A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I:  Historic Contexts

7 - Cultural Life

Communities develop a sense of self from those things which people see as defining their city. St. Louisans defined themselves by institutions, and symbols from the Veiled Prophet to baseball. Those cultural symbols are rooted in our collective past as a community, and are those things people speak of when describing St. Louis to others.

Cultural Institutions

The Missouri Botanical Garden is centered around the country home of merchant-turned-botanist Henry Shaw. Founded in 1860, the Garden is a reflection of the Enlightenment thought in which Shaw grew up. The institution grew out of Shaw's interest in science, especially botany, and his collection at his estate at Tower Grove House (now on the Botanical Garden grounds). It was and is dedicated to scientific and botanical learning, inquiry, and research, grounded in a belief that study and understanding of the natural world will reveal more of the human societal one. From its beginning "Shaw's Garden" included a research library and displays of flora and fauna.

Today, the Garden is committed to the global concerns of receding rainforests, increased pollution, and destruction of endangered plant and animal species. At the same time, it contributes to the local community as an attraction while providing educational programs and horticultural information.

To an extent, the St. Louis Zoo is its counterpart in the animal world. The concept dates to 1876, when the city opened a zoological garden at Fairgrounds Park complete with a bear pit (remnants of which are still there) and a monkey house. Interest increased soon after the world's fair in 1904, so that within ten years the city legislature appointed a Zoo board.

The St. Louis Zoo was among the first in the United States to feature animals in more naturalistic settings. Its bear exhibits were built from castings of bluffs on the lower Mississippi River. The philosophy has evolved to include indigenous plant life and natural groupings of animals in exhibits. Arching over much of that period was Marlin Perkins, who started at the Zoo in 1926 and ended up director in 1962. Perkins was responsible for drawing attention to the animal world and its study. His televised "Wild Kingdom," broadcast for 21 seasons starting in 1961, featured weekly journeys to show something of animals in exotic places. While animals in the zoo have a natural appeal for people, it would be a mistake to discount the impact of Perkins and his mix of education and showmanship.

After a $30-plus million effort, an expanded St. Louis Science Center opened its new facility in 1992 adjacent to the McDonnell Planetarium. The Center's roots date to the Academy of Science of St. Louis, founded in 1856. It opened a permanent home at 3817 Olive in 1904, but closed during World War I. It opened a new home in 1944 at 4642 Lindell, then moved to Oak Knoll in 1959. The Academy joined the Planetarium in 1983. Its exhibits, activities, and programs strive to compel people to think in terms of scientific inquiry and relationships while also having fun doing it.

Largest and oldest of the arts organizations is the St. Louis Art Museum. It began at 19th and Locust to nurture both classes and connoisseurship, and outgrew its space by the turn of the century. Plans for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition included a Palace of Art as a permanent structure for the Art Museum. The museum took occupancy in time for the fair, and was administered by Washington University and the Exposition Company for another five years. The museum was turned over to the city in 1909. Its collections remain broad-based in painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from most places and periods, including joint administration with the Nelson Gallery of the George Caleb Bingham sketchbook.

While the St. Louis Art Museum has collected and exhibited with a broad brush, other newer organizations have striven for more focus. The Urban League created the Vaughn Cultural Center in 1977 to preserve, articulate, and interpret both local and national African-American art and culture. The center was funded by Ermalene Lovell Vaughn in memory of her deceased husband Dr. Arthur Vaughn. The First Street Forum began as a place to exhibit contemporary art in changing exhibits. Now, both the Vaughn Center and The Forum are located in Grand Center, a growing arts area centering on Grand Avenue between Delmar and Lindell.

The Missouri Historical Society rounds out the major cultural institutions. The mercantile elite first met in the Old Courthouse in 1866 to create an organization to preserve the artifacts of the oldest St. Louis families and the Louisiana Territory. It purchased an old home at 16th and Locust twenty years later to display its holdings, but outgrew it by the time of the world's fair. It moved in 1913 into its current home, the Jefferson Memorial Building at the site of the entrance to the world's fair in Forest Park. Funds for the memorial came from leftover proceeds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and was originally to exhibit artifacts relating to Lewis and Clark. Thus it became the community's memory bank, but retaining only those objects and archival materials deemed significant or interesting by a white elite. Now supported by the Zoo-Museum Tax District, the Missouri Historical Society is far more expansive to document a diverse community.


Ragtime jazz sprouted in St. Louis in the late nineteenth century. Centered around the Chestnut Hill area between Chestnut and Market around 20th Street, clubs in the Mill Creek Valley were a hotbed of new rag and improvisational music. Tom Turpin's Rosebud Cafe was a gathering place for these musicians and composers as well as those following their music. Scott Joplin worked as a piano player at the Rosebud during his two stints in St. Louis, and wrote his classic ragtime "The Entertainer" there. W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" originated from the music experience in the Chestnut Hill area, giving St. Louis both a reputation for and heritage of jazz as the genre gained strong national attention starting in the 1920s.9

Other clubs provided similar musical experiences in later decades. The Riviera Club, owned for a while by African-American political boss Jordan Chambers, offered the best local bands an outlet during the 1940s and 1950s. While many white nightclubs and halls were closed to black patrons, African-American musicians were generally welcome. Even in a racist society, black culture seeped into white consciousness. The Mill Creek Valley music district experienced a slight renaissance in the 1960s, when new clubs opened in Gaslight Square.

Such music was juxtaposed against a more formal style, that of classical music. By the turn of the century, the Odeon Theater (on Grand just north of Delmar) housed a new locally based orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony. The Symphony moved to the newly opened Kiel Auditorium in 1934, then to Powell Hall three decades later. Originally, the building opened at Grand and Delmar in 1925 as the St. Louis Theater. After a $2 million renovation in 1966 the Symphony moved to its present home.

Meantime, smaller independent musical and lecture performances were held at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Completed in 1912, it was a memorial to St. Louis Ethical Society founder Walter Sheldon. The Society left in 1966, but the Sheldon survived as a site for concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, and dances.

The Municipal Theater Association formed in 1919 to sponsor outdoor plays and musicals during the summers in the amphitheater in Forest Park. More than five decades later, in 1976, Ronald Himes founded the Black Repertory Theater to produce theatrical works by black playwrights. Today, the Black Rep is part of the Grandel Center arts renaissance. Today, the city boasts more than fourteen performing arts organizations.


The precursors to free public libraries were private libraries open to dues-paying members only. The St. Louis Lyceum lasted but a few years, but its supporters later created the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association in 1846. It is the oldest library west of the Mississippi still in service. Its new building, completed in 1854 at Broadway and Locust, included a reading room, book stacks, meeting rooms, and the largest auditorium in the city. It constructed a new edifice on the same site in 1889, but without a new lecture hall, beginning its decline in importance as a site for cultural and intellectual interchange in the city.

Free public libraries replaced such institutions by the end of the century. The rise of free public libraries with tax support grew in the Gilded Age, parallel to the rise of public education. Many saw libraries as encouraging democracy because they gave access to learning. Some even started as part of public school systems. Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded construction of more than 1,600 public libraries in the United States because, he said, they were the one institution that only helped those who helped themselves.10 The St. Louis Public Library system started in 1893, and quickly became a prominent institution. Its chief librarian, Frederick Crunden, was a leader in the national library movement and the American Library Association. Carnegie gave $1 million to the Public Library in 1901 to build its central library and five branches. Its Main Library, designed by Cass Gilbert of New York, opened in 1912. The other half of the gift went to branches at Carnegie's encouragement, since they help make learning more accessible to people. His dollars built the Barr Branch in 1906, the Cabanne Branch in 1907, Carondelet in 1908, and Soulard and Divol in 1910. Carnegie dollars later funded the Carpenter Branch on South Grand as well.

The system continued to grow and expand in public support. The St. Louis Public Library system already received tax dollars at the turn of the century, so meeting Carnegie's requirement that the city impose a tax to fund ongoing administration and book purchases was not problematic. The system continued in this vein in the 1980s, establishing electronic card catalogues in sites outside its own buildings. It received a substantial increase in support from voters in 1994.

Newspapers & Publishing

Newspapers were the primary vehicle people used for learning about current events. Just as today there are many radio and television stations, there were many newspapers in the nineteenth century. St. Louis was part of the United States for just five years when Joseph Charless published the city's first newspaper, the Missouri Gazette. These papers changed names, owners, and editors frequently. The Argus, started in 1831, for example, then became the Union in 1848. It merged with the Missouri Democrat in 1852, which joined the Globe in 1875 to eventually become the Globe-Democrat. Three years later, Joseph Pulitzer published the first Post-Dispatch.

Pulitzer came from a tradition of German language newspapers to serve the large immigrant population. Christian Bimpage founded the Anzeiger des Westens in 1835. After a difference of opinion with editor Henry Boerstein, Carl Daenzer started the Westliche Post in 1857; Emil Preetorius became editor in 1864, and Carl Schurz joined them three years later. The Post and Anzeiger merged in 1898 as the leading German paper in the region. Most of the other publications from St. Louis were special-interest ones. The Age of Steel became a leading journal for the iron and steel industry, for example. Originally a German weekly, it changed its name and language in 1861 to Journal of Commerce. New owners reissued it in 1880 as The Age of Steel. St. Louis publishers issued The Lumberman, the Western Trade Journal, and the St. Louis Dry Goods and Grocery Reporter during the Gilded Age. The Sporting News, the leading weekly about sports founded in 1886, is published in St. Louis. The Spinks had transformed it into the leading baseball journal by the turn of the century. Today, it covers a wide range of sporting activities and remains the paper of record for sport.


Writers working in St. Louis contribute both to the city's cultural mix and to the culture it exports. It is part of the creative genius of the city. Current popular writers as diverse as social commentator Gerald Early, essayist Wayne Fields, and mystery writer John Lutz, join a historical legacy. William Wells Brown, a former slave and America's first African-American novelist, set his 1847 autobiographical slave narrative (Narrative of William W Brown, A Fugitive Slave) in St. Louis. Author Kate Chopin penned her equally controversial The Awakening in 1899 (her son, incidentally, was a cartoonist drawing the Weatherbird for the Post-Dispatch in the early twentieth century). Poet T. S. Eliot grew up here, and Langston Hughes found inspiration for "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" on the St. Louis riverfront. U. S. Poet Laureate Leonard Nemerov and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale were St. Louisans. Playwright Tennessee Williams lived in St. Louis, a theatrical legacy for the Black Repertory's Ronald Himes.

The Veiled Prophet

Created in 1878 by white male community leaders, the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm sought to recreate the Mardi Gras type of community-wide celebration. This gala came to include pageantry, costumes, and a parade with floats. It officially unveiled its first "Queen of Love and Beauty," or the VP Queen, and the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1878. The VP Fair on the riverfront started in 1979, and became Fair St. Louis in 1995. The traditional VP celebration has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.

The Gateway Arch

The Gateway Arch is among the most pervasive symbols of St. Louis. It has its roots in the Great Depression. The Jefferson National Expansion Association, under the leadership of Mayor Bernard Dickmann, aimed to rehabilitate the riverfront and levee district. The area was an old commercial district with cobblestone streets, aged buildings, ghosts of fur-trading days, and less-than-desirable inhabitants.  The WPA spent $9 million starting in 1935 to acquire those properties and raze the buildings on them. Luther Ely Smith and James Ford raised $225,000 ten years later to sponsor an architectural competition for the gateway memorial. A commission selected the design for an arch submitted by Eero Saarinen.

Plans lay idle for almost twenty years. But on October 28, 1965, the last center unit of the Arch was put in place after seven years of construction. Two years later, the National Park Service opened trains to carry visitors to the top of the 632-foot high Arch.

The National Pastime

St. Louis's first professional baseball team took the field at the start of the 1876 season seven years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings fielded the first professional team in 1869. The St. Louis club, later known as the Browns, played at Sportsman's Park on Grand between Dodier and St. Louis Avenue. Chris von der Ahe bought the team in 1881 to build clientele for his nearby saloon. The Browns joined the newly formed American League in 1900, but proved to be among the most hapless franchises in the history of major league baseball. Before moving to Baltimore after the 1953 season, the Browns played in only one World Series-ironically, against the Cardinals, with whom they shared a stadium-in 1944.

Branch Rickey and, starting in 1920, auto dealer Sam Breadon built the Cardinals into a regular contender after almost three decades of less-than-stellar records. Rickey transformed the game during his tenure at St. Louis by pioneering the "farm system" in the early 1920s. In it, a major league team had control over the players on a series of minor league teams at different levels. It can promote players to or demote them from its major league roster, and hold their contract.

Rickey's system paid off. Once a perennial loser, the Cardinals won the National League pennant in 1926, and beat the powerhouse New York Yankees featuring sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the World Series. The Cardinals started playing at National League Park at Vandeventer and Natural Bridge in 1899, but leased the more spacious Sportsman's Park in 1920. Sportsman's Park started showing its age in the late 1950s, especially compared to new National League stadia in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now owned by Anheuser-Busch, the Cardinals moved to the new Busch Stadium downtown in May, 1965.

When asked about most important events in the history of St. Louis, many locals cite the World Series they remember most. For some, it is 1926, when the Cards won the game throwing out Babe Ruth stealing second base for the last out. Others remember the Gashouse Gang, led by Dizzy Dean, beating Detroit in 1934. Some talk of the World Series in which all the games were played in the same stadium in 1944, with the Browns and Cardinals. Many remember Stan "The Man" Musial at the plate in the 1950s. Another generation recalls Bob Gibson pitching the Cards to a world crown in 1967. 

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