Sunday, March 26, 2017

Meet Me in Saint Louis

"Meet Me in Saint Louis." That's more or less what my mother told me, because there was a conference she was attending there and my father had decided to go along.  "Sure," I said, because I'd not seen them since Christmas and Saint Louis is a much shorter drive from Cincinnati than the East Coast is.

Gateway Arch - more or less closed at the moment - as seen from the steps of the Old Courthouse.
At end of the plaza is the new (incomplete) entrance to Museum of Western Expansion.

We had about a day and a half to romp around the city. We had rooms right near the city's iconic arch.  Alas the arch and much of the test of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and surrounding parks and trails are presently closed for construction. There's a $390 million project called CityArchRiver that has torn up much of the existing park space and the museum beneath the arch, while the tram to the top of the arch is presently down for a multi-month renovation and maintenance period that is running late. When they complete the project it promises to be a much improved space, with the arch area far better connected to the rest of the memorial and the city proper by a vast bridging of I-44 that currently divides them. Park space will be built out over the expressway, transforming a stretch of it into the tunnel and making the park continue as a seamless whole from the arch to the Old Courthouse and on to the other parks and green space beyond.

Eastern facade of the Old Courthouse

That's all in the future, though. At the moment, the only attractions at the arch are a gift shop and a theater that plays a documentary film on the design and construction of the arch. We didn't bother with that.  However, the Old Courthouse a bit to the west, in the city, is part of the memorial, and remains open. The courthouse was the site of several of the state-level parts of the Dred Scott cases, was where Louis Brandeis was admitted to the bar, and also at least one prominent women's suffrage case. Two court rooms are preserved. The rest provide space for several galleries of exhibits, some of which are temporary refugees from the museum beneath the arch. The exterior architecture is mildly imposing, but the interior of the rotunda is simply amazing. Regrettably, every shot I took looking up toward the top of the rotunda was blurry.


We visited two other museums in Saint Louis. The Missouri History Museum is housed in an impressive facility in Forest Park, the former site of the 1904 World's Fair. The older part is a large stone building the Beaux Arts style, with a statue of Thomas Jefferson seated in the center as you enter. The newer part is a glass and steel structure to the south of the older part, of similar mass and general boxy shape as the older one. Hanging from the ceiling of the two story atrium at the heart of the newer part is a full-size replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. The real article is at the Smithsonian. The replica is one of three constructed for the 1956 film The Spirit of St. Louis, in which Jimmy Stewart played Lindbergh. (The fact that the actor was a reserve colonel in the USAF playing the role of man who was promoted to a reserve colonel in the US Army for his flight seems a weirdly-appropriate bit of casting for Hollywood.)

Replica of Spirit of St. Louis, the aircraft flown by Charles Lindbergh

The museum's temporary exhibit on Route 66 was the main reason I was interested, and it was a lot of fun. It is probably the second-best exhibit on Route 66 that I've seen, the best being the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, OK. In addition to extensive photos, videos, and explanatory text, there were a large assortment of physical artifacts from the early days of Route 66 through its heyday. Sadly, the reason some were available was the large-scale demolition of old motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other attractions and services that once thrived along the old Mother Road. On the bright side, many have been saved. There were a number of automobiles from various eras, and even a 1957 Airstream Caravanner travel trailer, its aluminum skins gleaming even under the subdued light of the museum.

Neon motel sign

1957 Airstream Caravanner

The other museum we visited was the National Blues Museum in downtown Saint Louis, about a half-mile from the hotel. We actually stopped there twice. Once was in the evening to listen to music, and once was to actually visit the museum. We spent longer listening to music than we did on the museum aspect. Adjacent was an awesome barbecue place named Sugarfire. Great beef brisket and turkey were consumed.

The people in Saint Louis were uniformly nice and helpful. Menu prices were reasonable. The room rate at the hotel was reasonable but not cheap for downtown in a Midwestern city. I'd definitely consider going back sometime after the arch work is complete, or perhaps even before. There's still much I didn't get a chance to visit and explore, since it was really only a day and a half visit.

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