Spirit of St. Louis

A new sculpture park has not only transformed downtown but lifted the city’s sense of itself and its future.

The abrading of a city’s self-image is gradual. But once that dreary process begins, it gathers an energy of its own and becomes difficult to reverse. If a place is continually criticized—withered by condescension from without, and shame from within—a kind of civic inferiority inevitably results. A case in point: the grand old Mississippi River town of St. Louis, gateway to the West, a city so thoroughly beaten up that it seemed to have thrown up its hands in defeat years ago. Occasionally, however, something inexplicable comes along to alter the landscape, lowering the hands and providing the sense that positive change is possible.

An event of that magnitude took the region by surprise this summer, when Citygarden, a 2.9-acre sculpture park in downtown St. Louis, opened to exuberant throngs. Funded by the local Gateway Foundation and designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA), of Charlottesville, Virginia, the park features work from an impressive roster of modern and contemporary sculptors: Tom Claassen, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jim Dine, Keith Haring, Férnand Leger, Aristide Maillol, Julian Opie, Martin Puryear, Tony Smith, Jack Youngerman, and others. Located on a woefully underutilized 1.1-mile strip of open space called the Gateway Mall, the two-block sculpture garden has not only transformed the area but lifted the public’s sense of itself and its city.

To understand why the stones, sculptures, and watercourses of Citygarden constitute so potent a tonic for regional dyspepsia, readers should know that plenty has happened here in the last half century to persuade anyone that suggestions of inferiority are both sound and logical. The metro area has not grown much in population, but we’ve sprawled all over the landscape, leaving large portions of a once vibrant city to decay. We’ve knocked down some irreplaceable pieces of our built past. White flight has been supersonic; a racial chasm persists. Our primacy in booze and shoes went down the drain and walked out of town. The plant sciences and biotechnology should replace these industries, but we’re suspicious of science as ungodly, in spite of its being the region’s best hope for economic redemption.

There’s often a perception around here that no one is doing anything smart. Forward-thinking residents, however, as well as visitors and immigrants who are unspoiled by familiarity, regularly remark on the quality of our architectural legacy and the vibrancy of our cultural life. In addition to Eads, Saarinen, Sullivan, Gilbert, Grimshaw, Ando, and Maki, there are estimable works by local midcentury masters such as Harris Armstrong and William Bernoudy. Stir all of that into a pot that also contains a first-rate symphony orchestra and opera company, art and history museums, and magnificently developed recreational resources, and the result is a dish that’s anything but bland or spoiled.

So, regardless of what anyone tells you, St. Louis is not a disused dump à la Love in the Ruins or Blade Runner, and its strength has increased dramatically since the lights and water were turned on at Citygarden, where even the most chronic case of municipal blues can be treated—24 hours a day, seven days a week—with a jubilant and healing boost.

Citygarden’s seeds were planted in the late 1990s, when a local citizens’ group drafted a plan for downtown that envisioned a sculpture park on the same two-block site that it occupies today. “Nothing happened immediately,” says Paul Wagman, a spokesman for Gateway Foundation, “until several years later, when, to the astonishment of everyone who’d lived here, downtown began to come back.” The notoriously press-shy foundation—started by the late Aaron and Teresa Fischer, and now overseen by their son, Peter—has for more than 20 years supported a host of initiatives aimed at improving public spaces in the region. In 2006, at the city’s request, the foundation funded a detailed master plan for the mall; a cooperation agreement between the two parties followed. “The city would provide the land, and the foundation would do the planning and supervise creation of the garden,” Wagman says. The budget was $25–$30 million, not including the sculptures.

Because the foundation already had an opening date in mind—July 2009, in time for the All-Star Game, which would be played just blocks from the site—it embarked on an aggressive schedule. It held a design competition in early 2007 and considered the likes of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, and Sawyer/Berson before selecting NBWLA. “We were committed to making this more about their place, St. Louis, than about us,” says Warren T. Byrd Jr., a senior principal at NBWLA. “It also became clear that this was meant to be a combination of sculpture garden, urban park, and urban garden.”

Indeed, Citygarden is both a literal and symbolic reflection of the city. Originally, the site had a somewhat deceiving six-foot elevation. The designers took advantage of the terrain by increasing the elevation in some spots to ten feet and then dividing the park into three distinct bands. “The higher ground, which we termed the upland area, would have rows of trees,” Byrd explains. “It houses not just the higher ground but the café terrace and maintenance building. The middle ground (we called it the flood-plain) is the lowest area, the most open and parklike, with big shade trees—not on a grid—and a lot of lawn and water areas. The southern band, the Market Street garden, is the most intensely horticultural.” Early on, the designers found a 1916 Sanborn map showing old property and foundation lines. “We looked at those and said, ‘Let’s trace some of that history,’” Byrd says. “So the central walkways are literal traces of the old alleyways between the two blocks.”

The process was intensely collaborative. NBWLA worked with the Missouri Botanical Garden on plant selection and with the Gateway Foundation on the subtle art of sculpture siting. At one point, a large model of the park was built, and the team moved sculpture replicas around like chess pieces, assessing each location based on the artwork, the landscape around it, and how it fit into the sequence of forms. “It seems remarkable that they don’t compete with each other,” Byrd says. “They do overlap in some views, but they tend to complement each other when you do see more than one in a view.”

Since early July, when the wraps came off—on schedule and on budget—Citygarden has been visited by a steady stream of revelers, who admire and touch, climb on sculptures or eat a meal, dance in the lyrical plumes of one fountain or wade into the mists of another. “You see little kids, elderly people, arty people, frumpy people,” Wagman says. “People look happy. They’re interacting with each other, often in spontaneous ways.” The park taps into the power of pure joy and the city’s hopes for a genuine and lasting renewal.

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