Soldiers Memorial reborn

The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis, reopens after a $30 million revitalization project

By Charlotte Beard

This year has been the year of major re-openings for museums. The St. Louis Arch Park with its renovations and debut of the Gateway Arch museum on July 3 has been followed by the reopening of a building that was first dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on Oct. 4, 1936. The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum located at 1315 Chestnut St. in downtown St. Louis, reopened on Nov. 3. The opening day was followed by daily special events that are running now through Nov. 12.

The Soldiers Memorial which officially opened on Memorial Day in 1938, was temporarily closed in 2016 until now for a $30 million revitalization project. Mark Sundlov, Soldiers Memorial Director shared that the funds came from a donor who wished to remain anonymous until after the re-opening.

“I believe the donor really wanted to make sure that the emphasis was put on the veterans and on the memorial aspect of Soldiers Memorial,” stated Sundlov. “The (donor) didn’t feel the need to have the spotlight.”

Along with revitalization to the memorial, there were also some adjustments made to the property ownership and administrative aspects.
Sundlov shared, “In 2015 the Missouri Historical Society met with the city and the donor. They came to an agreement where the city still owns the land, the building and historical collections, but the Missouri Historical Society is now responsible for all aspects of the operation of the building and management of collections.”

This agreement is also inclusive of all utilities and the wages of two employees who are dedicated to the functioning of the Soldiers Memorial for which the city of St. Louis is responsible. Donor funds cover the responsibilities of the Missouri Historical Society. No tax dollars are being used.
The revitalization project included some major face-lifts for the building.

“The lower level previously was city offices and city storage space,” stated Sundlov. “It served a dual purpose. Besides a lot of preservation and restoration aspects, for as remodeling, the lower level was the most significant in the building. We turned that lower level space, about 4,000 sq. ft, into a special exhibit gallery. So, a part of making this a vibrant part of downtown is rotating out that exhibit space on a regular basis, every two-to-three years. When we open on Nov. 3 it’s going to open with the exhibit – World War I: St. Louis and the Great War. That exhibit will focus exclusively on St. Louis and its role, the men and women from St. Louis who contributed to World War I, and some events (that occurred) immediately after World War I.”

Sundlov also shared that during the two-to-three-year period of the exhibit, the memorial will be working on developing a new temporary exhibit for that space.

“Operationally, the ability to develop new exhibits on a rotating basis like this changes the whole spirit of the building in that there will always be something new and fresh as far as exhibits happening here. Coupled with that will be a robust slate of programs, whether it’s educational programs with students or evening events probably more for adults, that programming will be a key aspect of what is happening at Soldiers and how we’re trying to be a vibrant part of downtown.”

In addition to making Soldiers Memorial a vibrant part of downtown, the project went to great lengths to ensure the building became accessible and an enjoyable experience for anyone who desires to visit.

“There’s a few different major aspects of the renovations, but one of them was definitely the ADA accessibility,” stated Sundlov. “There was a wheel chair ramp added to the east side of the building which now enables individuals to get into the building through what we mostly consider the front access. There will be handouts for folks who have some vision trouble (enabling them) to have very large print in their hands of the object labels so they read everything that they want to read and not be limited by the size of the font or other things.”
Another great aspect of the completed project Sundlov shared is that the Memorial qualified for and is close to receiving LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

“This is a remarkable achievement to get it up to that level, considering the building was built and finished in 1938. A lot of work was done on the heating and ventilation systems and just (various) aspects. We are trying to achieve something that no other museum has been able to do – a Zero Waste Program which makes sure that any materials we use are either being recycled or disposed of in other ways that ensures the absolute minimum amount of trash is leaving this building and going to the landfill. We’re proud to (attempt) taking this on and seeing if we can pull it off. It will be quite an accomplishment. It would be the first museum in the nation to be able to do this. So, we’re excited for that challenge.”

The Court of Honor was another focal point of change during the project.

Sundlov stated, “We narrowed Chestnut Street to a single lane and put in some visual cues, strips of granite, that tie the Court of Honor more tightly to the Soldiers Memorial building itself so, it’s more obvious that it’s all one entity. We relocated the Vietnam and the Korean Memorials. Each of those lists the names of individuals from St. Louis who lost their lives in those conflicts. In addition to those two memorials there is the World War II memorial which lists all the names of individuals who gave their lives in (that war) from St. Louis. On the west side of the Court of Honor we’ve added additional memorials and we will be adding the names of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to those memorials. That will be commemorated Memorial Day 2019. We’re proud to recognize those individuals since Vietnam who have made that sacrifice for all of us.”

Sundlov went on to share that names will continue to be added to the newer memorials as needed each Memorial Day.

“We’re very proud and we’re excited to open this—it’s such an incredible place. The exhibits tell the story of St. Louis and these conflicts – The Revolutionary War all the way up through today from a very individual aspect. It’s the individual story, the individual voices that we really put a lot of effort into making sure build the narrative in the exhibits. I am confident that visitors will be able to see themselves in the exhibit and see their communities and the neighborhoods. This (applies to) all communities and all neighborhoods in St. Louis. They will be able to come and draw a very tight connection and get a better grasp of what it means when we go to war, when we’re involved in these conflicts, and how it influences and effects all of us on a day-to-day basis. We’re excited for that.”
For more details on the changes resulting from the revitalization project visit: www.mohistory.org/memorial/about-the-revitalization-project. For details on daily scheduled flag raising and lowering ceremonies along with various honoring and events on and off the Soldiers Memorial grounds running through Nov.12, visit www.mohistory.org/memorial/reopening-week-events. Admission to Soldiers Memorial is free and open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. It is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

CUTLINE: Submitted photos The Soldiers Memorial which officially opened on Memorial Day in 1938, was temporarily closed in 2016 until now for a $30 million revitalization project.