Eighty years after it opened as a memorial to the city’s World War I dead, the Art Deco-style Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is taking on a new, broader role after an extensive renovation.
Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. Photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society.
• Exhibit space doubled, thanks to a project that turned the basement level (part of which still had a dirt floor) into public space.
• New exhibits, curated by the Missouri History Museum, are more interactive and focus on local service members. The first exhibit in the lower level is World War I: St. Louis and the Great War. On the main level, the long-term installation St. Louis in Service explores the stories of individual St. Louisans (including a variety of races, genders and backgrounds) who have given military service from the Revolutionary War until today.
The new St. Louis in Service exhibit. Photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society.
• All of the museum and grounds are now ADA-compliant and fully accessible. Interpretive elements are also easier for all to enjoy, with closed-captioning on videos, high-contrast print on labels, and touchable exhibit pieces to provide a multi-sensory experience.
• New behind-the-scenes systems—HVAC, security, fire suppression, lighting—make the spaces more comfortable for visitors and more sustainable for artifacts.
• Architectural and historic elements were preserved and updated where possible. Metalwork and sculptures were cleaned; decorative plasterwork repaired; a mahogany-lined elevator brought up to code.
In the cenotaph room, new LED lighting better illuminates the names of the 1,075 St. Louisans who died during World War I. Renovation work also included matching and replacing several hundred missing tiles from the Gold Star Mother mosaic on the ceiling, as well as waterproofing the brick flooring. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.
• The outdoor Court of Honor now incorporates a reflecting pool and a Five Branches Fountain, features envisioned but not constructed when the court was built as a World War II memorial in 1948. The enhanced outdoor space, with the names of St. Louisans who died in conflicts from World War II to the present day, will be the site of holiday commemorations, wreath presentations, medal ceremonies, and more.
Reflecting pool and fountain at Court of Honor. Photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society.
• New programs and tours will be available for visitors, school groups, veterans and others, including regular tours with ASL interpreters, audio description and other accommodations for different abilities.
The building, dedicated by President Frank D. Roosevelt in 1936 and opened in 1938, suffered in recent years from deferred maintenance and curation needs. The Missouri History Museum took over management of the site from the city in 2015, cultivating private donors to revamp the building and exhibits.
A grand re-opening on November 3 will bring home many notable veterans and current service members whose lives are integral to the story of St. Louis in service. One is keynote speaker Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and its first woman commander of a combat fighter wing.
Offering an invocation at the ceremony will be Chaplain and Major Kyle Taylor, a St. Louis native with an extraordinary family story of service and activism. Major Taylor is the great-great-great grandson of Civil War soldier and minister Spottswood Rice, who escaped his slave owners and enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops. Rice gained later fame for a pair of compelling and unforgiving letters he wrote to the woman who still owned his wife and children.
Taylor only became aware of this lineage in 2005, but in an interview, he revealed that discovering this ancestor meant that, “For the first time, I understood myself, my temperament, my drive, and my compelling need to take up the cause of the marginalized and be an advocate for others.” The November homecoming will be the first time Taylor has ever been in the Soldiers Memorial.
The museum reopening is part of a broader revitalization of downtown that includes the $380 million renovation of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the National Blues Museum (opened in 2016), the soon-to-open aquarium (2019) and a recently announced $260 million phase two of Ballpark Village.