After $30 Million Overhaul, Soldiers Memorial Shines for its Grand Reopening

On Oct. 14, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood on a bunting-draped platform in front of Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis. The building was under construction to honor the 1,075 local service members who had died in the Great War.

"Here is rising a fitting structure, a symbol of devoted patriotism and unselfish service," Roosevelt said to the crowd of 75,000 people who packed the grounds. "We in America do not build monuments to war. We do not build monuments to conquest. We build monuments to commemorate the spirit of sacrifice in war -- reminders of our desire for peace."

The structure, which cost just over $1 million at the time, opened on Memorial Day 1938.

The years since took a toll.

In World War II, more than 2,700 more local soldiers died. In Korea and Vietnam, about 400. In the wars and conflicts since, about 200.

At the memorial, coal dust stained the four Walker Hancock sculptures framing the entrances. Sunlight streamed through the unfiltered windows and faded uniforms and ribbons on display in the un-air-conditioned exhibit halls. Donations of papers, photographs and other military memorabilia piled up in the basement, which offered little protection from moisture.

Visitors to downtown overlooked the memorial, often assuming it was closed.

On Saturday, Soldiers Memorial will reopen to the public after a two-year, $30 million renovation that more than doubled its exhibit space. Workers dug 18 inches from the basement floor and turned the lower-level space into galleries.

There's air conditioning, new wiring, a new wheelchair ramp and elevator, assembly and classroom spaces, display cases with sensors that will alert curators when temperature and humidity aren't just right, textured photos and models to touch, break rooms and family restrooms -- everything needed to serve as a functional, LEED-certified, ADA-compliant museum.

It's one of only 3 percent of museums in the country accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

"I feel like St. Louisans are going to have one more cultural institution they can brag about, and we have a lot to brag about here," Mark Sundlov, the new director of the museum, said on a recent tour, as workers bustled around display cases that were still covered in sheets of plastic.

"One of the top goals is to become part of a dynamic downtown," he said.

The city had sought a museum face lift for years. In 2015, it signed over control of the museum to the Missouri Historical Society but retains ownership of the building and artifacts.

The money for the renovation and a $25 million endowment came from the Crawford Taylor Foundation and the Taylor family, which until this week had stayed anonymous. The Guth Foundation contributed $300,000. Only the assembly hall has a Taylor name on it: that of Jack C. Taylor, who piloted an F6F Hellcat fighter in World War II before founding Enterprise Rent-A-Car, headquartered in St. Louis. Taylor died in 2016.

Several hundred missing tiles on the Gold Star Mothers ceiling mosaic have been replaced above the black granite cenotaph built to honor those killed in World War I at Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. The two-year $30 million renovation of the Soldiers Memorial will be revealed to the public during a grand re-opening ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 3. The renovation features new exhibits and space, redesigned outdoor memorials, and improved access for those with disabilities.

Shining once again

As visitors approach the memorial entrance and loggia, they'll see the black granite cenotaph, inscribed with the names of those who died in World War I. The cenotaph, which resembles a tomb, is now lit from its base, which makes the names more visible and gives it a haunting, striking glow at night.

Hundreds of red and gold tiles that had fallen from the Gold Star Mothers ceiling mosaic above the cenotaph were replaced.

"It looked beautiful because it was beautiful," said Leigh Walters, director of marketing and communications for the Missouri Historical Society. "But now, it just shines."

The same can be said for the rest of the building: Marble panels on the walls and wood panels under windows had to be removed to abate asbestos underneath, and terrazzo floors were re-created in break rooms to match existing floors.

Storm windows were added inside to show off the unique metalwork outside. Old light fixtures were rewired and fitted with LED bulbs. Only five old-fashioned bulbs remain: four in the mahogany-lined elevator and one in a phone booth, which has been outfitted with a vintage pay telephone.

Time took its toll, but it could have been worse.

"The building itself was so well-built," said Karen Goering, managing director of administration and operations for the memorial. "It was in remarkably good condition because of the original construction."

The two main galleries on the first level will house "St. Louis in Service," a long-term exhibit that explores local involvement in military history, from the American Revolution to today. Fabric shades cover the windows, about 19 feet tall; they not only help protect the artifacts inside but also show off giant portraits of St. Louisans who served: Gen. Daniel Bissell (American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812) and Brig. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt among them.

Leavitt is the U.S. Air Force's first female fighter pilot and the first woman to command an Air Force combat fighter wing. She will be the keynote speaker at the memorial's opening.

A bell from the cruiser St. Louis, commissioned in 1906, is the centerpiece of one wing, and a rotating collection of military uniforms stands in the middle of the other wing.

An Emerson airplane turret that once sat on the nose of a B-21 bomber now rests with the uniforms. The turrets were made in a Ferguson factory that made fans and electric motors but converted during wartime.

"People think of military history as far away -- it happened overseas," Walters said. "But it happened in your community. It was a part of daily life. And the community had an impact on military warfare."

The museum's basement used to serve as storage and offices for the city's Emergency Management Agency. Now, the space is weatherproofed and climate-controlled, with a recording studio where veterans can tell their stories.

The lower level's first exhibit, "St. Louis and the Great War," commemorates the centennial of the end of World War I and shows off more than 200 artifacts that have never been displayed, such as a carrier pigeon message capsule, a portable reed organ and a German gas mask.

An oversize photo on the wall shows a remarkable view of downtown during a parade for soldiers returning from the war in 1919. Though the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, it took months to get the troops home.

Areas for reflection

The top floor is devoted to meeting space and offices, with new cork floors in the Taylor Assembly Hall and the original electric fans still hanging from the walls. The fans no longer function -- and wouldn't be up to code if they did -- but they remain because visitors had fond memories of them. The spaces will be used for programming for students and the public.

Outside, in the same area where Roosevelt made his dedication speech 82 years ago, a Court of Honor that was created in 1948 as the city's World War II memorial got an overhaul. It now includes a reflecting pool and fountain to represent the five branches of the armed forces. Chestnut Street was narrowed to a single vehicle lane with a bike lane, and a grassy area between the street and fountain can be used for programming or as a reflective space.

The alterations will make the area more noticeable to visitors downtown.

"One of the things we were able to do is make the site work together like it hadn't before," Goering said.

Monuments to those who died in Korea and Vietnam were moved to their own spots on a walkway between the museum and Court of Honor, and names for those who died in more recent conflicts will be added, with a dedication planned for Memorial Day.

After that, there will be room for more names.

And when they're added, it might be fitting to remember President Roosevelt's closing words from dedication day years ago:

"No place could be more fitting to reaffirm that faith and confidence than a monument to those who have died in a gallant effort to save democracy to the world. ... May we keep the faith."

This article is written by Valerie Schremp Hahn from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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