Soldiers Memorial re-opens in St. Louis after $30M renovation of building and grounds

By ROBERT PATRICK | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: November 5, 2018

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — After a more than two-year-long, $30 million renovation that touched nearly every part of the building and grounds, the Soldiers Memorial reopened downtown Saturday with fanfare and a host of new exhibits.

Years of soot and grime have been scrubbed away. The interior of the once-overlooked building is now climate-controlled, and the hundreds of exhibits now on display are better protected from the sun and extremes of temperature and humidity. A basement renovation has more than doubled exhibit space, and the building is now fully ADA-compliant, with a new wheelchair ramp and other improvements. Workers have matched and replaced hundreds of missing tiles from the Gold Star Mothers ceiling mosaic and improved exterior lighting.

Chestnut Street, which runs along the south side of the memorial, has also been redesigned and reduced to one vehicle lane and one bike lane, better highlighting both the museum and the Court of Honor across the street. The court was created as St. Louis’ World War II memorial in 1948 and has been expanded to honor those killed in more recent conflicts. The Korea and Vietnam War memorials have also been given their own spaces, along with other improvements.

Jerry Jernigans, who said he served with the Navy’s Seabees from 1966-1968, said there had been “great changes” since his last visit. He said that the memorial was “kind of shabby then.”

In a series of speeches before the memorial officially reopened, emcee Tom Irwin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and community leader, called the occasion “solemn,” but also “joyous” to celebrate the “public-private partnership” that made it happen. 

Irwin and others praised the cooperation of public officials and donations from the Crawford Taylor Foundation, the Guth Foundation and the family of Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack C. Taylor, a World War II fighter pilot who died in 2016.

In 2015, the city signed over control of the museum to the Missouri Historical Society but retained ownership of the building and artifacts.

Several speakers on Saturday quoted or referenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to tens of thousands in front of Soldiers Memorial on its Oct. 14, 1936, dedication, and his words: “We in America do not build monuments to war. We do not build monuments to conquest. We build monuments to commemorate the spirit of sacrifice in war — reminders of our desire for peace.”

The building was under construction at the time and opened on Memorial Day in 1938.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said that one person who heard Roosevelt 82 years ago was also present Saturday — Tom Gilmore — who was 4 at the time and went on to serve with the Marine Corps.

Krewson said that at a visit a handful of years ago, she was “embarrassed” that better care had not been taken of the building and the artifacts, but she praised the renovation and welcomed the crowd to come enjoy the museum, “which in St. Louis fashion, is free and open to the public.”

The keynote speaker was Brigadier Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt of the Air Force, who said the “museum will continue to capture the stories and memories” of veterans so they will be available for “generations to come.”

Leavitt, a St. Louis native who graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School, became the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. in 1993 and would go on to become the first woman to command a combat fighter wing. She is now commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas and drew a crowd of well-wishers and autograph-seekers after the ceremony.

Saturday’s ceremony on a chilly and cloudy morning began a weeklong series of events, including multiple showings of a Mustard Seed Theatre production of “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” that are free for veterans and active military. A Veterans Day Observance and Welcome Home Ceremony is slated to be held on Saturday, Nov. 10, the same day as the Veterans Day Parade.

The first level of the museum now houses “St. Louis in Service,” which explores the St. Louis area’s role in conflicts dating to the American Revolution. The lower level hosts “World War I: St. Louis and the Great War.” The top floor has meeting space and offices.

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