Missouri Botanical Garden reopens 'Shaw’s temple to science' | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Botanical Garden reopens 'Shaw’s temple to science'

Apr 27, 2018

Visitors at the Missouri Botanical Garden are likely familiar with a historic building on the eastern portion of the grounds, where an obelisk stands outside with the words “In honour of American science.”

When philanthropist Henry Shaw founded the garden in 1859, the building served as its first scientific research facility. It contained a library and an herbarium that housed 62,000 specimens. Today, the garden’s herbarium has more than 7 million specimens, one of the largest botanical collections in the world.

After being closed for more than three decades, the garden is reopening Shaw’s original natural history museum as the “Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum.” The public will be able to enter the museum on Sunday.

The 7,000-square-foot building displays many specimens and artifacts, including those that show how plants are used by different cultures around the world. The garden also hired artists to recreate a ceiling mural that shows an array of plants that were discovered and studied by famous botanists, whose names line the sides of the mural.

“This was Shaw’s temple to science,” said Andrew Colligan, the garden’s archivist and historian. “You would walk in and look up and it’s almost as if you’re looking up through the ceiling of a Victorian greenhouse and all these plants are looking down upon you as you look up into a blue sky.”

Colligan also developed a key, with the help of the garden’s scientists, so that visitors can identify the plants in the mural.

During the renovation work, the garden hired artists based in Brooklyn to recreate the mural that lines the ceiling of the museum.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio


People used Shaw’s museum in various ways since he died in 1889. In the early 20th century, botanist Herman von Schrenk conducted wood preservation studies that led to the use of creosote. In the 1920s, Arthur Pillsbury took some of the first time-lapse photography on blooming plants in the basement. After that, the building was used as an auditorium until the 1970s and then for a brief time, it was a restaurant called “The Greenery.”

But since the early 1980s, the building sat largely unused. When Peter Wyse Jackson became president of the garden in 2010, he wanted the building restored and opened back to the public.

During the rehabilitation, demolition workers discovered a ceiling mural in a room adjacent to the main building. There was a drop ceiling, or a ceiling installed under the main structural ceiling, that workers removed to reveal the mural.

“They were doing demolition and they started to punch a few holes into,” Colligan said. “And they happened to punch one directly through to the face of Dr. George Engelmann. So I got a phone call and they said, you have to come over and see this. There’s a guy peeking out of a hole in the ceiling down at us.”

A ceiling mural that shows portraits of botanists George Engelmann, Carl Linnaeus and Asa Gray were discovered during the renovation.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The mural contained three portraits of famous botanists George Engelmann, Carl Linneaus and Asa Gray, who all helped Shaw develop the garden.

“It shows that Shaw was not a person who was going to hog all the credit,” Colligan said. “He was neither a botanist or a horticulturalist but he was a man with the wherewithal and a vision and a dream and had the financial means to make it a reality.”

The basement of the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum contains an art gallery.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The renovation and restoration work cost $3 million. The garden also built an art gallery in the basement and additional structures to the side of the historic building that have accessible entrances that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because the garden became a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the renovations had to be approved by the National Park Service.

“I like to think of this museum building as a place where past meets the present,” Colligan said. “There’s a lot of stories to be told.”

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