Sculpture to Invigorate a Shrinking City
One telling measure of this city’s past glories and present challenges is this: The United States Census of 1950 reported roughly 850,000 people living in St. Louis; today the number is around 350,000. Or there’s this: In 1988, when Jonathan Franzen published “The Twenty-Seventh City,” a novel about real and fictional tribulations afflicting St. Louis, his title referred to the city’s plunge in rank to 27th largest in America from 4th in less than a century. If he wrote the book now, just two decades later, he would have to call it “The Fifty-Second City.”
Signs of the depleted population are everywhere, from the boarded-up houses that dot the city’s north side to the stubbornly vacant office buildings downtown.
Over the last 10 years, however, civic groups, private developers and city leaders have been trying to nurse downtown St. Louis back to life. Taking cues from revitalization drives in other midsize cities, they have created thousands of residential loft units. There is now a bookstore in the area, and next month a local grocery chain plans to open its first downtown branch.
But perhaps the most original — and conspicuous — step in the campaign is Citygarden, a 2.9-acre sculpture park that opened Wednesday on two blocks of the city’s central corridor, known as the Gateway Mall.
Financed by the Gateway Foundation, a nonprofit organization that installs public art in the St. Louis area, the park cost between $25 million and $30 million — which does not include the collection of 24 works by artists including Fernand Léger, Tony Smith, Jim Dine and Bernar Venet. (The foundation, which has a longstanding policy of not commenting to the news media, declined to disclose the collection’s value.)
Within walking distance of the Gateway Arch, the park is intended to bring tourists and art fans to the mall and to draw office workers and loft dwellers outside with an array of amenities. “It’s really a hybrid landscape,” said Warren Byrd, a principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz, the landscape architecture firm in Charlottesville, Va., that designed Citygarden. “It’s some combination of a city park and a sculpture garden.”
The sculpture collection, which includes both modern and contemporary works, is cosmopolitan in flavor, ranging from Mr. Dine’s whimsical treatment of Pinocchio in “Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels” to the mysterious, egglike form of the Japanese sculptor Kan Yasudas’s “Door of Return.” Visitors can call up an Acoustiguide-style audio tour, read by prominent St. Louisians, by dialing a dedicated number on their cell phones.
The park’s other features include a cafe, a massive “spray plaza” and a split-level pool whose two parts are joined by a waterfall. A granite-capped “meander wall” snakes through the park’s southern portion, offering seating and spatial definition, while a complementary wall of Missouri limestone arcs diagonally through the northern section. The walls, Mr. Byrd said, were “our way of marking several territories in the site” — which was previously two empty squares of grass — and of linking the two blocks.
The park, shown below in a rendering by Nelson Byrd Woltz, has no formal entrances or barriers to segregate its manicured paths and quiet spaces from the streets around it.
“It has no limits,” said Mr. Byrd, whose firm also designed the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. “We wanted to make this site accessible to everybody.”
He added that the landscape included several “design gestures” — rows of Ginkgo trees, native plants, wide sidewalks — that could be extended to other portions of the Gateway Mall.
City planners say they share that vision, but for now they are looking to these two blocks to spur economic development on their own.
“There are several development opportunities right in the vicinity, and as the economy recovers, I think Citygarden will make those sites a lot more attractive,” said Barbara Geisman, the city’s executive director of development. “This is probably one of the best things that’s happened downtown in the last couple of decades.”
Reprinted by permission.