St. Louis has long been proud of its famous (and infamous) places: the Arch, Gaslight Square, The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Coral Court Motel. Marilynne Bradley’s “Once Upon a Time in St. Louis: An Illustrated Trip Through the Past” features 86 of those landmarks, painted in watercolor and accompanied by their histories.
Over 50 years, Bradley said, she painted about 200 parks, facades, and landmarks. “My idea was just to record places in St. Louis that supposedly were either going to be torn down or closed. It was my way of preservation.”
She came up with the idea for the book as St. Louis’ 250th birthday approached. “I started making piles: transportation, architecture, the parks, theaters, restaurants,” Bradley said. What didn’t fit into piles wouldn’t go into the book. When she was done, she had whittled 200 paintings down to 86.
“Once Upon a Time in St. Louis” is divided into those sections and goes in somewhat of a chronological order. The book begins, fittingly, with Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. The Transportation section features old dirt trails, then transitions into the railroads and riverboats that turned St. Louis into a manufacturing hub, bustling metropolis, and national destination.
Bradley, once trained as an illustrator of architecture, tends to focus on buildings of note. She painted famous interiors and exteriors: the Hadley Dean Glass Company building’s Egyptian-themed Art Deco lobby, and the infamous Coral Court’s unique glass brick. She did extensive research on structures built for the 1904 World’s Fair and painted many restaurants—local favorites since gone, like The Majestic.
“The reason I like The Majestic is because the way I painted it is a reflection in their window,” Bradley said. “Eating outside, and then showing the table and reflecting the people into the window. Very unique.”
Initially, Bradley was going to write a book about riverboats and the people who still, hundreds of years after St. Louis made a name for itself as a river city, traverse the water. “The feel of going down the river, the people who are on the boats—it’s a very unique—what would you call it, civilization, you might say? of the people who are willing to be away from actual civilization, would rather be alone.”
Although that book project is currently shelved, Bradley brings the same attention to detail and atmosphere to “Once Upon a Time in St. Louis.” Each page of the book is characterized by Bradley’s impressionistic style and extensive research, garnered from the significant time she spent getting to know the places and scenes she painted—from White Castle to Gaslight Square to the Mississippi.
Host Steve Potter interviewed Bradley earlier this year for STL TV. See that interview here.