A stone’s throw from St. Louis City Hall, the Stifel Theatre and Enterprise Center may be the one museum many St. Louisans and tourists have never visited.
Starting Saturday, Nov. 3, the general public will have the opportunity to tour the 80-year-old Soldiers Memorial Military Museum after a two-year, $30 million renovation.
Dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the memorial first opened to the public on Memorial Day 1938. It was originally a monument to St. Louisans who died during World War I. The grand re-opening nearly coincides with Veterans Day, which this year marks the centennial of the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne that ended World War I.
St. Louis as Focal Point
Unlike other national memorials, the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum makes St. Louis the focal point with a multi-layered look at the city’s military history. The exhibits are not just text; photos, videos, artifacts, interactive touchscreens, Braille and tactile features enable visitors to put the personal tales of local service members into context within the national narrative.
At the Visitors’ Orientation, just before entering the East Gallery, visitors can use a touchscreen panel to search for family members who may have served.
Spectacular efforts have been made to clean and restore the building while meeting 21st century design codes. Walker Hancock’s exterior sculptures, long covered with decades-old coal soot and dirt, have been cleansed. Metalwork and plasterwork have been restored to their former glory.
Many of the original Art Deco light fixtures have been preserved and rewired for energy-efficient use. There are only five incandescent bulbs in the entire museum: four in the original elevator ceiling and one in the original, walk-in telephone booth. Missing tiles from the Gold Star Mothers mosaic on the loggia’s ceiling between the east and west wings have been replaced.
Since the museum opened 80 years ago, it lacked important features that were added during the renovation:
• A museum-quality HVAC system – a first for the memorial – and crucial to maintaining artifacts.
• New interior storm windows.
• A fire suppression system.
• A state-of-the art security system.
The construction teams used many environmentally-friendly features wherever possible, including cork flooring, LED lights and recycled materials. There’s a charging station for electric vehicles on the museum’s north side.
The lower level, which had never been open to the public, has been gutted and renovated for a rotating gallery. It more than doubles the amount of exhibit space at the museum. The first exhibit there will be “WWI: St. Louis and the Great War” and will run until December 2021.
The revamp continues outside, with a new life for the Court of Honor. Created in 1948 as the city’s World War II Memorial, it has been re-imagined with new features.
A new Five Branches Fountain and reflecting pool are near Market Street, the soothing water helping mitigate traffic noise. Monuments to those who died during the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts have been moved to their own spaces along the court’s east side.
New memorials to St. Louisans who died during more recent wars have been added along the court’s west flank. Veterans’ names will be added during the grand re-opening, said Mark Sundlov, the museum’s director.
Chestnut Street between 13th and 14th streets is now one lane eastbound with a companion bicycle lane. A ramp on the court’s east side permits disabled access to the pool and fountain. A grassy quadrangle with lights and a sound system fills the space between Chestnut and the fountain.
The building and the exhibits were created with the Americans with Disabilities Act in mind. There are wide ramps leading to the front entrance from Chestnut and 13th streets and the galleries are wheelchair accessible. In the exhibit spaces, videos feature closed-captioning, high-contrast labels for those with low vision.
The main level galleries hold the exhibit “St. Louis in Service.” Connecting the galleries is the loggia, with a large, black cenotaph that bears the names of 1,075 St. Louisans who died in World War I. The east gallery begins with the American Revolution and runs through 1920, while in the western gallery, the timeline starts from the run-up to World War II through present conflicts.
On the upper level are meeting rooms, restrooms, offices, the phone booth and an assembly hall.
The Missouri Historical Society (MHS) assumed operation of the museum in 2015. Funding for the renovation has been covered by anonymous MHS donors. Soldiers Memorial becomes the third facility operated by the society. It joins the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park and the Library & Research Center at 225 S. Skinker Blvd.
For more information about the renovation, visit www.mohistory.org/soldiersmemorial.
Saturday, Nov. 3
9 a.m.: Grand reopening begins with a concert by the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America. Chaplain Major Kyle Taylor will lead the invocation. Taylor is a descendant of Pvt. Spottswood Rice, who fought as a member of the 67th Regiment in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Brigadier General Jeannie M. Leavitt will present the keynote speech. She is the United States Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and the first woman to command a combat fighter wing. Leavitt is a St. Louis native and graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School.
Sunday, Nov. 4
10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Explore the revamped memorial and Court of Honor.
Nov. 5 – 7
3 & 7 p.m.: Mustard Seed Theatre will perform “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” at the memorial. Free for veterans and active military but should be reserved in advance (mohistory.org/memorial/reopening-week-events). Other tickets are $10, $5 for children and $5 for Missouri Historical Society members.
Saturday, Nov. 10
8 a.m.: Flag-raising ceremony.
8:30 a.m.: The Third Annual St. Patrick Center Veterans Day 5K. Registration is $30 prior to Nov. 9; veterans’ registration is $25. Register at www.stpatrickcenter.org/vet5k.
10 a.m.: 35th Annual St. Louis Regional Veterans Day Observance and Welcome Home Ceremony at the memorial.
Noon: 35th Annual Veterans Day Parade will begin at Chestnut Street and Tucker Boulevard at noon.
5 p.m.: Flag-lowering ceremony.
Sunday, Nov. 11
10:55 a.m.: American Legion 11th and 12th District annual veterans’ ceremony and wreath laying at the memorial.
Monday, Nov. 12
10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is open for Veterans Day.
For more information, visit mohistory.org/memorial/reopening-week-events/.