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Mural Mystery Solved, But Fabled Clock Still Missing From St. Louis' Union Station

Beginning in 1942 and for around three decades – no one seems to know for sure – a massive mural depicting a flurry of commercial activity along the St. Louis riverfront peered down upon the ticket counter at Union Station.

Perhaps your parents or grandparents – or you – remember gazing at the three panels, each 28-feet long and seven-feet tall, while dreaming of an impending railway journey across the state or around the country. But aftera round of renovations that ended in 1985, the mural disappeared for three decades.

Even during its absence, Union Station officials and local art experts never forgot “Commerce on the Landing” by Chicago artist Louis Grell.They knew it was always possible, however, that the mural had been destroyed. Did it exist? If so, where was it?

As St. Louis prepared to celebrate its 250th birthday and Union Station continued its current renovation, the search escalated.

Dramatic Unveiling

Last week, Union Station general manager Tim Cooper was poking around a part of the hotel undergoing reconstruction when he thought to look into a little-used storage closet. There, hidden beneath numerous odd items, was the trio of panels.

Workers cut into a wall at Union Station so long-lost mural panels could be brought out.
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
Workers cut into a wall at Union Station so long-lost mural panels could be brought out.

Cooper’s discovery was a quiet surprise. A good surprise. And Thursday, the media was introduced to the mural with dramatic fanfare. The closet had apparently been built around the mural, its doors too small to fit the panels through. So workers in hard hats powered up saws and cut a 7-foot-tall hole in the closet wall before extracting each piece from its place of hiding.

During its three decades of banishment, the mural sustained little damage, according to local art expert Jonathon Kodner.

“Given the age of it, I would say it’s in pretty darn good condition and, aesthetically, still radiates the colors, the palette and the overall beauty of the composition,” Kodner said.

After undergoing slight restoration, the mural will be re-installed in a prominent location within the historic facility, according to Cooper.

“We’d like to have it placed behind the front desk of the hotel, secured there so that everybody that visits can see it, take pictures of it and just enjoy history,” Cooper said.

The panels should be in place when Union Station has its grand re-opening in May.

More Treasure to Be Found

The recovered mural is only one item on Union Station’s scavenger-hunt list for lost treasures.

Also among them is the figure of a woman, six feet tall with her arms up, holding a clock. For many years she towered above the fireplace mantle in the ladies’ waiting room (not a restroom but a separate waiting room for women only. Men had their own).

It’s not clear at what point in time she went missing. But her disappearance begs questions: Where could she be? In the foyer of a grand home? In the basement of some quirky collector?

Union Station officials hope that by putting the word out, someone will come forward with information about this mysterious figure in a flowing dress, whose sole job of holding a clock was very much in keeping with the goal of her home base: making sure the trains ran on time.

Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
At left, the lady with the clock as it appeared decades ago (photo provided). At right, the area waits to reclaim its lost sculpture.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.