by Michael R. Allen
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.