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Flood of concern: Levee threatens sculptor Wiegand's historic studio

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - From Charles Lindbergh to Bob Hope, I.E. Millstone to Stan Musial, Don Wiegand's studio/home/community meeting place is filled with images of the famous.

But as the landmark site comes under the threat of demolition from efforts to protect Chesterfield Valley from another disastrous flood, the internationally recognized sculptor says he has worked on the structure for decades -- a labor of love he considers his "mission" -- because it belongs not to the well-known but to everybody.

The building was constructed in 1926 as a slaughterhouse, located right on a creek so there would be a place for the animal blood to drain away. Over the years, Wiegand's family took over more property on the eastern edge of the area once known as Gumbo Flats, off Baxter Road just south of Highway 40.

When Wiegand was 5, in 1952, they moved to the site from their home in north St. Louis, and he has been there ever since. He remembers when he was a junior in high school and his father said they would either have to rebuild the structure or tear it down. Saving it became his life's work.

Through a fire in 1971, started when friends were making candles in the kitchen, and the 1993 floodwaters that inundated the area and rose up to the chandelier in his living room, Wiegand has maintained it, added to it, refurbished it and shared it. Along the way, he learned crafts from pouring concrete to cutting glass to make sure everything was done right at the least possible cost.

As a child, he pruned trees so they would best be able to support tree houses; as an adult, when he wanted to see where he should do his next planting, he went up in a friend's helicopter to pick just the right spot.

"It's a sculpture," he says of the site as a whole. "I built it as a sculpture."

Now, he says, as the government is trying to determine how to shore up the nearby levee, one of the least palatable solutions on the table is moving the building from the spot it was designed for.

"The location is what's important," he said. "It's ironic that that is what is in jeopardy now -- modern man coming in and changing the rules."

He insists that at times, he's been tempted to throw up his hands and walk away from the building that has taken up so much of his time, money and creative energy. But anyone who spends a half hour with him knows that such an attitude is simply fatigue talking.

"It's harder for me to quit and say that I'm defeated than to face another flood," Wiegand said. "If an act of God takes it out, so be it. I can face that. What's hard to accept, and what I'm facing right now, is to have a bulldozer take it out.

"This is more than just me. This is a public place. I don't own this building. The universe owns it. God owns it. That's embedded in my brain. I'm just the caretaker. I would hope they would see that this place is a place worth saving. The spirit of America is here."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below: 

Don Wiegand's studio in Chesterfield survived the onslaught of Missouri River water in the great flood of 1993. He hopes it will be able to withstand efforts to protect Chesterfield Valley from future floods.

Supporters of the well-known sculptor are mobilizing in the face of what they say is a threat that the historic studio will be condemned and razed as part of plans to improve protection of the area, from a levee that currently provides 100-year flood protection to 500-year protection.

Several dozen of Wiegand's friends met at the studio Wednesday night to learn about the possible threat and to talk about how to preserve what they consider an integral part of the area's history, as well as what organizers of the meeting call "a vital, historic facility that is an important asset to our community and the source of charitable giving to patriotic, civic and educational organizations around the world."

Wiegand is known for sculptures of such well-known people as Charles Lindbergh, August A. Busch Jr., Amelia Earhart and Bob Hope. They are located throughout the St. Louis area as well as nationally and worldwide.

Deeming his studio a "creative oasis," Wiegand told the crowd Wednesday night that alternatives exist that can achieve the same level of flood protection without taking down the building that stands just a few feet from the current earthen levee.

"We can do this without hurting anybody else," he said.

But an attorney for the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District says the decision on whether the building can be saved is likely to hinge more on money and engineering concerns than the studio's history and value to the community.

"Right now," said David Human, "it's not looking great. There aren't alternatives that appear to be saving the house. Basically, it's a financial issue," adding that any levee plan that could spare the structure would cost the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers several million dollars more than other proposals would.

The studio and museum, formerly the site of a slaughterhouse, sits at 1 Wiegand Drive off Baxter Road at the eastern edge of Chesterfield Valley -- the area once known as Gumbo Flats. The landscaping outside and the art inside have been painstakingly crafted over decades.

It is also the home of the Wiegand Foundation, a non-profit corporation that uses the setting for cultural and educational programs.

At Wednesday night's meeting, many in the crowd were learning for the first time of the possibility that the building may be torn down to make way for the levee improvements. Nancy Carver, a veteran federal employee who spelled out plans to try to save the studio, urged her audience to make clear to their elected representatives how much the building means to them.

"It's a treasure for the city of Chesterfield," Carver said, "and it's a treasure for the nation as well. If we all raise our voices together, we can be heard and make a difference."

Carver said letters to senators and members of Congress who represent the district will be most effective if they make clear how vital it has been to the community.

"We want them to consider what the value of the property is to the citizens," she said, "and what we have to do to protect the heritage that we have here."

As members of the meeting broke up into smaller groups to discuss strategy, Wiegand said in an interview that he hopes the studio and museum, which have been in his family for decades, can be viewed for its value to the community.

"The Corps of Engineers is a public trust organization," he said. "They work for all of us. They have been looking for any way not to harm the property. But laws and regulations are set up to protect the public. Acts of God happen, and they are doing their best to protect everyone. It's important to see they are helpers, not hurters."

Human, the levee district attorney, said that the effort to protect Chesterfield Valley after it was inundated in 1993 resulted in a plan to build a levee that would protect from a flood likely to happen only once in 500 years, not once in 100 years. Most of the levee has been fortified to meet that standard, he said, but the portion in the vicinity of Baxter Road remains to be completed.

He said that after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Corps of Engineers said it did not want any structure or trees within 15 feet of a levee. As it stands now, the earthen levee east of Wiegand's studio is much closer than that, almost within arm's reach if you lean out a window.

Human noted that if the Wiegand property had been declared a historical structure, different rules would apply. In 2008, the building was designated as a historic building by the Chesterfield City Council, but efforts to win such a designation from the state of Missouri or the federal government have been unsuccessful.

"It didn't meet their standards," Human said.

Several alternatives are being considered to shore up the levee near the Wiegand property, he said, including removing the levee altogether and building a flood wall behind the house; putting a small flood wall on top of the existing levee; and widening and raising the existing levee.

But between the Corps rules instituted after Katrina and the costs involved, none of the alternatives that appear to be acceptable would spare the building. Human would not specify dollar figures involved for the project, but he did say that building a 20-foot flood wall behind the house, which could leave the building intact, is several million dollars more expensive than the other proposals.

Tracy Kelsey, project manager for the Chesterfield levee for the Corps of Engineers, said that alternative is twice as expensive as others, though she too declined to get any more specific. She said that while elected officials certainly may heed the concerns from their constituents, "We can only do the work our appropriations authorize us to do."

Human added:

"The problem is that once you get beyond the engineering aspects, the Corps looks at one issue, which is frankly dollars and cents. From the federal aspect, they will choose the least costly alternative."

Human stressed the importance of completing the 500-year flood protection.

"From the perspective of Chesterfield Valley, what you are looking at is protecting more than a billion dollars worth of property," he said, "and we cannot have any risk in the flood protection within the valley."

St. Louis County records put a valuation on the Wiegand property of $265,000. Human said if the building needs to be razed, the Corps of Engineers will negotiate to acquire it, but that figure may mean little, since the acquisition might be conducted under federal eminent domain law, not state law. Human said some property in Chesterfield Valley is going for less than that price and some is going for more.

The final decision on which alternative to choose is up to the Corps of Engineers. Kelsey, the project manager, said she would like to see a construction contract awarded next summer, so she hopes a decision on the levee near the Wiegand property is made in the next 30 to 60 days.

That tight timeline gave Wednesday night's meeting a degree of urgency. While members of the group clearly sensed the importance of their task, there was no feeling of rancor toward the Corps, only a determination that the Wiegand studio be saved.

Jim Sandfort, a member of the Wiegand Foundation, appreciated the spirit in which the rescue campaign was being organized.

"What a grassroots effort," he said. "If you want to see democracy at work, look at the people getting together to save this building. I'm just amazed at the level of concern. Don just reaches so many people through his work.

"There's a spirit in this place, and you can't pick it up and move it somewhere else. You just can't."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.