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St. Louis looks to overhaul Soldiers Memorial, find new caretaker

ST. LOUIS • City officials and civic leaders have begun talking with private donors and area museum leaders about taking over the maintenance, financing — and perhaps operations — of the city-owned Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown, including its archives of war letters, weapons, uniforms, medals and other artifacts.

The museum’s collection has been neglected for years, leading some city officials to call it embarrassing. The building needs more than $6 million in upgrades and repairs, according to city files. And the city has tried multiple times, always unsuccessfully, to find it another caretaker.

Now, however, museum officials have identified at least one donor, the Taylor family of Enterprise Rent-A-Car fame, interested in a multimillion-dollar, top-to-bottom overhaul, plus an endowment for yearly operations.

And they’ve approached the Missouri History Museum about cataloging, restoring and preserving the memorial’s collection.

Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, confirmed that the memorial’s nonprofit fundraising board has, at Slay’s urging, engaged in talks with other groups. He said it’s early in the process and that donors have not yet committed, but that the prospects are real.

“There’s lots of interest in this,” he said. “And the mayor is really excited about that interest. But we’re not there yet.

“I’m not being coy about who’s in and who’s not,” Rainford said. “It’s presumptuous for me to speak for other people.”

Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, said that the Taylor family is one of many potential donors “focused” on the project. Executive Chairman Andrew Taylor, she confirmed, paid for a $145,000 study by well-known museum designer Ralph Appelbaum Associates on a basement-to-rooftop renovation and operations plan that could cost $20 million.

The family and its foundation have, in recent years, given millions to area institutions: $35 million to the Danforth Plant Science Center, $40 million to rescue the St. Louis Symphony and $70 million to Washington University, among others.

Enterprise founder Jack Taylor gave $330 million to his family foundation in 2012 alone. His company’s name comes from the USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier on which he served as a World War II pilot.

The History Museum’s interim president, Bob Cox, said his museum’s attorneys have already gone through several iterations of an agreement with the city. Nothing has been signed, he cautioned, and the contract would still need the approval of the museum board. Still, he called the prospect “a wonderful thing for our community.”

“If the Historical Society could play a major role,” Cox said, “that would be a feather in our cap.”

The memorial was built for $1 million starting in 1935 to honor World War I veterans. It opened on Memorial Day 1938, just after Adolf Hitler seized Austria and as Japanese armies were advancing in China. It has since become a memorial for Missouri veterans from all wars.

But the Greek Revival building, at North 13th and Chestnut streets, has largely been ignored in recent years.

Its limestone exterior wasn’t cleaned for more than 60 years. Heating and cooling systems haven’t been updated — the museum has no air conditioning. Old windows let in UV light, fading exhibit labels and requiring constant artifact rotation.

And the memorial’s two-member staff (and $150,000 budget) has struggled to keep up with donation cataloging.

Jim Garavaglia, a city asset manager and member of the memorial’s governing commission, said the museum has boxes of war artifacts, documents and memorabilia in the basement.

“We have, I’ve been told, some very valuable things that people have donated,” he said.

But the museum also has keepsakes that probably don’t belong in a museum, Garavaglia said: “They never said no to anything anybody donated.”

Museum Superintendent Lynnea Magnuson can’t catch up, officials said. “She’s got so much stuff, she doesn’t know what she’s got,” Garavaglia said.

A few years ago, Slay asked the History Museum to run the memorial, Rainford said. He tried to get the building into the region’s tax-supported Zoo-Museum District. And he worked with congressmen to get the National Park Service to take over. “None of those bore any fruit,” Rainford said.

Then Slay asked a group of three veterans and civic leaders to sit on a nonprofit board dedicated to finding private funding for the memorial.

That board, called the Friends of Soldiers Memorial, commissioned the Appelbaum study about three years ago, paid for by Taylor.

Appelbaum imagined a complete overhaul, with photography, videography, focused exhibits and even a touch-screen wall where visitors could listen to St. Louis veterans tell war stories. The report suggested opening the basement, and maybe even the basement tunnel, for exhibitions. And it advocated collaborations with other area institutions.

Perhaps the National Archives’ nearby repository of U.S. veteran documents could build a public interface at the memorial, creating “the place to go to look up any soldier from any time,” the report said.

And maybe, the report noted, it would be more suitable for a private foundation to oversee the museum rather than the city.

There’s still a lot to work out, all parties agree, from funding to governance.

But there is movement. About two months ago, John Roberts, chairman of the nonprofit Missouri Historical Society, which runs the History Museum, came to his executive committee with a secret:

The society had been approached by an anonymous party to enter into a contract to archive and catalog a collection “that is apparently in a great state of disrepair.”

The collection would be removed, cataloged and preserved. The Historical Society would be paid for its time and materials; the History Museum would not be charged, no tax dollars used. In fact, the project would be endowed.

But he needed the executive committee’s approval to enter into negotiations.

Board members were not immediately sold on the idea. Elizabeth Robb, a local real estate broker, said she would find it very hard to vote on such an idea without knowing the parties involved, and risk “extreme embarrassment.”

Ray Stranghoener, a Commerce Bank vice president and former museum board president, worried about the new museum president, about to be hired. “This seems to be jumping the gun on a new strategic planning process,” he said. “I have some real concerns.”

Roberts insisted the committee act with “some urgency.”

By the meeting’s end, the executive committee had given Roberts its approval to begin negotiations on the Soldiers Memorial project.

Roberts beamed. “The Historical Society,” he said that night, “should be thinking about more than just operating the History Museum.”

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