Arch still symbolizes St. Louisans' ambitions
The Gateway Arch is a salute to President Thomas Jefferson, who sent Lewis and Clark to explore the West. The fountain in front of historic Union Station commemorates St. Louis's location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. (St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commision)
ST. LOUIS - Standing beneath the Gateway Arch on the shores of the Mississippi River, I reflected on what little I knew about this city before I came here: that it was founded in 1764 as a trading post by a Frenchman, Pierre Laclède, and that settlers stopped here for supplies before boarding steamboats that would take them to Independence to join wagon trains heading west.
Little did Laclède dream that his trading post would morph into the business hub of the Midwest, home to 21 Fortune 500 companies led by
The opening of the West by Lewis and Clark brought hundreds of businessmen to St. Louis. After staking their claims to cheap land they built warehouses, mercantile shops, and grand houses. President George Walker Bush's great-great-grandfather David Davis Walker became rich after he opened a dry goods business, Ely, Walker & Co., here.
St. Louisans are proud of their city and its humble beginnings, their notable businesses, beautiful historic mansions and parks, and world-class museums. They also take great pride in the Gateway Arch, so much so that when it was completed in 1965 they voted that no future buildings could be built taller than the arch's 630 feet.
Until my visit I thought the arch had been built because of the city's location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers; it wasn't. And that it straddled the Mississippi; it doesn't. Its location is historically strategic, along the shore of the river in what was known in the 1800s as a mercantile levy where boats would off-load merchandise to be sold to pioneers heading west.
Architect Eero Saarinen designed the arch to honor Thomas Jefferson, the country's first architect and the president who made possible the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The arch's proper name is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
Saarinen used stainless steel for the outer skin so that the arch could withstand winds of up to 150 miles per hour. A ride to the top in one of its eight tiny capsules is not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic. But the view from the top and over the city is fantastic. The Museum of Westward Expansion on the memorial's ground floor offers interpretive exhibits on the expedition, Native American arts and crafts, and exquisite murals showing what life in St. Louis was like in that era.
No trip is complete without a visit to the St. Louis Art Museum. When it was built in 1879, it was the first American art museum west of the Mississippi. Today, it is home to more than 30,000 artifacts including an impressive collection of American, Oceanic, Asian, Pre-Columbian, and European art. Period rooms showcase everything from European and American furniture (including that of Frank Lloyd Wright) and textiles, to Tiffany stained glass, and Meissen porcelain.
The museum is set in 1,293-acre Forest Park, site of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where the Zoo, Science Center, and Missouri History Museum are located, along with the Jewel Box, an Art Deco glass hot house.
Everything old is new again in this city, where downtown warehouses are being converted into stylish condominiums, and many buildings have been restored.
After being closed for several years, Union Station was reopened in 1985 after a $150 million restoration. This was no ordinary train station; when it was built in 1894 no expense was spared in decorating the waiting area, the Grand Hall. Louis Comfort Tiffany was commissioned for the stained glass window spanning the 40-foot arch in the front of this Romanesque-style building. Its walls were covered in gold leaf and Venetian statuary filled its nooks. Today it is home to the Hyatt at Union Station.
Robert Campbell III, who made his millions in furs, railroads, and gold mines, purchased his Victorian-style home in 1851. Ninety percent of the original furnishings remain in the house today: art by George Caleb Bingham, Baccarat crystal, oak and rosewood furniture, hand-painted Haviland china, and 1,586 pieces of Tiffany flatware. The Cupples House, on the campus of St. Louis University, is a stunning Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style (recall H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church in Copley Square) house built in 1890. Its 42 rooms are decorated with Tiffany windows, Murano glass light fixtures, and original 15th- and 16th-century art.
Not nearly as grand is the simple farmhouse, White Haven, built in 1816 by General Ulysses S. Grant's father-in-law, Frederick Dent. It was here that Grant and his wife, Julia, lived after their marriage. During the Civil War, Grant's Confederate neighbors (Missouri was a slave state) would assure his safety when he visited his family here. The National Park Service has restored the house.
Since, like many Midwestern cities, St. Louis is spread out, the best way to get around is by car, as public buses and the light rail cover only the downtown area.
The Loop is the place for cool blues at clubs like Brandt's Café and Red Carpet Lounge, or Blueberry Hill, where Chuck Berry plays a monthly gig. If your interest is antiques head to Cherokee Street, six blocks of unique furniture, clothing, and book shops. Combine a visit to Grand South Grand, a neighborhood known for its Asian restaurants and shops, with a stop at Tower Grove Park, a 19th-century Victorian park. Within the park is the Missouri Botanical Garden, a National Historic Site.
St. Louis is a city of 1,000 restaurants of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. Set in a restored malt house (St. Louis is the world headquarters of Anheuser-Busch beers), Vin de Set offers exquisitely prepared French bistro fare such as wild mushroom and asparagus crepes, burgundy braised short ribs with boursin mashed potatoes, or grilled sea scallops with grapefruit vinaigrette and strawberries. At Red Moon, after sampling one of their signature vodka cocktails, a sparkling pomegranate popsicle, or a chocolate lunar eclipse, you can tuck into wok-fried snapper in a soy ginger glaze, or teriyaki ribeye topped with orange-ginger aioli. On the lighter side, Terrene offers small plates of flatbread with smoked chicken, Carolina barbequed onions and roasted potatoes, hand cut frites with pickled onion mayonnaise, or mussels in a white wine broth with cilantro and almond pesto.
On this trip I had time for only these three restaurants. I have 997 to go.
Fran Folsom, a writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.