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Aloe Plaza dedicated 70 years ago today

ABOVE: The sculpture 'Meeting of the Waters' by Carl Milles located in the center of Aloe Plaza

Saturday May 11, 1940 the public plaza known as “Aloe Plaza” was dedicated – seventy years ago today.The population in 1940 was 816,048, more than double our current population.

Located across Market St from Union Station, Aloe Plaza, has a long history:

The central corridor of St. Louis, from Tucker Boulevard (formerly Twelfth Street) on the east to Grand Boulevard on the west, was densely populated at the turn of the twentieth century. The area was a mixture of mansions and tenements, shops of all kinds, businesses, factories, dance halls, taverns, clubs, restaurants, churches, schools and other institutions.

Civic Improvement League, organized in 1901, called for razing the area to create a central parkway. The 1920s saw the clearing out of a portion of the area with the creation of the Soldiers Memorial and Plaza, Kiel Auditorium, the widening of Market Street and the construction of the Aloe Plaza opposite Union Station.

Development of the Aloe Plaza was made possible by an $87 million bond issue in 1923. The funds were used for widening Olive Street and the clearance and development of land for several plazas in the area bounded by Market, Chestnut, 12th and 20th Streets.

Aloe Plaza was named in honor of Louis P. Aloe, who died in 1929. He served as President of the Board of Alderman from 1916 to 1923 and led the movement for passage of the bond issue.

In 1909 the two block area that would become Aloe Plaza contained many buildings, including seven hotels:

ABOVE: 1909 Sanborn Map. Source: Univ of MO Digital Library

The story of why the Civic Improvement League targeted this area for redevelopment is fascinating and unknown to me until yesterday.  A shooting in St. Louis led to the song Frankie and Johnny and several movies.  Here is the history as told on the Wikipedia entry for the song:

It has been suggested that the song was inspired, or its details influenced, by one or more actual murders. One of these took place in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 15, 1899, when Frankie Baker, a 22-year-old dancer, stabbed (or shot) her 17-year-old lover Allen “Al” Britt, who was having a relationship with a woman named Alice Pryor. Britt died of his wounds two days later. On trial, Baker claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense; she was acquitted and died in a Portland, Oregon mental institution in 1952.

The shooting took place at a boarding house on a street the ran perpendicular to Market St between 14th & 15th.  This street was later eliminated from the grid for the construction of the Kiel Opera House, which opened in 1934.  To the west at 18th you had Union Station which had opened just 5 years prior to the shooting in 1894.  Visitors arrived in St. Louis via train but civic leaders didn’t like the elements that surrounded the station.  Reasons given was the area was rundown and dangerous — I think it was because the area was predominantly black.  At a time when segregation was the norm, St. Louis didn’t want to welcome visitors to the black part of town.  Keep in mind the new train station was far west when built.

The song was a huge hit with many variations and led to films in 1936, 1966 and 1991.  Here is the trailer to the 1966 film starring Elvis Presley:


The actual people involved in the 1899 shooting were black, not white.

ABOVE: The sculpture 'Meeting of the Waters' by Carl Milles located in the center of Aloe Plaza

The city’s 1947 Master Plan indicates “The Aloe Plaza and Milles Fountain make a distinguished gateway to the city.” The cost listed was $2,600,000.  The sculpture and fountain by Milles was controversial at the time:

The fountain, originally named “The Wedding of the Rivers,” depicts the union of the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers, represented by the two central figures. Accompanying the two main figures and forming a wedding procession are 17 water spirits, symbolic of the smaller streams that empty into the two major rivers.

An uproar arose over the nudity of the male figure, representing the Mississippi River and the female figure, the Missouri River. In deference to the criticism, the name of the fountain was changed to ,”The Meeting of the Waters.”

I think we should restore the name to “The Wedding of the Rivers” as originally intended by Miles.

ABOVE: St. Louis Union Station as seen from Aloe Plaza
ABOVE: St. Louis Union Station as seen from Aloe Plaza

Note that when Aloe Plaza was dedicated 70 years ago the buildings along the riverfront were just being razed.  The competition that gave us the Arch wasn’t held until 7 years later.  Clearly the city was busy razing buildings in many areas.  Despite my issues with the bad planning and reactionary policies that got us to today, the sculpture and fountain in Aloe Plaza always make me smile.

– Steve Patterson


Improvements needed to the city block containing “Twain”

April 15, 2010 Downtown, Parks 15 Comments

As I explained yesterday (Readers split on Richard Serra’s “Twain”) the Richard Serra sculpture “Twain” was designed for it’s location and it must be seen from the inside to appreciate it.  As an appointed member of the newly formed Gateway Mall Advisory Board I see improving the appeal of this block as very important.  I and the other board members need to work within, or revise, the existing master plan (PDF).  So I looked to see what it said about Serra’s Twain:

“One of his earlier works, the City is fortunate to have one of his often ‘misunderstood’ sculpture.  Once the improvements to the two eastern blocks of the garden have been made, the space surrounding Twain should be revisited to see how it could better integrate into the redesigned blocks to the east and west.”

No real specifics except the clear understanding that the sculpture is to stay put. One of the best ways to integrate this block is the “hallway” element that is supposed to run the entire length of the Gateway Mall.

ABOVE: Two blocks of the hallway element is complete between 8th & 10th

Once the hallway is greater than two blocks long it will be a strong organizing element. You can hopefully imagine how extending the above one more block west will help Twain:

ABOVE: Narrow attached sidewalk between 10th and 11th Streets

The current sidewalk between 10th and 11th is nothing like the one from 8th to 10th. One of the best aspects of this hallway idea is how it will flow from block to block.

ABOVE: Gateway Mall hallway crosses 9th Street

At 9th street the design guidelines from the master plan are actualized.  Rain gardens help narrow 9th street and the sidewalk continues across the street easily.  Those of us using wheelchairs as well as those pushing a stroller can just continue in the same direction. Unfortunately the same treatment was not done at both 8th and 10th.  This mistake means part of the new Citygarden will need to be redone to extend the hallway in both directions.

ABOVE: Looking west across 10th Street

As you can see the 10th Street edge of the hallway in Citygarden is quite different than at 9th.  Had someone looked ahead they would have built the paving and curb here to the new standard so that all that needed to be done was the other side of 10th.  Ditto for 8th Street.  I intend to ensure as blocks are redone consideration is given to extending the hallway as adjacent blocks are rebuilt.

OK, so the “hallway” takes care of one side of the block.  The other three need new wider sidewalks as well. I had originally thought we needed some porous gravel paths leading to Twain but Serra wanted it to be approachable from any angle.   However the ground is currently uneven in places and my power wheelchair got stuck a few times.  Anyone in a manual wheelchair would be out of luck.  Even the wheels on a stroller are likely to get muddy.  I suggest special pavers that allow grass to grow through openings in places in and around the piece.  This would ensure a level surface while maintaining the all grass appearance.

Over and over I’ve heard people say the homeless and drunk baseball fans use the interior of the “Twain” sculpture as a giant steel urinal.  With so much activity in Citygarden to the aast I don’t think that is still the case.  Plus portable toilets are now available across the street at Citygarden.

ABOVE: Two portable toilets along the West edge of Citygarden
ABOVE: Two portable toilets along the West edge of Citygarden

Stunning Citygarden with portable toilets on the sidewalk, classy.  So my grand idea is to include a low-maintenance pay toilet on the SE corner of the Twain block, accessible from the hallway.   New York City recently added it’s first pay toilet:

The “Pay-Per-Potty” — as some cleverly call it — is purported to be automatically self cleaning. It even does the floors and is touted as more sanitary than regular public toilets.

Inside the unit, a sit-down, so to speak, will cost you a quarter.

The quarter will get you get 15 minutes of private time — and not a second more.

“The doors open and the eyes of New York are upon you,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Just in case you don’t know how much time you have left, a handy-dandy warning light will give you a three-minute warning.  (Full story)

Here are some short videos of pay toilets:

New York:


San Francisco:


New Zealand:


The Gateway Mall Master Plan calls for public restrooms along the length but not in the three blocks between Gateway One (7th  to 8th) the Civil Courts (11th-12th/Tucker), just where they are needed most. The pay public toilet I envision might be covered in stainless steel, some other metal or even growing plants.

– Steve Patterson


Readers split on Richard Serra’s “Twain”

April 14, 2010 Downtown, Parks 17 Comments
ABOVE: Inside Serras Twain
ABOVE: Inside Serra's Twain looking East to Citygarden and the Arch

I didn’t appreciate “Twain” until after Citygarden opened and I spent more time in the area. Sure, I’d driven and walked passed it many times but I had never ventured across the grass.  I’ve learned my wheelchair does a decent job on grass and, after getting up close to Twain and passing through the passageways, I now have a love affair with the sculpture.

Here are the results of last week’s poll:

Q: Which best describes your thoughts on the Gateway Mall block w/Richard Serra’s ‘Twain’ sculpture?

  1. Get rid of Twain ASAP. 104 [43%]
  2. Like Twain but the block is too bare, needs more art & activities. 63 [26%]
  3. I don’t hate Twain but I’m not crazy about it either. 37 [15%]
  4. Like Twain and the minimal surroundings, just needs new sidewalks, etc 26 [11%]
  5. Love Twain, don’t change that block at all. 7 [3%]
  6. Other answer… 4 [2%]
  7. Unsure/no opinion. 1 [0%]

While the biggest block (43%) favors removal of Twain that means a small majority are at least okay with it staying.

As I thought, readers would not be short of opinions on Twain.  One example shared by others:

I’ve always felt that Twain – an interesting piece in of itself – is simply in the wrong venue. Had this same reviled installation been originally placed in Laumeier Sculpture Park, it would likely be valued (even lauded) lauded today as an environmental work. I think we could do right by both Serra and the city by relocating Twain to Laumeier and expanding Citygarden into that space.

Twain was designed for the current site, not a suburban park.  Moving the piece would destroy it.

SERRA’S “TILTED ARC” in Federal Plaza, New York, angered workers in adjacent federal office buildings because it runs, 120 feet long and 12 feet high, across part of a much-used square. The obligatory detour around it, and its confrontational scale and placement in a city where pedestrians cherish the little open space they can get, makes it vulnerable to the charge that while it may be imposing as sculpture, it is insensitive as urban design.

“Tilted Arc” is seriously threatened with removal, and in St. Louis Alderman Timothy J. Dee of the 17th Ward has introduced a bill that would put it up to the voters to decide if “Twain” should be removed from city property. A simple majority would do it next Aug. 5 if the proposition gets on the ballot. “A whole lot of people want it moved,” Dee said.

Former Alderman Dee’s bill wasn’t approved by the Board of Aldermen.  Public art should never be the subject of a vote at the polls.  The work was designed for this site and no other, moving it would destroy it.

ABOVE: Construction of "Twain" in 1981. ® Robert Pettus, used with permission
ABOVE: Construction of "Twain" in 1981. Photo by Robert Pettus, used with permission

As you can see from the above image the context in 1981 was rather bleak. The idea was to get glimpses of the city through the openings.  You cannot appreciate “Twain” from the street or even from the sidewalk. I recently sat with Amy Broadway of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts as we watched a 1986 documentary clip on “Twain.”  It included interviews with Serra himself.  He explained how he wanted you to be free to approach from any direction, hence no paths. He wanted you to see the city differently. While I was there I experienced Serra’s “Joe:”

ABOVE: Joe by Richard Serra
ABOVE: "Joe" by Richard Serra

“The urban works need a large number of people to complete their content. (I feel strongly that these sculptures could not be in a dessert)  They need the interaction of people.”
– Richard Serra

Here is a little video clip I made of “Twain:”


Tomorrow I will outline suggestions for physical improvements to the block.  Thanks to photographer Robert Pettus for the permission to use his image.

– Steve Patterson


Some cities planting public fruit trees

Image: Waysidegardens.com (click to view)

A recent USA Today article caught my attention: More urbanites have their pick of fresh fruit:

Fruit-picking opportunities like that are becoming more common, as volunteers in cities including Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Madison, Wis., mobilize behind a goal of planting fruit trees on public land in city parks and neighborhoods.

Free fruit also is available for picking in season on public land in Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis and New York, according to neighborhoodfruit.com, a site that helps people track down available fruit.

Interesting idea, the idea of growing public fruit is appealing.

– Steve Patterson


Dog run opened in Lucas Park

April 9, 2010 Downtown, Parks 7 Comments

Last Saturday the dog run in Downtown’s Lucas Park finally opened for business.

ABOVE: Ald Kacie Starr Triplett speaks to the crowd before the ribbon cutting
ABOVE: Ald Kacie Starr Triplett speaks to the crowd before the ribbon cutting

After the ribbon was cut we all went inside the gates. The pavement inside allowed my chair to easily wheel inside. While I was there a cute little dog jumped up to greet me.

ABOVE: Dog welcomes Steve Patterson
ABOVE: Dog welcomes Steve Patterson

The following is video from the event including a bit at the end with 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn:


More information can be found at downtownstl10.org.

I don’t have a dog nor do I plan to get one, however, I’ve seen enough dog runs to know that when done properly they are a huge asset that can build real community. We should have as a goal to have an off-leash dog park within a 10-15 minute walk of every residence in the City of St. Louis within 5 years.

– Steve Patterson