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Danforth Foundation backs away from $50 million offer to build museum on Arch grounds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2008 - Is Jack Danforth taking his marbles off the Arch grounds and going home mad?

That's a notion suggested by some who regard the contents of a letter sent by former Sen. John C. Danforth to Dirk Kempthorne, the secretary of the Interior, as a retreat from his and his family's foundation's commitment to a substantial investment in improvements to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, also known as the Gateway Arch. 

All along, Danforth's desire has been to build a museum on the Arch grounds, to be designed by the winner of an international architectural competition. The intention would be to raise the profile of the memorial and to increase visits to it, and by extension, to the city of St. Louis and the region as a whole. Danforth was prepared to back up this vision with up to $50 million from the Danforth Foundation.

News of Danforth's letter to Kempthorne was reported first in preservationist Michael Allen's Ecology of Absence blog. The letter refers to the diminution of Danforth Foundation assets and the impact that might have on the Foundation’s ability to support any proposal at the $50 million level. It also referred to the Foundation’s continued interest in an above ground museum centrally located on the Arch grounds. The park service is responsible for maintenance and management of the Arch.

In an interview Tuesday, Danforth said he and the Foundation spent lots of time and money on studying various proposals to make the Arch and its environs more magnetic. His conclusion was that a "destination attraction" on the Arch grounds was the desired course of action. The attraction would be a museum, probably one dealing with migration.

"That was the thought," Danforth said. "That still is the thought, and the foundation has expressed support of it. But I have said both to the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service that our support depends on the support of the Park Service. This would require legislation being passed by Congress. It is inconceivable such legislation would pass if the Park Service and organizations associated with it don't want it."

The Park Service sponsored community meetings on the uses of the Arch grounds earlier this year, and in October the Park Service selected what was called the preferred plan, which could include a design competition to generate more ideas than those supplied by the public process.

In addition to looking at suggested changes to the Arch grounds, the preferred plan calls for an elevated deck, bridge or lid over Memorial Drive to better connect the grounds with downtown.

But in October Danforth was concerned that the Park Service's preferred plan might not include the "destination attraction." The preferred plan "raises questions as to whether such an attraction is possible," Danforth said.

He cited a phrase in the language of the plan: "To the greatest extent possible, NPS (the National Park Service) will preserve the essential character-defining features of the National Historic Landmark designed landscape and structures."

"This language," Danforth said in October, "appears to create possibly insurmountable barriers to creating the world-class destination attraction we recommend."

But at that time, Sandra Washington, chief for planning and compliance at the park service's Midwest regional office in Omaha, disagreed.

"There is a possibility for a cultural museum in the preferred plan as part of the design competition," she said. Indeed, she said, all the plans presented as options by the park service included the possibility of a museum.

Nevertheless, Arch superintendent Tom Bradley has been guarded in his public statements. The Arch grounds are the property of the citizens of the United States, he has said, and the park service's responsibility is to protect the integrity of the grounds.

Danforth said Tuesday movement forward depends on whether the Park Service's plans do include the destination attraction. If not, he said, "I can't see where to go to get that done without (Park Service) support."

Danforth also said economic ill winds would affect what the foundation might conceivably do.

"The figure I gave the secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service for a world-class museum (originally) was to the tune of $50 million," he said. "But something has intervened in the meantime," he said. "If you look at the front page of the Wall Street Journal today (Tues., Nov. 25), you'll see that even the Gates Foundation is scaling back its giving. Can the Danforth Foundation still promise that the $50 million is still there? If the government comes and says 'Where's the $50 million?' and it's not there, what then?"

He said the foundation's portfolio has declined in value, and it also has "other things we have to do."

"So, I thought as a common courtesy I should say that to Dirk Kempthorne," he continued. "I owed them a heads up. Is this picking up marbles and going home?"

Danforth said if what the Park Service wants to construct is a building tucked in an inconspicuous place, say besides the Eads Bridge, he would not support that.

Arch superintendent Bradley said the content of Danforth's letter to Kempthorne was "no surprise."

"People are having to retrench," he said, "and we understand. It is not only the money side but also our open-ended process. When we have a plan, we hope the Danforth Foundation would support it. To have its good name would carry a lot of weight."

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.