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Beacon update: Citygarden quickly captured St. Louis' heart

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 25, 2009 - Citygarden, the new sculpture park on the Mall downtown, opened with huge splashes in July, aquafied both by the fountains in the park and in metaphorical splashing in the media, including the Beacon.

In the intervening months, I have been a regular visitor, and have never felt as if the excitement were about to diminish. I make it a point to bring friends who've felt alienated from downtown for one reason or another, and my efforts have been rewarded with enthusiasm.

Since its opening, Citygarden has achieved a celebrity that few urban spaces can claim, especially urban spaces in these parts. The brainchild of the munificent Gateway Foundation and its chief, Peter Fischer, its appeal has been magnetic, transcending cultural boundaries and serving to attract all manner of folks -- visiting aesthetes, baseball fans and the noonday folks who take special pleasure in having a place to hang out at lunchtime. In fine weather, children leave wet and inspired.

No fewer than 250,000 visitors have visited the park, its sculptures, its plantings, its jumbo video screen and its snazzy restaurant, the Terrace View, since its opening in July. Make that no fewer than 250,001.

Because, at the not-so-hot minute this is written, at noon on the Saturday before the winter solstice and the celebration of Christmas, I'm standing smack in the middle of Citygarden plugging these words into my laptop, which sits securely on one of the garden's thick stone walls. My hope is by working here, I can inject extra authenticity in this little report.

A stiff wind is blowing through the funnel end of Richard Serra's "Twain" sculpture, and whistles past the big white rabbits, slides over the seasonal colored globes and stabs me in the back. I am cold, and for the first time in probably a hundred visits, I am here solo. A few people are having lunch in the Terrace View, and as I look up that way, I see two guys in black checking out the restaurant. They come to see what I am up to and turn out to be security cops.

But chattering teeth not withstanding, I'm crazy about this place. There are big reasons to regard it kindly, for it has helped revitalize downtown and given the city a needed sense of victory. On more personal levels, it offers every visitor his or her own rewards, the invitation to dispense with inhibitions and to dance with the spoutings, or to take the indescribable pleasure of watching one's offspring and grand offspring having fun.

On this monochrome of a day, with the wind rustling the cold-stiffened grasses and animating the George Rickey sculpture, the blades of which move in apparent graceful defiance of the gale and bowling-balling down the carefully considered alleyways, another aspect presents itself: solitude and serenity. 

How lucky we are that this place came to be in St. Louis. Before I take off, I go over to the musical sculpture near the corner of Market and 9th streets. I try to play "Jingle Bells." The organization of the tones confounds my efforts at the celebration of the one horse open sleigh. In fact, music sounds just like an old man jumping on a tone-tap device designed by Alons Van Leggelo.

No matter. Some visitors appear, walking west on Market, into the wind, headed who knows where.

"Pretty music," the lady says, and smiles. I think to myself, in addition to making us happy, Citygarden sometimes seems to make us nice.

Read Robert Duffy's initial appreciation of Citygarden below.

By any measure, the Gateway Foundation’s most prominent contribution to the St. Louis region is a triumph.

Called Citygarden, the new park opens to the public next week, on July 1. Although its most visible features are immediately enjoyable and accessible, its importance, visually and philosophically, extends well beyond the obvious visual and sensory pleasures fixed in it.

At the risk of being accused of making a pun, the roots of this garden are deep and extensive and provide lessons in civic responsibility and philanthropic wisdom as well as an accessible introduction to, if not saturation in, substantive three-dimensional artistic trends of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Because sculptures are the most dramatic features of this park, it’s important and even fun, in a sort of malicious way, to review the difficult row this particular artistic manifestation has had to hoe in St. Louis.

In the early 20th century, the bared breasts and come-hither outstretched arms of “The Naked Truth” in Reservoir Park evoked a huge civic commotion and was even regarded with alarm by the principal donor, the worldly beer baron Adolphus Busch. The sculpture survived by its being cast in bronze rather than sculptured of marble. In bronze, it was regarded as less fleshy, therefore less seductive, therefore less likely to incite a wave of wantonness in Compton Heights.

Later on, Carl Milles’ playful “Wedding of the Waters” fountain across from Union Station met a similar fate. Like “Naked Truth,” this now-beloved ensemble remained in place, but a less innuendo-laden name was selected for it -- “The Meeting of the Waters.” Again, the fires of desire were extinguished, this time with lexicographical sleight of hand, rather than a material reordering.

The Aloe family paid for the Milles installation, and later, Isabel Aloe Baer and her husband, Howard Baer, presented two sculptures by Henry Moore to Lambert-St. Louis airport. The old Globe-Democrat newspaper characterized the sculptures as dinosaur droppings. Eventually, the sculptures were so neglected the Baers reclaimed them. Finally they came to the St. Louis Art Museum, and now they enjoy a considerably more dignified and appropriate home overlooking the Grand Basin in Forest Park.

Early in its history, Laumeier Sculpture Park was smacked with the sharp blows of a municipal cane. In 1977, a majority of the members of the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen declared itself shocked and appalled by the modernist sculptures installed in the park. The aldermen  described the park as Murphy’s junkyard and, in so many words, an abomination. Nevertheless, in recent years, Laumeier has claimed a secure place in the American artistic landscape after some rocky times, and Sunset Hills is a sponsor of its annual arts fair.

One of the most lamentable of all sculpture controversies swirled around Richard Serra’s 1981 sculpture, “Twain,” which is on the Gateway Mall between 10th and 11th streets. When the sculpture was commissioned and installed, a vocal minority was unwilling to understand Serra had gained a place as one of the world’s most celebrated artists, and that the presence of the sculpture here afforded St. Louis distinction for having the vision to arrange for its placement in a prominent civic space.

The attitudes slid along the tracks of “If I don’t understand it, it can’t be any good” or “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” In the Serra squabble, the conversations turned from the aesthetic to the political and then got personal and juvenile. It was unfortunate. “Twain,” however, remains. And now, all of us can revel in Twain’s sculptural new neighbors installed in Citygarden.

Citygarden is a syncretism of earth, stone, water, art, architecture, urban context, intelligence, restraint and taste; a paradisiacal place with has significant historic roots.

One might justifiably regard the land on which this park has been established as hexed. The notion of a grand greensward sweeping from Union Station to the Mississippi River, from the time of its ideational birth in the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century until the present day, has eluded us.

Lodge the blame anywhere you want -- on our inability to make decisions and to stick with them, on political warfare, on the inability to commit financial resources, on narrowness of vision and a lack of leadership and courage -– but the fact is that in the history of mall creation, the failure of this one has its own monumentality.

The reasons don’t matter so much at the moment, and they seem to recede significantly, because the Gateway Foundation has managed to transcend many of the obstacles that have heaved up on the mall over the years.

In consultation with planners Nelson Byrd Wolz, of Charlottesville, Va., and a young local architectural firm, Studio Durham Architects, and with spare-no-expense commitments to quality, the Foundation established a plan, funded the plan, saw it to completion, and succeeded in pulling off one of the most impressive transformations in recent St. Louis urban history.

For example, the quality of the design and its execution serves to draw the eye away from some eyesore buildings nearby, and interestingly, Citygarden's presence has the effect of making their appearances less objectionable. Other buildings, such as the Wainwright Building, bask in their proximity to the new park.

The designers integrated the garden into the urban context in intriguing ways. A strong reference is made to the pre-Gateway Mall past. Using the old Sanborn Map of St. Louis from 1916, designers were able to trace the paths of old alleyways that once ran through the site . These have been replicated in new walkways that extend through the garden. The reference is a subtle, but powerful, retrospection.

There are, in all, two dozen works of art new to St. Louis either installed now or to come in the next year. Some are by modernist old masters: Aristide Maillol and Fernand Leger. There are 20th-century artists of extraordinary significance represented, such as Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero, Martin Puryear and Jim Dine. Others are distinctly 21st-century artists: Julian Opie, Tom Otterness and Tom Claassen.

Concerns were expressed that with so many works of art in rather confined place, the garden might more resemble an art parking lot than a sculpture garden. The fears were unfounded. The siting of the sculptures is adroit. There is no crowding. Each work of art breathes freely, but by virtue of placement, the sculptures gesture toward one another, setting up volleys between voluptuousness and whimsy in one court, the angular or austere in another.

The variety of experience is limited only by the boundaries of one’s imagination. An investment of intellectual energy in a visit to the park and reflections on the experience yields such satisfying revelations.

The flow of the water through the park and the plantings nourished by it present a visitor reminders of the primordial sources of the region, its waterways and indigenous vegetation. The stones, marked by time and chisel, were quarried nearby and provide both a sense of permanence, warmth, extraordinary geological beauty -- and an awareness of the passage of time and of impermanence.

The Gateway Foundation, which has placed a number of sculptures around town and has sponsored lighting programs for the Saarinen Arch and St. Louis’ magnificent watertowers, spent between $25 million and $30 million on the design and construction of the park. The city owns the land; the foundation owns the sculptures, the cost of which is not included in the figures above. The foundation will foot the bills for everything, going forward, except the costs of electricity and water.  

You can go and play in the water or have lunch or supper in the new  crystal pavilion housing the restaurant and bar. You can wander the pathways any time day or night and find visual stimulation and the serenity that moving water, light and shadow offer so abundantly here.

An observer recoils from the impulse to say, “Go!” But in the case of this new and abundant asset, such a recommendation seems not only entirely appropriate but also perfectly obvious.

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