Renovation Planned for Downtown Soldiers Memorial Military Museum

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Soldiers Memorial Military Museum renovation plans - St. Louis, MO

Today, Veterans Day, an agreement was signed by the Missouri Historical Society and the City of St. Louis that sets in motion a $30M transformation of the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis. The agreement places the Historical Society in charge of a long overdue renovation and revisioning, while the city retains ownership of the building and artifacts.

Renovation costs will be covered by private donations already committed to the project. The plan calls for the museum to close next spring for approximately two years. A $1.1M annual operating budget will be covered by an endowment established by an anonymous donor. The city will continue to pay utility costs and the salaries of the museum’s two city employees. Admission will remain free following the renovation.

It’s a safe bet 95% of people reading this have never been inside the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis. This is likely true of 99% of visitors and downtown workers as well. The museum, at 1315 Chestnut Street, occupying a city block bordered by 13th, 14th, Pine, and Chestnut Streets, is strangely easy to overlook among the monumental buildings along the Gateway Mall.

{for a view inside the museum, click on the image above}

The museum’s not only held a somewhat anonymous spot along the Mall’s most non-descript blocks, it’s existed in an uncommon civic and curatorial state. The building, and its contents, much of it donated by military veterans or their families, is owned by the City of St. Louis. Repairs have been deferred and donated items have piled up in boxes, uncatalogued and unpreserved.

The building and museum are fascinating. We held a portion of the 2012 Open/Closed conference on vacant land in St. Louis in the building’s auditorium. The space was dated, but worked well for a screening of Detropia and an address by Jay Williams, executive director of the federal Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, and the former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio. Hopefully the space will remain available for private events.

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum - St. Louis, MO

The Historical Society brings museum expertise to the site, and will manage all permanent and special exhibitions, among other museum responsibilities. The art deco building will be cleaned, made ADA compliant, have a new HVAC system installed, among other improvements. The lower level of the museum will become gallery space, more than doubling the current amount of total exhibition space. Along with the newly renovated and excellent Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks,  St. Louis is becoming a destination for those interested in military history.

The Court of Honor, a block of the Gateway Mall across Chestnut to the south, will be redesigned with fountains and new monuments honoring St. Louis veterans. An early rendering showed Chestnut Street closed for an expanded Court of Honor, but a revised vision shows the street remaining, and the Historical Society has stated that Chestnut will remain open to traffic. Learn more on the project’s FAQ page.

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum renovation plans - St. Louis, MO

The interesting history of the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum:

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum - St. Louis, MO

The City of St. Louis created a Memorial Plaza Commission in 1925 to oversee the creation of the Memorial Plaza and Soldiers Memorial. Designed as a memorial to the St. Louis citizens who gave their lives in World War I, the Memorial became Project No. 5098 of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works.

The St. Louis architectural firm Mauran, Russell & Crowell designed the classical Memorial with an art deco flair. St. Louis born sculptor Walker Hancock created four monumental sculpture groupings entitled Loyalty, Vision, Courage and Sacrifice to flank the entrances.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the site on October 14, 1936 and the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum opened to the public on Memorial Day, May 30, 1938. The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is owned by the City of St. Louis and is under the authority of the Board of Public Service of the City of Saint Louis. Today, the Soldiers Memorial honors all veterans and active military from St. Louis.

From Wikipedia:

Four monumental sculptural groups representing figures of Loyalty, Vision, Courage and Sacrifice by sculptor Walker Hancock stand, with their horses, on the north and south sides of the building. Other architectural sculpture here was completed by Hillis Arnold.

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  • Dahmen Piotraschke

    I will definitely go in and see the renovations…in the past I have walked past it everyday when I lived and worked downtown. I always thought it was not open. There was no welcoming area.

  • DJ

    “The museum’s not only held a somewhat anonymous spot along the Mall’s most non-descript blocks”

    When do we start looking at getting rid of the empty blocks on the gateway mall and start putting actual buildings that will help reconnect the city a bit?

    • Chicagoan

      When I was last in St. Louis on vacation, I strolled up and down Chestnut/Market/Pine a fair amount and didn’t notice it for some reason.

      Perhaps I was busy admiring all of downtown St. Louis’ beautiful old buildings, but I didn’t even see it and I think that’s a problem.

      The city should do away with a couple of downtown parks near it, specifically Eternal Flame and Kaufman. Make it stand out some more!

      I love the understated beauty of it, it’s among my top 5 St. Louis buildings, and there’s a lot to choose from.

  • Chicagoan

    Has anyone here seen The Monuments Men?

    I’d need to watch it again, but I’m about certain that George Clooney’s character (Frank Stokes, based on George Stout) mentions his work mentions his work on a soldiers memorial in St. Louis.

    The timing seems to check out.

  • Don

    I have not been there since I was a child many years ago. Wonderful to see new life in this space.

  • Timm

    Love that the future of the Memorial is in good hands both financially and professionally. Sad that the dozen or so festivals and free concerts (and the hopes to bring events like Taste of StLouis back) now have nowhere to be held Downtown

    • Alex Ihnen

      It’s not clear that’s the case. The block of the museum and the block with the memorial appear to change very little with the new plan. The street will be more narrow, but some changes on adjacent blocks could help accommodate events easily.

  • STLEnginerd

    Would like to see relocating the Eternal Flame memorial to this new space as part of the plan. AND would like to see it lit, like eternally. I think Laclede Gas would make a good sponsor for something like this.

    Once the memorial is moved, issue an RFP for development of that block, and avoid a public vote by substituting some of the riverfront “park” area that is being floated.

  • Luftmentsch

    The slamdunk would be if they could develop some kind of connection to The National Archives’ Military Personnel Records Center in North County, which has the entire US military personnel records since the Civil War. That could actually make the Memorial unique, useful, and a magnet for visitors.

  • Brian

    Been in the museum a few times. As kid I could never get enough of that kind of history.

    I have, also, been in the upper floor area. It is were I had to take driving safety classes after a ticket 20 years ago. The space felt really dated even back then.

  • Rob

    Really glad this museum will be seeing new life. Interestingly when inside the Memorial it looks as if swastikas are a part of the ceilings design. However, the building was built as a memorial to fallen soldiers of WWI so this is just an odd coincidence. I am curious as to where all the free concerts and other special events that are held between 13th and 14th on Chestnut will be moved to.

  • RJ

    I guess I might be one of the few who have been in the museum and am thrilled to finally see some investment into this civic asset and to honor our veterans in a proper museum. Bah Humbug on not closing Chestnut between Tucker and 15th and 13th street between Pine and Market. Those streets should be closed to allow more urban green space and pedestrians can walk safely around that area of the Gateway Mall. Most traffic goes on Market, Olive, Tucker and 14th. I hope they revise their conceptual plan and close those streets.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I believe that the last thing needed in downtown is more urban green space. There’s so much of it that it is dead space that feels empty and everywhere you look fails to support retail, or really any, sustainable development. There’s more proof of too much green space in that so much of what we have is neglected and unused. Downtown needs to get rid of its one-way streets and restore the street grid where it’s been lost. As much as it’s been studied, we know this will help produce a more vibrant downtown.

      • Rj

        I think green space is very important in an urban environment. What is lacking is more higher density residential development that has more people living in the area and using the urban green space.

        • nickfindley

          It looks like we might get the best of both worlds: drastically narrowing the oversized Chestnut, calming the little bit of traffic here and making it safer to cross, still retaining connectivity, and turning that excess asphalt into a little more green space. And hopefully they’ll build the curbs in such a way that it’s still easy to plop down a portable stage in the street as needed.

        • MRNHS

          While I agree with that green space is needed, downtown has too much. It makes it not an urban environment. I think the city should work with a developer to give the land away, assuming they meet certain guidelines in its development. However, I believe I read somewhere (I think from Alex) that the city requires a vote to “get rid” of park land.

          • John R

            I’m an agnostic on whether we have the right amount or too much, but what I think we need most is quality green space. And without more surrounding density as Rj mentions, it may be hard to achieve the goal of maximizing what we do have.

        • Chicagoan

          Green space is definitely important, but there’s way too much of it in downtown StL right now. Too many parking garages, parking lots, and under-utilized green space. The focus should be on revitalizing the street grid and concentrating on density/urbanism.

      • ScottF

        I was very happy to see they changed the plan and will now keep Chestnut open.