By Renee Gordon
Just as Missouri is referred to as the skeptical “Show Me State” so St Louis should be known as the “I’ll Show You” city. St Louis, from pre-European contact until its designation as one of America’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in 2010, has been a city of significant historical events, innovative architecture, indelible personalities, thriving multiculturalism that impacted every aspect of community life and the uncanny ability to reinvent and revitalize itself.
Archeological evidence points to the site of the city having been an important ancestral home of as many as 20,000 Native Americans known as Mississippian mound builders as early as 300 BC and ending circa 1500 AD. The land in the valley was extremely fertile, was situated on a bluff overlooking the river and was a mere 18-miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers making it a vital trading center.
Early exploration of the Mississippi Valley dates back to three men in the late 17th-century, René La Salle, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The governor of Canada, New France, in hopes of locating a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean, sent Catholic Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet to explore in 1672. In the vicinity of St Louis, they encountered the Iliniwek Nation, a confederacy of six tribes, as well as other indigenous people inhabiting the land. The journey of La Salle resulted in his claiming the territory for France and naming it Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV.
Immediately trappers and traders began to settle the area and in 1700 the Jesuits founded the Mission of St. Francis Xavier and the first non-native settlement in the state. The 1763 Treaty of Paris granted Britain all the land east of the Mississippi and around the same time Pierre Laclede and Rene Chouteau began the establishment of the river city of St. Louis on a bluff above the Mississippi River in what was Spanish territory. The area is today known as “The Landing.” They named the city St. Louis in honor of the French crusader King Louis IX. Louisiana was returned to France in 1800 in the Treaty of San Ildefonso and three years later, as part of the Louisiana Purchase, it became US territory. It was incorporated as a town in 1809 and a city in the 1820s.
St. Louis is so rife with historical sites that often its world-class museums, singular cultural attractions and eclectic architecture are overlooked. The best place to start a tour that deftly incorporates all of the elements that make St. Louis such a great destination is with a n exterior view of its most iconic site, the Gateway Arch, part of the 86-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. www.nps.gov/jeff
The city was already a bustling port when President Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore and document the newly acquired land west of the Mississippi. The Corps of Discovery left from St Louis on May 14,1804 and ended there on September 23, 1806. They traveled more than 4,000-miles, opened the frontier for settlement and established St Louis as the “Gateway to the West.”
In 1947, a competition was held for a monument that would both capture and honor the spirit of Jefferson’s vision and the pioneers who fulfilled it. Architect Eero Saarinen’s design, consisting of a 630-foot stainless steel arch with 60-ft. deep foundations, was selected and construction was completed in 1965. It remains the tallest man-made monument on the world. Visitors must pass through security but the payoff is a tram ride to the top of the Arch for breathtaking views of the surrounding area. www.gatewayarch.com
Located just beneath the Arch is The Museum of Westward Expansion. Through dioramas and rare artifacts visitors are immersed in the lives of the explorers, natives, trappers, rivermen and pioneers who made up the world of the 19th-century frontier.
The Old Courthouse completes the Jefferson Memorial triad and is an important site on the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. In 1847 and 1859, the courthouse was the location of the first two trials of Dred Scott and there is a display that recounts the event on the first floor. The courthouse steps were the scene of slave sales and are believed to have been the site of the last auction in the state.
Architectural tours of St Louis highlight the numerous neighborhoods and building styles and can be undertaken by era, style or significance. No matter what your approach there are several structures that are must-sees. www.builtstlouis.net
Louis Sullivan’s 1892 Wainwright Building, the nation’s first modern skyscraper, is located at 705 Chestnut Street and has been identified as the Sullivanesque-style.
Thomas “Tennessee” Williams is said to have lived in more than 20 residences in St Louis. One of the most important was an apartment building at 4633 Westminster Place. He and his parents lived on the 3rd floor during what is believed to have been the unhappiest period of his life. The “Menagerie Apartments are so identified because they greatly impacted his writing of his most read play, “The Glass Menagerie.”
The 1907 Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is absolutely awe-inspiring. The Romanesque exterior boasts granite walls and soaring towers and no visit is complete without seeing the Byzantine interior. A tour showcases 83,000-sq. ft. of mosaics making it the world’s largest collection. The work was completed in 75-years by 20 artisans.
The mosaics in the vestibule of the main church were crafted of more than 41,500,000 pieces in more than 8,000 colors. Tiffany created the mosaics on the west in the chapels and arches. Of special note is the Osage Indian inspired tile in the Chapel for Personal Prayer. www.cathedralstl.org
The aptly named 1929 Fabulous Fox Theater is another of the city’s architectural gems. Once the 2nd largest theater in the country, it closed in 1978. The theater was purchased in 1981 and initially renovated for more than $3-million. It has been continually renovated since that time, bringing it back to its full elegance and glory. It is listed on the National Register.
Tours are offered of the Siamese Byzantine structure and I assure you it is stunning. Highlights of the tour are the 12-ft. in diameter, 5280-lb chandelier, the 90-ft. Grand Lobby with terrazzo flooring and 116-ft. ceiling, the 4-keyboard Mighty Wurlitzer and the 4th floor Peacock Alley.
More than 2,000 Broadway and concert programs are presented annually and 2012 promises to be an even more exceptional year with the 100th anniversary Titanic commemorative event, “The Last Dinner.” A special, 11-course, meal replicating the one served in first-class will be served amid exhibits, music and historic interpreters of the events of April 14, 1912. Information is available online. www.fabulousfox.com
Peabody Opera House in the downtown area recently reopened after a $78-million renovation. This historic venue hosted the likes of the Rat Pack, the Stones, Charles, Basie and Fitzgerald between 1934-91. The interior has marvelous acoustics and this is a perfect place to enjoy a concert. www.peabodyoperahouse.com
St. Louis has been designated one of the best places to raise children by “Parenting Magazine.” I think that is due, in part to the totally unique City Museum. The brainchild of Bob Cassilly, this 600,000-sq. ft of play space was once a shoe factory and warehouse and is now an enchanted kingdom made of recycled objects, stairways, a 3-story slide, caves and even a circus and resident storyteller. No space escapes creativity including the roof that holds an anchored school bus that hangs out over the city, a full-sized Ferris wheel and a water slide. Believe me, you will take a child just so you can enjoy yourself. This place is amazing! www.citymuseum.org
Family activities abound in the city and the Missouri History Museum is no exception. The museum has a list of performing arts programs and an outdoor concert series for all ages that bring history alive. Established in 1866, the museum hosts world-class exhibits, the latest of which are “The Civil War in Missouri” and “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.”
On the 2nd level, you can tour “Expressions,” a gallery that relates the contributions of famous area individuals including Miles Davis, Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry and Josephine Baker. Also on this level is the Civil Rights Gallery that features a video and interpretive materials on the St Louis Race Riot of 1917, “among the worst in American history.” www.mohistory.org
The Missouri Botanical Gardens, the oldest in the country, were established in 1859 by Henry Shaw. The Gardens, a 79-acre main campus and 2,400-acre nature reserve, is a National Historic Site dedicated to the study and display of botanical and horticultural plants. Tours begin in the Ridgway Visitors Center and meander through more than 20 specific gardens and greenhouses. The George Washington Carver Garden is the only one of its type in the country. This is a restful way to spend a day. www.mobot.org
Forest Park was the primary staging ground for the 1904 World’s Fair made even more famous in the film “Meet Me in St Louis.” The 1,300-acre park, nearly double the size of Central Park, is home to the Muny Theater, Science Center, MS History Museum, St. Louis Zoo and Art Museum. Outdoor activities available in the park include tennis, golf, and hiking, biking and boating. Forest Park is filled with scenic points and one that is a must is the view from the promenade in front of the St Louis Art Museum. An iconic statue of St Louis gazes across the landscape. The Art museum is free everyday. www.slam.org
There is always more to do in St Louis and I can’t cover it all but one more thing you must do is check out the Chuck Berry Statue on The Loop in Chuck Berry Plaza and then catch one of his regularly scheduled shows at Blueberry Hill. www.blueberryhill.com
You will definitely need to rest during this trip and an excellent place to do it is in the boutique Hotel Ignacio in the Entertainment District. The 49 rooms feature the standard amenities plus eco-friendly bamboo sheets and towels, a media hub and Tempur-Pedic mattresses. The public spaces exhibit original artworks and there is a courtyard fireplace with comfortable seating, all within walking distance of major attractions. www.hotelignaciostl.com The restaurant, the Triumph Grill, showcases an art collection, motorcycle museum and fine cuisine. www.triumphgrill.com
Information is available on the web. Meet me in St Louis, you’ll be amazed. www.ExploreStLouis.com
I wish you smooth travels!