Downtown Green Space JNEM Riverfront

The Untold Story of the Gateway Arch

by Rick Rosen

Over the course of a century a community took shape on the riverfront in St. Louis. At the same time, what happened in that community shaped the history of the nation. Finally, as those years of destiny unfolded, St. Louis came to see itself as a capital, as the great center of the Midwest.

But then, the currents of history changed. The river of history shifted its course and bypassed that community. Chicago, not St. Louis, became the capital of the Midwest.

Ever so gradually, the riverfront was forgotten. Then it decayed. Finally, it became an embarrassment to the still thriving but less influential community that had grown up around it following its century of greatness.

In that larger community, the humiliation of having lost out to Chicago lingered on. The embarrassment ran deep and it was accompanied by amnesia — a defense mechanism to cope with humiliation. The amnesia masqueraded as conventional wisdom: the riverfront is economically obsolete with regard to its building stock; the riverfront is obsolete in relation to advances in transportation technology; the riverfront is out of date in comparison to current styles of architecture.

All this conventional wisdom was, of course, true. However, it took hold not because it was true, but because it addressed a psychic need to mask the profound sense of loss that ate at the community’s identity, a loss for which the decaying riverfront was a constant reminder.

And then the great depression arrived. Luther Ely Smith, a man of great vision and a respected leader in his deeply embarrassed community, remembered that first century of greatness — and was appalled by its decadent reflection in the mirror of the nearly abandoned riverfront. He dreamed of something to replace the decadence, something that would bring back to life that lost century of greatness. Smith prevailed on the federal government — in response to the depression—to build a national park on the riverfront. Then he organized a design competition to create a new vision for the site.

And of course he succeeded — beyond his wildest dreams — with the Gateway Arch and its surrounding park grounds. But there was a cost.

A city’s built environment is nothing less than the accretion of its history. Whenever elements of that environment are wiped away, the material record of that history is lost. When the riverfront was cleared after 1939, the elements that were lost were the very elements Luther Ely Smith sought so hard to recover.

Any built environment tells the story of its history. But it’s also true that it tells that story in a special language, an arcane language that only people who are drawn to history, and those whose personal memories are embedded in its buildings, can easily understand. Still, despite its weaknesses, it is by far the best language for telling a community’s story. When it’s silenced, other languages must be found if the story is to be remembered at all.

Today, a second design competition for the riverfront is in progress. This competition presents a magnificent opportunity for St. Louis and it has already generated widespread excitement. Most of the excitement focuses on possibilities for new connections between the arch grounds and the rest of the city. However, with the original built environment of the riverfront long since gone and forgotten, the hidden challenge of the competition is to find the next best language to tell that lost story. Then, and only then, can the amnesia that has prevailed for so long in St. Louis finally be healed.

Rick Rosen is an architectural historian and downtown resident. Contact him at

Downtown Events Riverfront

Play on Sunday Tells the Story of the St. Louis Riverfront

Plate showing central riverfront from Pictorial St. Louis, 1875.

What: “Voices of the Riverfront”
When: Sunday, March 21, 2:00 p.m.
Where: Old Courthouse
Cost: Free

Voices of the Riverfront will bring to life some of the characters who shaped and chronicled the development of St. Louis’ riverfront — from Auguste Chouteau to Ernst Kargau to Hubert Humphrey. Written by sisters Nini and Sheila Harris, the play will be performed as a radio-style reading. The cast includes Jennifer Clark, Charlie Clark, Bill Hart, Doug Dunphy, Bob Officer, Jennifer Halla Sindelar, Craig Schmid, Jenny Heim and Michael Allen. Jim Mayhew will provide instrumental accompaniment.

The play lasts about one hour. Refreshments to follow.

Historic Boats Riverfront

State Court Ruling on the Admiral Hull

by Michael R. Allen

The state appeals court ruled today that the Missouri Gaming Commission acted “without sufficient process” when it ruled that Pinnacle Entertainments could “neither repair nor replace” the President Casino, better known as the S.S. Admiral. After considering plans as drastic as scrapping the modernist boat, Pinnacle has explored repairing the aging hull and possibly moving the Admiral to another location.

Model of the S.S. Admiral, collection of Antique Warehouse.

The Gaming Commission currently is trying to shut down the gambling boat by July — an effort not affected by today’s ruling. Still, the ruling helps Pinnacle make the case for repair. Hopefully today’s action helps keep a unique landmark afloat. Despite years of interior alteration, the exterior of the Admiral (built to current form in 1940) is as streamlined and sleek as ever. A little rehabilitation would make it shine! A new casino box built in a wetlands, after all, could not hold a candle to the swanky downtown Art Moderne riverboat.

Demolition Downtown Green Space JNEM Riverfront

National Park Service Sponsors Look at Lost Riverfront Architecture

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph of St. Louis riverfront buildings from the Historic American Buildings Survey.


The nation’s only urban national park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial with the stunning Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen, has long been haunted by a shadow architectural history. To make way for one of the world’s most full-realized modernist landscapes, St. Louis wrecked forty blocks of historic riverfront buildings. The significance of these buildings in American architectural history was such that in 1939, eminent architectural critic and historian Siegfried Gideon came to St. Louis to deliver a lecture on the doomed buildings. Gideon not only spoke about the unparalleled mass of cast-iron facades and storefronts found on the riverfront, he implored the city to change course and preserve the riverfront’s commercial buildings.

Gideon’s cry went unheeded, and plans to create a national memorial to westward expansion on the St. Louis riverfront progressed. Fortunately, the memorial’s architectural achievement matched what was lost. Still, the memorial site has a psychological scar tissue to any who know what was lost there. The National Park Service has had some difficulty in interpreting the pre-memorial riverfront so that both the memorial and the prior riverfront architecture are suitably honored.

Thus, the current “Faces of the Riverfront” exhibit at the Old Courthouse is a welcome endeavor, and, given current events, quite timely and inspirational. (The exhibit runs through August 22, through the unveiling of designs by finalists in the current design competition.) The National Park Service gave artist Sheila Harris access to its extensive photographic record of riverfront buildings lost to build the memorial, and she painted in watercolor renderings of the documented buildings. Harris’ paintings transform the hard, stoic documentation taken before the riverfront death knell into soft, humane snapshots of a still-living urban landscape.

Sheila Harris speaks at the exhibit’s opening reception on February 14th.

For the next few months, visitors to the Old Courthouse will be greeted by an exhibit that properly honors the life of the riverfront, in the space once occupied by the courtroom where the Dred Scott trial unfolded. Superintendent Tom Bradley, staff historian Bob Moore and exhibits manager Caitlin McQuade deserve credit for working with Harris to create the exhibit, as does Sheila Harris’s sister NiNi Harris (author of the new book Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch.)
Alongside the paintings are rarely-seen items from the Memorial’s collection of salvaged portions of riverfront buildings. Those who have seen the items on permanent display in the Old Courthouse often wonder what else remains, and here are a few answers. The expected cast iron pieces are joined by a more obscure terra cotta piece. The only problem withFaces of the Riverfront is that the fragments and watercolors pique a visitor’s interest in seeing the source photographs, of which none are on display save as wall-sized backdrops. Perhaps those photographs will be made public as part of a future Memorial project.
Downtown Green Space I-70 Removal JNEM Riverfront

A Grand Plan for Memorial Drive

by Michael R. Allen

Image by Jeremy Clagett for City to River.

Readers of Ecology of Absence know that this author has long favored a holistic change to the current configuration of Memorial Drive and I-70 at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The highway and the street together create a visual barrier and physical obstacle course between the downtown core and the lovely Arch grounds, and both need to be removed and replaced with a pedestrian-friendly at-grade thoroughfare.

Today, the citizen organization City to River launched its website that presents a thoughtful, creative approach toward building a new Memorial Drive. The analysis and imagery of the website come at a wonderful moment, right after the Framing a Modern Masterpiece design competition jury has chosen the nine design teams that will create full entries. May the design teams spend time contemplating the City to River proposal, and may the design competition’s sponsors keep the door open for any team that may wish to embrace a radical way to renew the riverfront connection.

Art Downtown Events JNEM Riverfront

"Faces of the Riverfront" Exhibit Opens This Sunday

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial will host a special exhibit from St. Louis artist Sheila Harris at the Old Courthouse from Feb. 14 through Aug. 22, 2010. Created especially for the memorial, the exhibit consists of nearly 40 watercolor paintings of buildings that once stood on the Arch grounds. Harris’ “portraits” of buildings depict structures from several generations of the city’s architectural history illustrating how the landscape of the riverfront evolved over time.

The exhibit will launch with an artist’s reception on Sunday, February 14, at 2:00 p.m.

Abandonment Historic Boats Riverfront South St. Louis Theft

U.S.S. Inaugural Still a Fixture on the Riverfront

by Michael R. Allen

The U.S.S. Inaugural remains a fixture on the St. Louis riverfront, just south of the MacArthur Bridge. Since breaking loose from its moorings and capsizing in a bizarre incident during the great flood of 1993, the old minesweeper has been stuck on the riverfront. After spending a generation as a tourist attraction, the war vessel has become part of the lore of local urban explorers — and the subject of many schemes to profit from the tragedy.

The ship’s remains are almost too easy to find, located just a short walk through a gate in the flood wall. On a sunny Indian summer day, the wreck conveys a sense of tranquility. Later, in the winter, when the water gets lower the ship will beckon explorers. John Patzius has held the salvage rights to the boat since 1998, and had attempted to move the Inaugural out of the river. The mighty gun from the bow of the Inagural is located at Bob Cassilly’s Cementland; that relocation by Patzius is theft by his own admission (although rightful theft, by his judgment). Future plans remain unknown. For now, the wreck is a splendid landmark to behold on a weekend ramble. Some days one will find artists hard at work creating murals on the flood wall, almost always atop the work of others. Inexplicably, no one has ever tagged the wreck just a few yards away. (Red Foxx, are you reading?)

More information is available in the U.S.S. Inaugural Online Scrapbook.

Downtown JNEM Laclede's Landing Riverfront Streets

Making a Difference on the Riverfront

by Michael R. Allen

The southern flank of the mighty Eads Bridge has received a major landscape upgrade, due to the efforts of Metro, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Laclede’s Landing Redevelopment Corporation. That is to say, the strip between the bridge approach and Washington Avenue actually now is landscaped! The difference between the formerly part-mulch, part-dirt terrain and the new verdant tree-planted, grassy, flowery setting could not be more stark.

For years, this area was a disgraceful disarray in an area marred by many such urban design problems, including the intrusive elevated section of I-70, the parking garage barrier on the northern edge of the Memorial and the lackluster riverfront itself. The “Washington Avenue Beautification Project” does not resolve these larger issues, but vanquishes the terrible appearance of a very-visible area. Pedestrians on the Eads Bridge can now look out at the Gateway Arch and grounds, and look down and see an extension of that inviting park setting.

I do have a quibble with the project concerning the lack of sidewalk on most of this side of Washington. (The other side of the street has a continuous sidewalk.) The photograph on the left shows the sidewalk running east from Second Street to First Street, while that on the right shows the strip running west.

Between Second Street and Memorial Drive, the trees are planted far out from the bridge, making addition of a sidewalk in the future difficult without removing a lane of the street. However, here Washington has four overly-wide lanes, and narrowing is highly desirable. The sidewalk would ultimately connect to the Eads Bridge pedestrian lane, allowing for an easy walk from the Landing up to the bridge deck.

Addition of metered parking here — something that Metro, operator of the garage, would likely oppose — would be desirable. Meters would relieve parking problems on the Landing and calm traffic. However, a continuous sidewalk would be needed. Perhaps this issue can be explored in any design competition that the National Park Service (NPS) undertakes for the Memorial. NPS’ draft general management plan for the Memorial identifies the parking garage site as potentially worth repurposing, so this corridor could be transformed at some point.

Of course, the sidewalk would lead westward walkers out into the morass of the Eads Bridge/Memorial Drive/Washington Avenue intersection. This intersection may be the most confusing in the city! Hopefully any design competition will lead to resolution of this problem, which plagues one of the Memorial’s key entry points. Removal of the interstate is the most direct way to clarify traffic issues here, but that removal is probably on a slower track than the design competition timeline. Who knows? Perhaps the design competition will be the impetus for grad civic thinking on urban design, and our political leaders will embrace a visionary change downtown like those who laid out the Memorial did so long ago.

For now, the most-traveled pedestrian path between downtown and the Landing is right here. Can’t see the path? Well, look carefully. There is a gate-sized opening in the fence of this parking lot on Second Street. People walk back and forth across this lot all day long, because it remains the most direct link between the Landing and downtown. It does not require much imagination to recognize that there is a major connectivity issue here. A sidewalk on Washington would have helped, although the larger disconnect between the riverfront and downtown remains the big problem.

The Washington Avenue Beautification Project points the way to a realistic way to implement changes to the riverfront that will add up to transformative action. While we need visionary leadership on the riverfront design challenge, we also need resolution of glaring quality of experience problems whose resolution is obvious. This space on Washington needed landscaping, and now it is landscaped. Laclede’s Landing needs a better pedestrian connection to downtown. Perhaps a sidewalk on the north side of Washington is the way to go — narrow the street, build a sidewalk along the new plantings. Perhaps the path already being used could be formalized through reconstruction of Lucas Avenue west through the parking lot. Let’s follow one change with another and keep the momentum rolling.

Demolition Historic Preservation Industrial Buildings North St. Louis Riverfront

Old Armour Company Warehouse Lost

by Michael R. Allen

The Schaeffer Moving Company had long occupied the three-story building at 2422 North Broadway, and its red enameled sign (once ablaze through neon tubing) was a familiar site to those who work and live around the area. The steel-framed building actually began its life around the turn of the century as a two-story distribution warehouse for meat-packing giant the Armour Company. The third floor was added in 1911.

The side elevation facing Benton Street (now legally vacated) was an impressive run of steel-sash windows. After the moving company vacated the building about a decade ago, the possibility for reuse easily was apparent.

Instead of reuse, however, the holding company that owns the large row of warehouses to the north (2508 N. Broadway LLC) opted to demolish the old building this month. With the street now vacated, that company can assemble a large parking lot for those buildings.

Since the old Armour building lies in the Fifth Ward, there is no preservation review that might have prevented this senseless loss. The Fifth Ward is one of eight wards out of 28 that does not participate in the city’s preservation review program. (More here.)

Hence, this is what the building looked like yesterday afternoon. Gone. Soon, the ruinous Armour Packing Plant in East St. Louis will also fall, and we will have few tangible traces to our city’s crucial role in the development of the company that turned meatpacking into a science. Yet we will have a few more places to park our cars — not bad, eh?

Historic Boats Illinois National Historic Landmark Riverfront

Goldenrod Showboat Celebrates its Centennial

by Michael R. Allen

The day was beautiful, and our need for a trip away from the city strong. Looking for a destination, we settled on tracking down the Goldenrod Showboat on the Illinois River. After all, we are in the venerable entertainment vessel’s 100th year. Using directions from a friend sent last year after he stumbled upon it and Google Earth (which showed it a few miles from where it actually lies), we got a general idea of the location in Kampsville, Illinois and set out.

Of course, the Goldenrod now sits outside of its first Kampsville location. After not finding the boat on the town’s riverfront, we asked a couple walking down the road how to find it. The man knew where it was, gave directions and proceeded to offer the information that his aunt was a waitress and actress on the Goldenrod between 1945 and 1950. Even in this unlikely new home, the Goldenrod is part of a local’s family heritage — how ’bout that?

A few miles later, we spotted the Goldenrod moored to a barge on a section of overgrown riverfront. The boat was unmistakable, and the deterioration has not claimed much of its integrity. Everything is still there, down to the boat’s recent (and somewhat unattractive) paint scheme. The paint is peeling, the wood drying and in some places rotting. Yet the Goldenrod survives unharmed in its sleepy Illinois berth.

A few years ago, this outcome was far from likely. After its itinerant early years (more on those later), the show boat became a permanently-moored restaurant on the St. Louis riverfront. In 1990, the City of St. Charles, which had purchased the boat in 1988, moved it to the St. Charles riverfront. The restaurant closed in 2001, and in 2003 the city decided to sell the boat. The St. Charles City Council accpeted bids, and sold it to a company headed by John Schwarz. (The Council rejected Bob Cassilly’s bid to move it back to the St. Louis riverfront.) Schwarz moved the boat to Kampsville, after announcing plans to restore the vintage vessel.

However, in 2007, Randy Newingham and Shelia Prokuski, owners of the site where the boat was moored, sued Schwarz for unpaid mooring fees. In September 2007, Newingham threatened to sell all or part of the boat for scrap to cover his costs. One month later, a Calhoun County judge ordered an auction of the boat, and the court accepted Newingham and Prokuski’s lone $50,000 bid. However, by the end of the year the couple had reached and agreement to sell the Goldenrod back to John Schwarz. Schwarz moved the boat north. In 2008, however, Judge Richard Greenleaf declared that the proper court papers for the auction had not been filed, throwing the ownership in doubt. To date, the ownership has not been cleared.

Hence, the Goldenrod Showboat sits lonely on the side of Illinois Highway 100, and as summer sets in, disappears behind stands of grasses and the leaves of riverbank trees. The sturdy boat is crumbling, but not very rapidly. Asphalt roof paper provides cover for much of the deck area, and the boat is locked up tight. Hopefully, this is not how the Goldenrod will end its days, even if this sad state is how the boat will spend its centennial year.

The path from birth has been convoluted, but most of the Goldenrod’s days have been good ones. Pope Dock Company of Parkersburg, West Virginia built the boat in 1909 for businessman W.R. Markle. Originally, the boat was named Markle’s New Showboat. Built for entertainment, the boat would travel the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and stop at town where it would dock. Patrons would come aboard for a night of music, comedy and other live entertainment. According to most accounts, the boat was the last showboat built for the Mississippi and Ohio river circuits. At 200 feet long and 43 feet wide, the boat was one of the largest showboats ever built. The seating capacity was 1,400.

Markle lost the boat through foreclosure in 1913, and the next owner renamed the vessel the Goldenrod Showboat. In 1922, Captain Bill Menke purchased the boat and implemented a 12-month touring schedule. His tenure would be long and fruitful. Menke moored the boat at Aspinwall, Pennsylvania for two consecutive summers, 1930 and 1931. In summer 1937, Menke brought his show palace to St. Louis for repairs but ended up permanently mooring it here. According to “That Landmark on the River,” an article by Mary Duffe that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 10, 1968, the boat hosted stars like Red Skelton, Monte Blue, Kathy Nolan, Major Bowes and others during Menke’s tenure. Menke reported that he had to ask patrons in southern towns to leave their firearms at the riverbank.

In 1963, Pierson and Franz purchased the Goldenrod Showboat. A few small fires led to major renovation, including a new steel hull. On Christmas Eve 1967, the National Park Service listed the Goldenrod Showboat as a National Historic Landmark, the highest federal distinction for a historic property. The National Historic Landmark nomination includes a short history of the boat, as well as the fact that the original hull is intact inside of the steel barge that now serves as the hull.

The National Historic Landmark nomination may be skimpy by today’s standards of historic documentation, but the nomination’s assertion of the great cultural significance of the Goldenrod remains true. This was one of the last and most lavish of the great river show boats, and it may be the only survivor of that type. Its future is important not only to St. Louis, its later home, but to the history of the 15 states the Goldenrod is known to have regularly visited between 1909 and 1937. The centennial of the boat should be a spur toward preservation. If the current owners (whoever they may be legally) cannot figure out how to bring the boat back to life, let’s find the person who can.