Sunday, August 30, 2015

St. Louis

We've been spending our late summer vacations in Wisconsin for so long it surprised me when the three other members of my family decided they wanted to go someplace else this year. The choice of destination surprised me too, St. Louis. I must admit having been a little disappointed as I was looking forward to getting out of this city for some well deserved R&R, perhaps look at some birds and maybe even some stars. Mostly I thought the change of scenery would do me good. Going to another big city I thought would just not fit the bill.

Ten years ago, when there were only two other members of my family, we drove down to the Mound City for a little three day vacation with our then four year old son who was just about to enter school for the first time. Flash forward ten years and the boy is about to enter high school. I suppose there was symmetry in going back, which we did last week.

Being creatures of habit, we set out to do many of the same things we did on our first trip. Top on our list was the zoo. The St. Louis Zoo's reputation as being one of the best around is well deserved. While my eight year old daughter doesn't exactly share her brother's early passion for animals, (he has since lost that passion in a big way), she loves them enough that we spent a solid six hours there, closing the place down. Another highlight from our previous trip was a visit to the fabulous City Museum, but more on that later.

One thing we did differently this time thanks to the ingenuity of my wife, was stay in a condominium rather than a hotel, living more like locals than tourists. The neighborhood we resided in for three days was Shaw, a sleepy residential community in the vicinity of St. Louis University, and the beautiful Missouri Botanic Garden. The neighborhood was named after the Garden's founder, Henry Shaw who made his fortune as a merchant in the quickly growing river city in the early 19th century.

The neighborhood of Shaw, or "Historic Shaw" as the tourist web sites prefer to call it, sits adjacent to The Hill, or "Dago Hill" as the neighborhood was called in less politically correct days, due to its predominantly Italian population. On our visit ten years ago, we stopped at a place that doubled as a restaurant and bocce court. It's still there but on this visit, it was filled with a younger, hipper crowd as opposed to the locals we experienced ten years before. It could have been that we visited on a Friday night this time rather than mid-week or it could be that many of the folks there during our last visit have passed on. It's been ten years, things change after all,

One of the landmarks of The Hill is Elizabeth Street, one block of which has been dubbed "Hall of Fame Place" in honor of two ball players who grew up directly across the street from each other. Not only did both become major leaguers, but both were catchers. That led Joe Garagiola to quip that not only was he not the best catcher in the majors, he was not even the best catcher on his own block. His neighbor, life long friend, and fellow major league catcher was a guy by the name of Yogi Berra.

The home town Cardinals passed on Berra in favor Garagiola, which probably was the worst mistake made in that town since they passed on building the first bridge across the Mississippi River in the mid 1800s. That bridge was built a couple hundred miles upstream in Rock Island, Illinois, and the first intercontinental trains that crossed it ended up in Chicago, making that city the rail hub of the United States, rather than St. Louis.

But don't say we didn't give anything back. At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago reversed the flow of its river, sending its waters, along with the sewage they carried in the direction of you guessed it, St. Louis. This is truly the stuff of which great rivalries are made. That rivalry today is expressed mostly through the two cities' National League baseball teams, the Cubs and the Cardinals.

The good folks in St. Louis take their baseball very seriously. Why not, their Cardinals are second in the major leagues only to the New York Yankees in the number of pennants and World Series Championships won. As for the Cubs well...

The scorecard I bought at the Cardinals/Giants game my son and I attended, included an example score sheet which featured star players from Cardinal history which sent shivers up my spine. The position players consisted of Lou Brock, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter, Ken Boyer, Ted Simmons, and Ozzie Smith, with Yadier Molina (whom we saw hit his 100th career home run) as a pinch hitter. With Bob Gibson as their starting pitcher, I'm guessing they saw no need for a reliever.

The ballpark in which we saw that game, which the Cardinals not surprisingly won, was under construction ten years ago. At that time, the home of the Cardinals was Busch Stadium II, one of the first multi-purpose stadiums built for baseball and football. That building was designed in Modern style, with niches carved out of the top of the stadium that reflected the iconic Gateway Arch a couple blocks away. The older stadium still looked new while the new stadium and its retro style design made it appear that it was the building about to disappear. I never was inside Busch Stadium II, but through photographs of it and my preferences of how a ballpark should function, I would say that Busch III is a vast improvement.

As you can see, Busch III provides a spectacular view of the Downtown St. Louis skyline including the Arch and the 1864 Old Courthouse Building, its dome seen in the center of the photograph. Unfortunately beside those two structures, the rest of the skyline is rather ho-hum in my opinion. Like many cities in this country, St. Louis in the sixties, and seventies was obsessed with the idea of "urban renewal", destroying thousands of high quality buildings in order to make way for massive public works projects, including Busch Stadium II, miles upon miles of freeways, and many of the buildings you see in this photograph, (The land for the Arch and its environs was cleared much earlier, back in the 1930s.) Consequently, St. Louis is now stuck with hundreds of second rate buildings from an era not known as a high point in architectural history.

The mother of all urban renewal projects:
90 plus acres of the heart of historic St. Louis cleared in the 1930s
 to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
 which would not be realized for another 30 years.
The Old Cathedral can be seen in the center of the cleared area.

That's not to say that St. Louis no longer has any great buildings left. Downtown St. Louis boasts one of Louis Sullivan's best skyscrapers, the Wainright Building, as well as many other fine commercial buildings of that era. The city did not have to import all its architects, Theodore Link was perhaps the preeminent St. Louis architect of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His Romanesque Revival Union Station, which opened in 1892, is without question the greatest 19th Century train station built in this country, Passenger train service has unfortunately been relegated to platforms outside Union Station, but the building has been lovingly preserved and is now a hotel, the main waiting room now serves as the lobby of the hotel and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful public spaces I've ever experienced. Slightly less successful, but a happy compromise just the same, is the conversion of the station's massive train shed into a shopping mall.

St. Louis boasts not one but two Roman Catholic cathedrals. The old one, rechristened the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, dates back to 1770, shortly after the establishment of the settlement  St. Louis. The current Greek Revival building was completed in 1834. It stands near the river, in the shadow of the Arch, an anomaly as it was the only building left standing during the construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the site of the Arch. In 1914, the austere Old Cathedral was supplanted by the highly ornate and eclectic Byzantine/Romanesque Revival Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on the city's west side.  That building is known primarily for its remarkable mosaic ornament which covers virtually every inch of the interior of the cathedral. Sadly due to time constraints, we were unable to visit either building on this trip.

They did finally build a bridge that spanned the Mississippi and what a bridge it is. The Eads Bridge was a tremendous engineering and aesthetic success when it opened in 1874. It was the steamboat companies that lobbied against the construction of bridges across the great river as ostensibly they posed a threat to successful navigation of the river. In reality they were the last link to allowing railroads to become the primary means of transportation in the United States. The St. Louis steamboat lobby was particularly strong and despite the handwriting of the steamboat's demise being on the wall, the captains of that industry stipulated that the bridge's clearances be unrealistically high. The bridge's designers lead by James B. Eads for whom the bridge was named, called their bluff and responded with what would be the largest arch bridge to date. The great bridge was so distinctive that it served as the de facto symbol of its city until the mid sixties when another engineering marvel took its place.

That of course would be the Gateway Arch. Its deceptive simplicity is a sight to behold as the experience of the structure changes when seen from different viewpoints and at different times of the day, What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, Big Ben is to London, Eero Saarinen's Arch is to St. Louis, the defining symbol of the city. As such it defies criticism.

The same cannot be said about the Arch's immediate environs which as you can see, are cut off from the rest of the city by a highway and its flanking streets, limiting access and discouraging potential visitors with limited time, us included, from strolling around the Arch and the banks of the river.

These concerns are currently being addressed by a major re-design of the Jefferson Memorial which if all goes as planned, will extend across the river into Illinois. Here is a web site from the architects who came up with the winning bid, describing their work.

I could go on and on about St. Louis but it's late and I need to go to bed; besides our four day, three night vacation simply doesn't warrant it.

My immediate plan is to definitely not wait another ten years to visit the great city on banks of the Mississippi.

No comments: