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‘Urban Archaeology’ details St. Louis’ complicated past and its rich architecture

A crew salvages the front elevation of the St. Louis Title Building during its demolition in 1986. The structure was built in 1915.
National Building Arts Center
A crew salvages the front elevation of the St. Louis Title Building during its demolition in 1986. The structure was built in 1915.

Decorative bricks, panel reliefs, cast iron columns and other architectural artifacts are on display at a new Pulitzer Foundation exhibit, “Urban Archaeology: Lost Buildings of St. Louis.”

The artifacts reflect the histories of both wealth and neglect in St. Louis, and the exhibition calls attention to salvage and preservation in the city.

“[A brick] is not just a single unit that lays up in a wall,” said exhibition co-organizer Michael Allen, who is director of the National Building Arts Center. “It is something that helps build a society and then reflects on how that society is changing.”

Allen added that “Urban Archaeology” features more than 25 objects of “profound memory” from the National Building Arts Center. It includes oral histories from St. Louis bricklayers, preservationists and residents affected by architectural loss in the city.

“I think each gallery sort of flows from this question of: Why do [people] destroy cities? Why are other people convinced that there's meaning in recovering the pieces, be it a whole building, a single artifact, a set of artifacts or a neighborhood?”

For Stephanie Weissberg, a Pulitzer Arts Foundation curator, the exhibition showcases the human desire to find and create beauty in our surroundings.

“One object that was fascinating to me is a planter that's made from the same material as a sewer pipe. A laborer at a sewer pipe plant … brought their work and their craft home with them and interpreted it as an object of beauty. I think that speaks to how the most utilitarian of objects can reflect our core values.”

The artifacts also shed light on the societal conditions that produced them or brought them to their current state.

For example, painter Robert Greene used materials from a machine he found in the old Missouri Homeopathic Medical College on Jefferson Avenue, which was torn down to make way for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

“To [Greene], this is a metonym for [an] entire lost neighborhood,” Allen said.

Michael Allen, left; Stephanie Weissberg, right
Ulaa Kuziez
Michael Allen, left, and Stephanie Weissberg

Weissberg said she hopes the exhibition will help visitors transform the way they perceive their built environment.

“In seeing these objects called out in a space outside of their original context,” she said, “it not only allows you to look more closely at those objects in particular, but also hopefully hones your attention once you leave the Pulitzer or [National Building Arts Center’s] campus — to then note similar or distinct elements throughout the city.”

For more on how “Urban Archaeology” exhibit tells the story of labor, power and neglect in St. Louis, listen to the St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Michael Allen and Stephanie Weissberg join "St. Louis on the Air"

Related Event 
What: Urban Archaeology: Lost Buildings of St. Louis exhibit
When: Sept. 8 to Feb. 4
Where: Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.