Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Museum? What Museum?

First of all, let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for Senator Danforth.

I just think his plans for the Arch grounds are half-baked, in particular, the notion that we need some sort of museum on the Arch grounds.

There’s been no indication as to what the theme of the museum would be or how having a museum built on the Arch grounds would solve all our problems.

More than eight years ago, there actually was a push to create a museum downtown, and it was a good idea – one with a theme and a plan and everything. Somehow, the idea died.

Back in 2000, the Post-Dispatch profiled plans to establish a Smithsonian affiliate museum. Apparently, the Smithsonian has so many items, it was looking for ways to make them available to the public outside of its museum in Washington, D.C. and was looking for “affiliates” in other cities that would display these items in “satellite” museums.

Attorney Alan Bornstein led the efforts to set up such a museum here in downtown St. Louis, to be known as Museum of American Character. Consultants from LORD Cultural Resources Planning & Management were hired to develop a feasibility study and cost estimates. The cost was estimated at $150+ million. The Union Station ownership group, Kiel Center Partners and the Danforth Foundation picked up the $300k consulting bill.

Bornstein wanted to conduct a national architectural competition and end up with something visually powerful and dramatic. There was mention of including a public school in the plans. The St. Louis Public Library was interested in collaborating. People like Richard Baron were mentioned as being part of the planning committee.

From 18 possible sites, it was determined that the best site would be on the gateway mall, on the site of a four-story federal office building at 1520 Market Street, a building that has since been mentioned as being used for parking as part of the late Donald Breckenridge’s plans to renovate the Kiel Opera House. The thinking was that this site would resurrect the old civic plaza idea from around 1919, when city fathers envisioned a public, outdoor gathering place surrounded by monumental architecture.

There was discussion of adding the proposed museum to the Metropolitan Zoological Park & Museum Tax District, and Union Station Partners were even talking about building a branch of the Museum of Transportation at Union Station.

So what happened to these plans? Why were they a good idea in 2000, but not now? Wouldn’t the originally proposed site on Market Street be preferable to the Arch grounds? Can we just bring back this idea instead of altering the Arch grounds?

The Smithsonian affiliate is up there with the planned exhibition hall as good ideas that never came about.

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