The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum reopens Saturday after a $30 million project to restore the grand 80-year-old landmark in downtown St. Louis.
The memorial was built during the Great Depression to honor 1,075 area soldiers who died in World War I. The reopening ceremony will kick off a week of events leading up to Veterans Day on Nov. 11, the centennial of the armistice that ended the war.
The memorial has been closed for two years, while crews cleaned and updated the structure. Workers removed embedded coal dust from the four signature sculptures outside the building that represent courage, loyalty, vision and sacrifice. Several hundred missing tiles were replaced on the Gold Star Mothers mosaic in the ceiling of the loggia. A heating and cooling system was installed in the building, and the structure now complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, thanks to new exterior ramps and an elevator in the east wing that serves all floors.
One of the most striking changes is outside the memorial: A reflecting pool and fountain added to the Court of Honor built in 1948 to remember area service members who died in World War II.
The water features were designed to buffer the din from passing traffic, said Mark Sundlov, director of the Soldiers Memorial.
“It takes you out of the cityscape, so it becomes a very quiet, reflective space,’’ he said. “One of the primary reasons for the existence of Soldiers Memorial is remembering those who have given their lives for the country.’’
The memorial’s permanent exhibition galleries tell the story of America’s wars through the eyes of St. Louisans, with nearly 300 artifacts ranging from colonial times to the post-9/11 era. There’s a bell from the USS St. Louis that protected ships transporting U.S. troops to Europe during World War I, military uniforms, and an extensive collection of firearms.
Exhibits feature the war experiences of prominent St. Louisans, like Tuskegee Airman Capt. Wendell O. Pruitt, one of the first African-American pilots to fly combat missions during World War II. The Navy uniform of Cardinals baseball great Stan Musial is on display. And an exhibit on the Iran hostage crisis relates the story of St. Louisan Rocky Sickmann, one of 52 American who were taken hostage in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
The lower level of the memorial now houses a temporary exhibit space. The first of the rotating exhibits focuses on the impact of World War I, with stories from the battlefield, as well as the home front.
Many of the exhibits are interactive and designed to connect with visitors, Sundlov said.
“I think the most important thing is that they see themselves, and they understand that their families, their neighbors, fellow St. Louisans all have played a very important contributing role, whether it was working in factories or serving on the front lines,’’ he said. “Military service seems very foreign and distant to a lot of people, but actually it impacts all of us.’’
The Missouri Historical Society oversaw the project, which was paid for by private donors. It assumed operation of the memorial in November 2015, although the city of St. Louis still owns it.
The Crawford Taylor Foundation and the Taylor family donated $30 million for the renovation, plus a $25 million endowment for the memorial's continued operation, according to officials with the historical society. The memorial's assembly hall has been named for St. Louis philanthropist Jack C. Taylor who died in 2016. He was a decorated Navy fighter pilot during World War II who founded Enterprise Holdings after the war.
The Guth Foundation also donated $300,000. Until this week, the donors had been anonymous.
The Soldiers Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in October 1936 and opened to the public on Memorial Day 1938. It was financed by a 1923 bond issue that provided $6 million to clear seven city blocks for the memorial plaza and structure. The memorial would eventually be completed as a works project of the Great Depression.
More than 156,000 Missourians served in World War I, according to the Missouri State Archives. Nearly 10 percent of Missouri’s 11,000 casualties were from St. Louis. Many soldiers from St. Louis served with the 35th and 89th Army divisions in France and Belgium and were in the thick of the fighting along the Western Front.
If you go
Soldiers Memorial and Military Museum reopening
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 3
What: The ceremony will feature performances by the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America and the Missouri Military Academy Band. The keynote speaker is Brigadier Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, a St. Louis native, who was the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. The first 5,000 visitors to Soldiers Memorial will receive a commemorative pin. The U.S. Postal Service will conduct a stamp cancellation from 11 am to 1 pm. Food trucks will be available from 8 am to 2 pm.
Where: 1315 Chestnut St., St. Louis
Information: Events will be held daily, leading up to Veterans Day. Details are on the Soldiers Memorial website.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard