wainwright building on Chestnut Street is considered by many to be the very first skyscraper ever. The building of the National Register of Historic Places by Dankmar Adler and the master Louis Sullivan, completed in the early 1890s, certainly helped him refine his ideas for his famous later essay “The tall office building from an artistic point of view.”
Visiting the Wainwright literally and historically comes full circle with the architectural treasures of St. Louis.
Resources: At 911 Washington Avenue, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), has a good bookstore, while the organization also offers architectural walking tours and a tour app.
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