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New streetscapes, new museum exhibits enliven new plans for Arch grounds

A new rendering of exhibits at the museum under the Arch.
CityArchRiver 2015

Renderings courtesy CityArchRiver 2015 A new rendering of exhibits at the museum under the Arch.

The exhibits in the museum beneath the Gateway Arch haven’t changed much since the museum first opened in 1976. Ditto for the ones at the Old Courthouse, which have also grown old.

As part of the Arch's revival, a variety of new exhibits and displays will be coming to the expanded museum beneath the Arch and to the Old Courthouse. For example, visitors can:

  • Have fun and interact with an exhibit explaining the history and importance of the Mississippi River and the St. Louis riverfront.
  • Learn about Dred Scott and others, some much lesser known, who filed lawsuits and fought for civil rights and other freedoms at the Old Courthouse.
  • Take a look back at what happened on the Arch grounds before the Arch was there.

But it’s not just new themes that you’ll find after the museums are redone by 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping out of the Arch.

Nicole Mackereth, content manager at Haley Sharpe Design’s office in Toronto, said that in designing the exhibits, “we’re using the best tools available” in terms of audio and visual technology, “but only if it is tested and long lasting.”

“Our exhibits will be very robust, durable, and easily maintained. We want to ensure that they look good and that people will be able to use them without their breaking down.”

Mackereth and David Donoghue, head of concepts at Haley Sharpe’s office in Leicester, United Kingdom, gave us a peek at their drawing boards. The firm is an exhibit design expert that’s worked at museums around the world and was hired by the National Park Service, which oversees the museums here, to design all new exhibits for both.

At the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch, Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York has designed a new layout for merging the existing part with a new underground addition. Visitors will enter through a glassy new structure, which will rise on the west side of the Arch grounds and face the east entrance to the Old Courthouse across a park over traffic that now separates the Arch grounds from downtown.

Once inside the expanded museum, you’ll find “story zones” with all new exhibits and displays areas all designed around new themes. Among them:

  • More than 250 years of St. Louis history starting with the French founding and ending with the country’s westward expansion from about the 1830s to the 1870s.
  • An “American Spirit” exhibit on the country’s Western expansion and exploration and the role of St. Louis.
  • The design and construction of the Arch and what Donoghue described as “a look at Luther Ely Smith and the city leadership that built it.”
  • The history and importance of the Mississippi River and the riverfront.
  • The Arch grounds before the Arch and what happened there.

“The grounds under the Arch played a dramatic role in shaping the America we have today,” Mackereth said. “It was an entry point for immigrants” and a hub for “innovative use of materials, and thinking big. Did you know, for example, that wagon covers used to be made on the Arch grounds?’”
At the Old Courthouse, new exhibits will focus on the building itself and what happened there, rather than on St. Louis history. Among the new themes there:

  • The architecture and history of the Old Courthouse.
  • The courtrooms and how they were used.
  • Lawsuits filed there and how some helped enable the country’s westward expansion.
  • Major lawsuits such as one by Virginia Minor that went to trial there in the 1870s seeking a woman’s right to vote.
  • The story of Dred and Harriet Scott and his quest for freedom at trials there in1847 and 1850.

“This (exhibit) will be from their perspective,” Mackereth said. “We want to tell their family story.”
Donoghue said that all the new exhibits will feature “more things to touch, and ways to express yourself. And we’re exploring ways that we can use media to tell the stories.”

Added Mackereth: “We’ll be using new technologies – tried and tested techniques – asking questions, asking visitors to express themselves. There are different ways of understanding lots of things in history, such as the Louisiana Purchase, things that affected Native Americans. We’ll be asking for example, ‘Was it fair? A good idea? Would you have done it?’”

Mackereth said the designers want exhibits to appeal to all ages and to families, local as well as visiting. “We want to encourage repeat local audiences,” she said.

Ann Honious is chief of museum services and interpretation for the National Park Service that oversees the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial containing the Arch and Old Courthouse.

Honious said that many of the artifacts from existing exhibits at the Arch museum would be recycled in the new ones. “We might also look to other institutions to fill in and enhance what’s here,” she said.

At the Old Courthouse, she said, old court records and documents are being used for research and some will be incorporated into the new exhibits.

“There is an abundance of interesting stories of how people filed lawsuits or used the courthouse for their rights, or to be citizens,” she said.

“Another theme will be how the courthouse was used, and how it functioned for naturalizing citizens, paying taxes. We’ll be looking at how that was a vital part of the city and brought to life through various court records. Many of the records are still there, and we have some great stories to tell people.”

Expanding the museum beneath the Arch, renovating the Old Courthouse and putting new exhibits in both is just part of $500 million-plus CityArchRiver 2015 plan in the works for more than five years to revive the Arch grounds and connect it with improved surroundings on both sides of the Mississippi river. The $380 million part on the Missouri side is to be finished by 2015; work on the Illinois side is to move forward after that.

'Lids,' roads, bridges and trails

The dirt will begin to fly in August when the Missouri Department of Transportation begins constructing the park over Interstate 70, and making other related street and traffic improvements.

Among them, said MoDOT traffic engineer Deanna Venker, is:

  • simplifying the confusing intersection at Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive,
  • replacing the Walnut Street bridge and making Walnut a two-way street,
  • making other changes to improve access and the traffic near the Arch grounds and the riverfront.

The cost: About $36 million.
Also moving forward, with money in hand, is a $33 million plan to improve the riverfront undertaken by the Great Rivers Greenway.

Susan Trautman, the Great Rivers Greenway executive director, said construction is scheduled to start in spring 2014 and be finished in 2015, assuming “another year of low water” without riverfront flooding.

The improvements will be paid for with about $10.9 million from Great Rivers Greenway, about $20 million in federal grants, and the rest private money. The plan includes raising the level of Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard by as much as two and a half feet in places from Biddle Street on the north to Chouteau Avenue on the south. Trautman said that elevation would reduce flooding on Sullivan by about 87 days during a typical river flood season.

The plan includes also:

  • A promenade along the riverfront and a special events area.
  • A new bicycling trail with amenities at Biddle and Chouteau and connections to the Great Rivers greenway system
  • New safety, security and lighting features.

And, Trautman said, her organization is looking into the possibility of building other new features to encourage visitors to “have fun on the riverfront and make people want to explore its history.”
Maggie Hales is executive director of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, a nonprofit organization of government and civic leaders.

As of today, Hales said, all the elements of the plan for the Missouri side of the river -- from the park over the highway to the revival of Kiener Plaza -- are scheduled to be finished by 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping off of the Arch. (Other changes, such as the aerial tram over the river and the improvements on the Illinois side, are on the agenda for after 2015.)

Hales said about $98 million in public and private money is now in hand, and that fundraising is continuing. One boost would be approval of a proposed sales tax increase on the ballot in April in St. Louis and St. Louis County. It would generate money for local parks throughout the city and county, and for Great Rivers Greenway, some of which would be used as leverage for a bond issue of about $100 million for the CityArchRiver project.

One still evolving element calls for demolishing the parking garage on the north side of the Arch grounds, just south of the Eads Bridge, and replacing it with perhaps a plaza and other new features. The garage won’t go down, however, until a plan is in place.

“We are working on the assumption that it will go down,” said Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley

“We have a lot of parking capacity” in downtown, he said, “but we want to make sure it is nearby, affordable and accessible, and that visitors know where to go to park.”

Hales said various ideas are on the table for what might be built alongside the Eads Bridge when the garage is gone.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do there is something people will want to come see and do,” she said.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.