Editor's Note: No, that's Mick Jagger beneath the Gateway Arch, not Doug Kamholz. But like Mick, Doug has been hanging out in St. Louis. (Doug knows something about rock & roll, too). In his latest quest to present gems from Midwestern "flyover" lands to coastal snobs, Doug offers tips about history and happenings in the famous river city.
by Doug Kamholz
“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, Meet me at the fair,” sang lilting Judy Garland in a 1944 movie. Here’s one attraction at that 1904 World’s Fair: A thousand Filipinos lived in a 47-acre preserve with one tribe, Igorots, scheduled to kill and eat a dog every day.
So here we are, taking our turn about another major Midwestern city. St. Louis is most famous these days for a honkin’ big arch and a storied baseball team. Other wonders await us, some lesser-known ones, along with important chapters in the history book of actual American life.
Let’s get the famous stuff out of the way. The immense croquet wicket on the Mississippi riverbank has come to symbolize St. Louis. Officially the Gateway Arch, it invites America to step onto Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase and into The West. Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed it. Nobody died building it. At 630 feet, it’s the world’s tallest arch. It’s as wide as tall. Its two legs had to be within 1/64 inch when they met at the top. It opened in 1965. Forty blocks of St. Louis were destroyed for it. It’s very shiny.
You can ride to the top observation deck where you get that sense of Jason Isbell’s lyric: From the sky we look so organized and brave. In 2009 the Mississippi Overlook Park opened right across the river from the arch. Its 40-foot high deck has spectacular views of the river and city, but many people are afraid to go to hardscrabble East St. Louis. Well, except maybe for the casino.
Play ball! The St. Louis Cardinals are a National League baseball team and the most storied franchise in major league baseball outside of the New York Yankees. The Redbirds were the first club west of the Mississippi. Second only to those Big Apple Pinstripers, the Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles and 23 National League pennants.
Let’s see. The first major-leaguer to play wearing eyeglasses was a Cardinal. That was George “Specs” Toporcer back in the 1920s. St. Louis had a second MLB team, the Browns, who lost the 1944 World Series to the Cardinals in what was called the “Streetcar Series.” How romantic. These days a cross-town championship would likely be dubbed the “Uber Series.” How different.
Now moving on, first to City Museum. Oh, how plain. A city, with a museum. So what? Here’s what. It’s a 600,000 square-foot playground housed in an old shoe factory. Every inch and
every adventure is a recycled and repurposed piece of St. Louis including two abandoned airplanes. On top of the tenth story is a Ferris wheel some traveling show left in a parking lot. You can spiral back down much of those ten stories on the slide I believe was used by workers to send boxes of finished shoes to shipping.
I came home after my first visit to City Museum and looked for similar wonders elsewhere. But, alas, only in St. Louis. This steam-punk wonderland came from the late Bob Cassilly, a world-acclaimed sculptor. It opened in 1997 full of tunnels, mosaics, building pieces, colors, industrial parts, wavy lines, circus shows and a functioning old shoelace machine. It’s a hoot for all ages.
Literally attached to City Museum via closed and cluttered above-ground walkways is the Last Hotel, the only hotel I know of that uses footwear humor in its name. A last is the wooden foot-shaped form around which leather is worked in shoe-making. (It apparently derives from the Old English “laest” or footprint.) A century ago City Museum was the International Shoe Company, then the world’s largest, turning out 50 million pairs a year. To oversee and showcase its wares, the company hired architect Theodore C. Link to design its ten-story headquarters. Boasting fine stonework, metalwork and terrazzo floors in Sullivanesque style with added Art Nouveau details, this masterwork opened in 1909. It has recently been reborn as the 142-room boutique Last Hotel. (Question for careful readers: When the shoe building went to new owners, how did Doug keep himself from saying it had been resold?)
T. C. Link had local street cred because, in 1894, he designed the magnificent Union Station, soon to become one of the nation’s busiest terminals. Built in high-towered Romanesque Revival style, its vision is well displayed across a 20-foot span of stained-glass called the Allegorical Window. Three Greek goddess-type women appear. The hometown one in the center looks a bit smug while her sisters east and west look west and east toward Miss Mid-America.
St. Louis train traffic grew into the 20th Century with the World’s Fair and then peaked in World War II when as many as a million men and women a week passed through the cavernous midway and out to the train shed where 32 tracks and platforms were walled with glass and ornamental wrought iron. Above was the Grand Hall waiting room with its 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, its two-ton chandelier and that Allegorical Window.
Times change. The chandelier and wrought iron were sacrificed to the war effort. Times changed again. Rail travel succumbed to road travel. On Halloween in 1978 the last passenger train labored out of this St. Louis crown. While Amtrak now operates a few blocks away, Union Station tries and tries again to get on track in the 21st Century. That Grand Hall is now the lobby of an upscale Hilton Curio Hotel, recently joined by a 120,000 square-foot aquarium. (All Aboard for Rails to Snails!)
Right across Market Street from Union Station is a greensward. It marks the west end of an almost uninterrupted esplanade running 16 blocks and ending at that very shiny arch and that famous river. Splayed along two blocks of that stretch is about the most inventive, inclusive and delightful public project I have seen in a long while. Citygarden opened a dozen years ago as an urban oasis, half sculpture and half botanic park. Two dozen world-class sculptures punctuate the place, and you can get right up to them. Heck, there’s a sideways head you can walk into. There’s water, water everywhere, and while there are safety advisories, nobody was goofy enough to think you were going to keep kids out of any of it.
The general design mimics Missouri geology. The north edge is elevated with limestone bluffs; you can observe from up there and dine. The art-strewn middle has pasture paths and a long pool, complete with waterfall. The south edge, along Market Street, is more the damp lowlands with a big splash pad and other wet fun. (Also, tucked away near that color-changing splash pad is a ground-level, metal marimba you can dance on like the keyboard Tom Hanks played in Big.)
There are no gates at Citygarden, though it is officially closed from ten at night to six in the morning, so it is hard to say how many millions have wandered through. Speaking of millions, it took about thirty to put this place on the map, and that’s not counting some more millions for the 24 sculptures. But even at a much more modest scale and cost, other cities can look at Citygarden as land use that both excites and calms, where all are invited, many enlivened and some go home with wet socks.
Now let’s go wet to dry, but only for a moment in history. One hundred and two years ago, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect: Prohibition. Still (well chosen word there, Doug) you could consume alcoholic beverages but none could be made, sold or transported. Certainly this had varying effects in various places. In St. Louis in 1920, 50,000 workers made beer in dozens of breweries. Most closed their doors within months. Those lost jobs along with more from bars and beer gardens cut deep in the city. There was also a nativist aspect to prohibition as it came after waves of German immigration, with St. Louis a major destination, and World War I “anti-Hun” sentiments.
My final history chapter is likely unknown to almost all. (Please let me know if this is not news to you.) St. Louis is the only U.S. city ever taken over by Marxists! Lawyer and professor Mark Kruger dug into a passing reference to a worker takeover of the city and found a mother lode of Marx. His book is The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland. Kruger found those same waves of German immigrants and the fairly common Marx-inspired Workingmen’s Party groups some of them formed.
While it was not those groups who mainly organized a raft of railroad worker strikes across the land in July of 1877, they were happy to lend hands and up the ante. In St. Louis they called for more strikes at more workplaces. The result was, according to Kruger, the first general strike in American history. The Workingmen’s Party seized the moment, set up headquarters, elected leaders, established security for property and made themselves more powerful than official officials. Kruger concludes: “And it made it the only city in American history to ever be ruled by communists.”
A week later it was over. St. Louis and Missouri state forces quashed the commies and jailed their leaders. According to Kruger, those leftists weren’t looking for overthrow but rather for social reforms such as shorter workdays and an end to child labor. (Here’s a bump note for St. Louisphiles: The famed Veiled Prophet Ball and Parade, recently protested and now subdued, was born some months after that rebellion and celebrated its defeat. The first chosen Veiled Prophet was the police commissioner who help suppress the strike.)
Oh, wait, let me throw in the St. Louis Zoo here at the end. It is big. It is famous. It is free. So now having mentioned the Arch and the Zoo, I have done St. Louis A to Z.