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Bringing old buildings back to life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2010 - An artist most recently known for her watercolor renderings of doors across St. Louis, Sheila Harris has turned her attention to entire buildings that have long since vanished.

Nearly 40 of her paintings of landmarks that once stood on what now are the Arch grounds appear in a new exhibit at the Old Courthouse. Created for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the watercolor portraits depict structures that helped define the riverfront landscape for more than 150 years.

The exhibit, “Faces of the Riverfront: Portraits of Historic Buildings,” runs from Sunday through Aug. 22 and launches with an artist’s reception on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. Inside the gallery, the paintings are divided by era. They collectively help tell the architectural history of St. Louis and illustrate how the waterfront evolved from an unfettered prairie to a French fur trading village to a crowded residential and commercial district to a largely abandoned area of the city.

Harris has long been fascinated by the riverfront and the range of architectural styles of the structures that dotted the landscape.

“I love buildings,” she said. “I’ve always loved the whole muscular feel of brick and stone and all the different textures you can get.”

Bob Moore, a historian with the U.S. National Park Service who has studied the buildings that were within the current boundaries of park, saw several of Harris’ paintings of buildings that once stood along the riverfront and asked her to vastly expand the collection so it could stand alone as an exhibit.

Harris and her sister, NiNi Harris, a local historian and author of nine books on St. Louis history, architecture and city neighborhoods, sifted through photographs and maps of the area provided by Moore. Sheila Harris based most of her paintings on black-and-white photographs taken in the 1930s by the National Park Service and on lithographs from old publications. The sisters also spent time walking through St. Louis neighborhoods that have buildings from earlier eras to get a sense of the varying architectural styles.

“Even though they were black-and-white photos, you could tell [the buildings] had such great character and such vibrant colors,” Sheila Harris said. “You could guess what were the deep red and the deep brown bricks. Digging through the photographs was fun. The part of splashing down the paint was great fun. The detailed pencil lines to get things in proportion – not so much fun.”

The National Park Service worked with the two sisters to identify which buildings would be represented in the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Jefferson National Parks Association, the nonprofit that accepts donations on behalf of the park.

It took roughly a year for Sheila Harris to create all the portraits for the exhibit. Each painting comes with a map that shows the building’s original location. The exhibit also includes architectural fragments, such as cast-iron railings, that were salvaged from some of the buildings pictured and have become part of the Park Service’s collection.

Sheila Harris said through researching for the project she learned just how much business took place near the riverfront and how many people lived in the area. “I found it pretty interesting because when I was growing up the area was pretty much depopulated,” she said. “Everything had been leveled, and the building of the Arch started when I was in high school.”

Centuries before Eero Saarinen’s iconic structure was constructed, the entire settlement of St. Louis was once within what is now the Arch grounds, as NiNi Harris explained. The exhibit starts by illustrating the 18th-century stone buildings that housed the French settlers and stored the furs they traded. Sheila Harris also depicts the brick buildings that later became popular, as well as the cast-iron storefronts and larger buildings that sprouted up following the fire of 1849 that destroyed downtown city blocks. Among the structures pictured are warehouses, houses, trading offices, a newspaper building, a government building and a firehouse.

“These paintings demonstrate that the riverfront has been a dynamic landscape from the start,” said Caitlin McQuade, curator of exhibits at the National Park Service. “The riverfront is the face of the city, and as the city has changed its face has reflected those changes, and it continues to adapt as time goes on.”

Added NiNi Harris: “This is where it all happened. There was no other location that was the place of origin for as vast a territory as that riverfront was for the American West.”

Both Harris sisters are natural teachers – Sheila was an art instructor for more than 36 years at what was formerly called Rosary High School (it’s now Trinity High School) in St. Louis County; NiNi gives regular walking architectural history tours in various St. Louis neighborhoods.

On April 11 from 1-3 p.m. at the Old Courthouse, Sheila Harris will demonstrate the steps she went through and techniques she used to create her watercolor portraits. The sisters are also collaborating on a 30-minute radio play in which they recall scenes and images from two centuries of history along the St. Louis riverfront. Written by NiNi and Sheila Harris, "Voices of the Riverfront" includes the stories of the people who were a part of that history, starting with the founding of St. Louis. The performance takes place in front of an audience at the Old Courthouse on March 21 at 2 p.m.

It isn’t the first time the sisters have worked together on such a piece – they also wrote and performed pieces about the Civil War and prohibition in St. Louis.