Downtown’s Eternal Flame

by Michael R. Allen

Between May 8 and May 10, 1919, a national gathering of World War I veterans met at the Schubert Theater (located at 12th and Locust streets, now demolished) in St. Louis.  The assembled veterans created the American Legion and elected Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. the organization’s first president.

During the first year of American entry into World War II, the Monument Builders of America met in St. Louis at the Municipal Auditorium (of which Kiel Opera House is the surviving section). The monument builders elected to build a monument to commemorate the founding of the American Legion in St. Louis. The natural site for such a marker was the city’s Memorial Plaza, a seven-block park dedicated in the 1920s as a permanent memorial to the city’s casualties in the Great War. Already, in 1938, the city had completed the somber, art moderne-style Soldiers Memorial by Preston J. Bradshaw and Mauran, Russell and Garden in the heart of the Memorial Plaza.

The city and the Monument Builders of America chose a site facing the new Soldiers Memorial on 14th Street between Pine and Chestnut. The monument design consists of a tall granite plinth supporting a copper stand with an eternal flame that burns to this day. Each rib of the copper stand bears the name of one of the 48 states that existed at the time. The plinth is flanked by side blocks and steps arranged asymmetrically. Adorning the cenotaph are a figure of a soldier holding a sword and on bended knee on the east and the American Legion symbol on the west.  Artist Sascha S. Schnittmann (1913-1978) designed the monument and its sculptures. The American Legion Monument was dedicated on September 6, 1942.

In 1969, the American Legion added an inscription on the east face commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its founding as well as the statement “Liberty in Not License.”  The social, political and military turbulence remaking America in the late 1960s perhaps made the old saw seem particularly pithy.  A historical marker commemorating the founding of the American Legion erected on the Schubert Theater in 1935 also was moved to the east face of the American Legion Monument.

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