The Art Deco Era that began in 1925 influenced world architecture, fashions, and furnishings through the 1930s. St. Louis has not torn down much of what was built during this time. My favorite Art Deco constructions in St.Louis are a house on Grand Avenue and the Continental Building near Grand and Olive. The Continental has been restored and turned into a residential tower. Another building of this era sounds rather dry and uninviting but is not. The free art deco Soldiers Memorial of the Missouri Historical Society that first opened on Memorial Day in 1938 with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt present has just undergone a 2-year, $30 million renovation. It re-opened on November 3, 2018, and succeeds in putting a local spin on world events of a military nature from the Revolutionary War to the present, but you don’t have to be a St. Louisan to appreciate it. It’s suddenly one of the top visitor attractions around.
Ruth & I began our visit by joining a tour led by Lon, a volunteer docent. He said something interesting right away as we studied one of the 3 bells on the last USS St Louis. This bell once rang from the deck of a light cruiser. Its duty was to protect American troops being taken to Europe during World War I. This was the 3rd ship named for St Louis, and it was in use only about 50 years after the Civil War, which threatened our national unity. Lon said that before this war folks would say, “The United States are….” but after its conclusion the verb became is as in “The United States is now one entity.” This war truly united us. Before his tour began, Lon showed me the best representation of art deco style in this memorial. It was a staircase that, after an elevator ride, made it possible for me to look down several flights to a star in the floor on the lowest level. It was a bit disorienting but magnificent.
World War I divided us, became known in St Louis as The Great War, and the entire lower level of this Soldiers Memorial is devoted to it. The floor above it explores World War II and the conflicts involving our nation that followed it. Across an outside loggia and behind the visitor orientation area are Pre-WW I conflicts involving Americans, like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars and the Mexican American War. World War I was especially affecting here because by 1910 20% of St. Louis’ population was German. About 156,000 Missourians served in the World War I armed forces, and the death toll was 1,075 St. Louisans. This war directly involved more women than previous conflicts. Nurse Edith Mae Ferguson of the Army Nurse Corps, for example, developed malignant jaundice while serving and died shortly after returning home. This war also meant military time for the most men since the Civil War and wheatless Wednesdays for the women left at home during it. This and other sacrifices fed troops.
The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum fully explains St. Louis’ role in the military history of the USA but will inform and fascinate all who enter.