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Soldiers Memorial: Commemorating service through the lens of St. Louis

Now open after a two-year renovation is St. Louis’ Soldiers Memorial Military Museum.
[All photos courtesy of the Soldiers Memorial/Missouri Historical Society]

Eighty years ago, St. Louis gathered at the intersection of Chestnut and North 13th streets to witness the opening of the city’s latest architectural masterpiece, Soldiers Memorial. On Nov. 3, 2018, the crowds returned to witness its reopening.   

Officially dubbed Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, the $30 million reboot – a cost covered entirely by anonymous donors –  has transformed the once neglected monument into a world-class museum. Stewarded by The Missouri Historical Society, the public-private partnership focused on preservation of the memorial’s architectural integrity and art-deco elements that  Historical Society President Dr. Frances Levine called “a labor of love.”

World War II Monument by Hilis Arnold

“Great attention was given to restore the building to its original character,” Soldiers Memorial Director Mark Sundlov said. “While everything has been updated, it doesn’t look like it. Great care was taken during its preservation to match elements that were added to the restoration. For example, [from] the terrazzo floors to the marble to decorative grate coverings that were added, [everything] seamlessly matches the originals. The original art deco light fixtures have been cleaned and rewired. The mahogany-lined elevator with its art deco steel doors is now fully operational. And the Gold Star Mothers mosaic on the loggia’s ceiling, which was missing hundreds of small tiles has been matched and replaced.”

Restoration included cleaning the iconic Walker Hancock statues, which have stood as the museum’s sentries since its 1938 opening. Military history and art enthusiasts may know Hancock, a native St. Louisan, as one of the Monuments Men, artists, art historians and curators who were sent to save European art treasures during World War II.

“Courage” by Walker Hancock

With the restoration came an expansion of gallery space and meeting rooms on the lower and upper levels, resulting in a doubling the memorial’s exhibition space without enlarging its footprint. Another standout expansion is the updated Court of Honor, which was originally dedicated after World War II. Redesigned, it now includes a Five Branches Fountain and reflecting pool along with the city’s Korea and Vietnam war memorials.

Chestnut Street also has been revamped into a single lane that bisects the Court of Honor and the Memorial, creating a visual connection that inspires a welcoming feel in spite of its enormous size.

Court of Honor at the Soldiers Memorial in St. Louis

Although immense, the memorial has the amazing ability to convey a feeling of intimacy through its unique exhibit design and presentations that focus on St. Louis and its people.

Unlike other military memorials across the country, including the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Soldiers Memorial’s interpretation and preservation of American military history is presented through what Sundlov calls “the lens of St. Louis.”

“Soldiers Memorial interprets all U.S. military from a St. Louis lens. Looking at St. Louis’  involvement in conflicts throughout U.S. history from the revolution to present day conflicts, ” Sundlov said. “It’s a holistic look, highlighting St. Louis stories that occurred during those conflicts along with stories of service from those who fought [and] those who made contributions from the home front. This is not a museum about war. It’s a museum about people and a memorial to the people who served.”

Mikall Venso, Soldiers Memorial military and arms curator, explained how those stories are told via the museum’s long-term exhibit “St. Louis In Service.”

“We start in the East Gallery, which begins with St. Louis’ only American Revolution battle, Battle of Fort San Carlos, which stood downtown at what is now the intersection of Walnut and 4th Street,” Venso said. “From there, we go through the conflicts through World War I. The West Gallery picks up with the story with World War II and goes through current conflicts. During a visit you can interactively build your own gunboat or search for individual stories from the 1,075 names listed on memorial’s cenotaph, the centerpiece of the loggia that rests under the Gold Star Mother’s ceiling mosaic.”

Venso explained how the museum’s goal is to help people connect to personal stories, especially those of civilians, whose work ranged from victory gardens to making ammunition in St. Louis plants.

Commemorating the centennial of the end of World War I, the war touted as “the war to end all wars,” is the first special exhibit presented in the newly renovated Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. “World War I: St. Louis and the Great War” tells the story of what life was like in St. Louis during a time of great change, both domestic and abroad. Featured are 200 never-before-displayed artifacts, including the French 11th Field Artillery uniform of Lt. Joseph Desloge, ca. 1916; a trench periscope; and an American Red Cross canteen in St. Louis, ca. 1918.

A perfect time to visit Soldiers Memorial and see those items and more is Veterans Day weekend, Nov. 10-12.

Saturday, Nov. 10

The city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs celebrate the 35th Annual St. Louis Regional Veterans Day Observance and Welcome Home Ceremony. The U.S. Postal Service will conduct a stamp cancelation commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice [November 1918] from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Food trucks will be available from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

The 35th Annual Veterans Day Parade will step off from Chestnut Street and Tucker Boulevard at noon, with a review stand in front of Soldiers Memorial.

Sunday, Nov. 11

The American Legion 11th and 12th districts will present a veterans ceremony and wreath laying at 10:55 a.m. at Soldiers Memorial.

Monday, Nov. 12

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is open with regular operating hours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Veterans Day.

In addition to celebration activities happening at Soldiers Memorial, community partners are hosting events throughout the region such as author James Wright discussing his book “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War”  as  part of the Missouri History Museum’s Primm Lecture Series at 7 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park. Books will be available for purchase.

For information on grand reopening week events and the assistance programs offered to veterans, visit mohistory.org/memorial/reopening-week-events.

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