A Revamped Memorial Shares Stories of Local Service Members
Many of us have passed Soldiers Memorial Military Museum on excursions to Downtown St. Louis—it’s across from City Hall, near the Central Library, Stifel Theatre and Enterprise Center. If you haven’t ever stopped in for a visit, now’s the time. The beautiful art deco structure reopened on Nov. 3 following a $30 million renovation that turned the building into a state-of-the-art museum facility and better unified outdoor memorial spaces with the museum itself. The revitalization was overseen by the Missouri Historical Society, which operates Soldiers Memorial on behalf of the City of St. Louis.
Fittingly, the timing of the reopening coincides with the 35th Annual St. Louis Regional Veterans Day Observance on Saturday, Nov. 10. In the spirit of Veterans Day, when we as a nation recognize the service of this country’s veterans, here are some highlights to help you plan your visit to the revitalized Soldiers Memorial.
Inside the exhibits: St. Louis in Service
Found on the main level, the permanent St. Louis in Service exhibit details St. Louisans’ role in more than 250 years of American military history. The exhibit is split into two halves, one in each wing.
The East Gallery covers the period from the American Revolution to World War I and the creation of Soldiers Memorial. Within it, historic places and people are connected to present-day perspectives, from Camp Jackson, a Civil War site that’s now part of Saint Louis University, to Base Hospital 21, an initiative of Washington University that became one of the first units to mobilize in World War I.
Naval aficionados will enjoy learning about the many different ships that have taken to the seas under the name USS St. Louis since 1828, including a new one currently in the works. These stories are told around an iconic artifact from the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum Collections: the bell from the third USS St. Louis, which protected ships transporting American troops to Europe in the Great War. Its presence here symbolizes the thousands of St. Louisans who have served in the US armed forces worldwide.
The exhibit continues in the West Gallery, which picks up the story of St. Louisans’ service with their experiences from World War II to today. Among the highlights are oral histories from veterans, an aircraft gun turret manufactured by women at an Emerson factory in St. Louis and Stan Musial’s Navy baseball uniform.
Those who remember the Iran hostage crisis may have a special interest in a display of diary entries from a Marine who was held in Tehran. Sergeant Rocky Sickmann, a native St. Louisan, deftly smuggled out his diary pages when he and the other hostages were released, and this is the first time the public has been able to view them.
Many other first-person accounts are offered in various formats throughout the two galleries, along with window panels showing the faces of some of the city’s most prominent veterans.
USS St. Louis ship’s bell from 1906.
Inside the exhibits: WWI: St. Louis and the Great War
Found downstairs, the first special exhibit at the new Soldiers Memorial commemorates the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I. Featuring stories from the front lines and the home front, this exhibit showcases more than 200 artifacts, many of which are on display for the first time.
Perhaps most dramatic is the lower level’s transformation. It has housed many different offices over the years, from a USO to the city’s emergency management department, but it was previously always closed to the public. Now, thanks to the extensive renovation—which included lowering the floor by 18 inches—the lower level has become a welcoming environment for rotating exhibits, more than doubling the amount of exhibit space available at Soldiers Memorial.
Located between the East and West Galleries is a special tribute to the 1,075 St. Louisans who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I. Above the black granite cenotaph (a word that literally means “empty tomb”) is a glistening red and gold ceiling mosaic honoring St. Louis’s Gold Star Mothers, women who lost their children in military service.
Across Chestnut Street is the Court of Honor, which was established in 1948 to memorialize those who lost their lives in World War II. Although Chestnut separates the Court of Honor from Soldiers Memorial, the outdoor space is now more clearly a part of the overall visitor experience. Additionally, the Korean and Vietnam memorials have been relocated to their own spaces along the walkway connecting the Court of Honor with Soldiers Memorial, and new memorials have been added to honor those who lost their lives in more recent conflicts.
Black granite cenotaph inscribed with the names of 1,075 St. Louisans who lost their lives during World War I.
Soldiers Memorial is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Its website offers more details for visitors, including information on student programming, group tours, and access tours for visitors with hearing loss, low vision or memory loss.
The Nov. 10 Veterans Day observance starts at 8:30 a.m. with a 5K race. The 35th annual parade steps off at noon, with a viewing stand in front of Soldiers Memorial. Food trucks will be onsite from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Sunday, Nov. 11, the American Legion 11th and 12th District will hold its annual veterans ceremony and wreath laying at Soldiers Memorial, an apt location for an organization that was born out of WWI and formed stateside in St. Louis.
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All images courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.