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Philanthropist Peter Fischer says: Do the Gateway Mall right

Bernar Venet, 2 Arcs x 4, 230.5 Degree Arc x 5. The pink sign on the recent photo The safety of children who come to Citygarden is the sole responsibility of their caregivers. Playing in or near or on sculpture is inherently dangerous.
Rachel Heidenry and Donna Korando

Philanthropist M. Peter Fischer didn't mince words at the St. Louis Award ceremony Thursday. Do the Gateway Mall right, he said, and keep the hands of commercial developers and politicians off it.

Fischer, who is the 82nd person to receive the award, is known for elusiveness rather than garrulousness. It was a surprise to many that he was willing not only to accept the St. Louis Award for his philanthropy but also that he was also going to receive it in a public ceremony.

In introducing him to a rain-punished audience at the downtown headquarters of AT&T, Mayor Francis Slay commented on Fischer's reticence, but said it would be "hard to stay behind the curtain when you do something this great."

Fischer's contribution to St. Louis is no Wizard of Oz sleight of hand, however. The great deed of which Mayor Slay spoke is Citygarden, the bold, dynamic, magnetic 2.9-acre sculpture garden that opened in the summer and became an immediate hit, a magnet for all sorts and conditions of folks, a shot in the arm for a region accustomed to getting a punch in the nose and a place that is, at any time of the day or night, an occasion of pleasure, of delight, of whimsy and serenity. The only time it empties out is when the rain comes as it came on Thursday, and even then, even in solitude, it was magnificent.

Fischer's acceptance speech was tough. Unlike many recipients of awards for this or that, he wrote it himself, and unlike many speeches given by awards recipients, it was platitude free.

Fischer spoke directly to the problem of the Gateway Mall, on which his Citygarden sits, and by implication, to the way so many projects get mired in mediocrity in this region. The Gateway Mall, since its birth in the early 20th century City Beautiful movement, has been many things in its 100-plus-year history, none of them very successful. There has never been a clear vision of what the Mall should be, and the leadership hasn't existed to connect the good parts of the Mall well enough to bring distinction to the whole.

That is, until Fischer and the Gateway Foundation began to exert its considerable resources toward the vivification of one two-block stretch of the property, which lies between Market and Chestnut, and Eighth and Tenth streets.

In July, after a relatively speedy 15-month construction period, Citygarden opened in time for the All-Star Game, when the eyes of many were on St. Louis. When it opened, everyone knew the Foundation and the city had an enormous hit on its hands. It began to be referred to as "world class."

Fischer doesn't like that term, and indeed, it sounds cheesy and tabloid-y. But he came to accept that it had popular meaning, and accepted also having the description applied to Citygarden.

His hope -- and clearly his intention -- is that plans in the works now for the Mall will produce work that is similarly world class, rather than compromised and second- or third-rate. And his hope also is that those responsible for implementing the plans for it will be inspired and motivated by Citygarden's national and international success.

This success is largely due to the fact that Fischer believes in the power of good design and the folly of expediency in urban planning matters, and his willingness to put his Foundation's money where his mouth is. He, the Gateway Foundation board and its staff maintained tight control of the design of Citygarden and supervised the selection of the two dozen works of art installed in it.

The Foundation was as vigilant as it was bold in executing the design of the garden itself, which is a lyrical arrangement of architecture, open space, secluded spaces, botany -- and historic context.

Furthermore, the garden was not designed in isolation but with a sense of how it should connect with and refer to outstanding works of art and architecture nearby such as Richard Serra's pioneering sculpture "Twain" to its west, to Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building to the northeast, and dead ahead to the east, to Eero Saarinen's minimalist masterpiece, the Arch.

In his speech, Fischer noted that the Gateway Foundation had provided the city with serious money a number of years ago to create a master plan for the Gateway Mall, which stretches along Market Street from the Old Courthouse to Union Station. Such a plan has been drawn, he said, and he said it calls for the creation of five "rooms," or designated gathering places, along the length of the Mall.

Citygarden is one such "room." Fischer said that in addition to the five rooms in the plan, the proposal for a lid connecting the Mall -- and downtown St. Louis -- to the grounds of the Arch is essential, and should be categorized another room.

But enough of rooms, he exclaimed.

He had more strongly constructed remarks to make and more philosophical ground to break. His thrust had to do not only with Citygarden and the Mall, but with the way business is done in St. Louis, particularly where land is concerned.

In a nutshell, Fischer wants commercial interests to keep the hell away from the Mall.

"The master plan calls for the creation of a mall conservancy to implement the master plan, to operate the mall and to raise money," he said. "The conservancy is similar to Forest Park Forever. Strangely, there is no mention of design as part of the duties of the conservancy. But we (that is, Fischer and the Foundation) believe that it is imperative that the design of the rest of the mall be the responsibility of the conservancy.

"For this reason," he continued, "the makeup of the conservancy board is vitally important. It should have a board of directors who have a clear, demonstrated love of and concern for St. Louis

"They should not be persons who have a financial or political interest in the outcome of the mall design. Their interests should be only in excellence of design."

Fischer said if Citygarden is a "world-class" project, then "it has set the standard for the rest of the Mall.... The first, and perhaps most important job of the new Mall conservancy and its board should be to insure world class design for each of the rooms called out in the master plan.

"We want great and brilliant design for our public spaces. We do not want design of public spaces offered by developers, for the result be likely be a function of the developer's bottom line and their own narrow interest -- not 'world class' excellence."

Fischer acknowledged that good design and its implementation doesn't come cheap. Citygarden, for example, cost between $25 million and $30 million. He said he realized people would agonize about where the money would come from.

He told a story about a long-ago time when he lived in Washington, and was asked to come along with a group on a journey to Montreal to see that Canadian city's transit system. While there, the group had lunch with the mayor of Montreal, and someone asked how he was able to raise the money to build such a fine system.

The mayor answered, "We just did it," and said furthermore, "if Montreal had worried about where we were going to get the money and all the other formidable obstacles, we never would have built it."

Fischer said that was his message to the region in accepting its St. Louis Award: Do it. And do it right.

About the St. Louis Award

Civic leader and philanthropist David P. Wohl established the St. Louis Award in 1931. Coincidentally, given Fischer's penchant for anonymity, Wohl insisted on anonymity. Like Fischer, Wohl was referred to often as the "anonymous donor."

The award is presented by the award committee to "the resident of metropolitan St. Louis who, during the preceding year, has contributed the most outstanding service for its development or [who] shall have performed such service as to bring greatest honor to the community."

The men and women (as well as institutions) who have received the St. Louis Award can be said to have risen to the challenge of another great philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who believed philanthropy should do "real and permanent good in this world."

Interestingly, Peter Fischer's mother, Teresa, received the St. Louis Award 47 years ago, in 1962. She and her husband, Aaron, established the Gateway Foundation. Their son said he accepted the St. Louis Award on behalf of the Foundation, but also in no small part, to honor the memory of his parents.

A number of past recipients were on hand for the presentation of the award. So too was a granddaughter of David P. Wohl, who did indeed leave behind him "real and permanent good." The granddaughter is businesswoman Elizabeth Russell, who currently is writing a book about the history of the St. Louis Award and its rich legacy.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. Photo was added in 2015.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.