It takes a village of volunteers to restore Soldiers Memorial
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Casey McCausland and the Mission Continues aren't the only ones helping the Soldiers Memorial . With virtually no funding from the city or state, an army of volunteers -- not all military -- maintain and improve the memorial and its garden.
"We've had so many people involved," said master gardener Martha Conzelman.
A group of submarine veterans helps keep up the memorial, especially the garden. Led by Mike Masters, the Friends of the Soldiers Memorial Garden started volunteering in 2003. The group picks up trash and pressure-washes the monuments. Before Masters and the submarine veterans became involved, fundraisers raised money to pay people to do it. That didn't always work.
"You don't need to hire people to keep doing this," Masters said. "You should be able to find enough volunteers to keep this place going."
According to Masters, the city only cuts the grass, so volunteers are left to do everything else.
"If we didn't keep it up, it would just get dirtier and dirtier," he said.
Masters sees maintaining the memorial as a way to give back. Honored to help maintain it, he strives to make the memorial an attractive destination for St. Louis natives and tourists. In the past four years, the memorial has seen more people and events than ever before, Masters said.
While the spike in attendance has pleased Masters, he wants the memorial to appeal to veterans in St. Louis County as well. Masters said that many veterans in the county patronize their local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts instead.
"This place was built for a specific reason," Masters said. "It was important enough in World War I that the president came here to dedicate it. It's kind of like the national monuments in Washington, D.C., but no one wants to come down."
To make the memorial more engaging, Conzelman and the submarine veterans overhauled the garden and the Court of Honor just across from the memorial. According to Conzelman, the court was overgrown with plants that obstructed visitors' view and became a spot where homeless people congregated and slept. To the memorial's museum superintendent, Lynnea Magnuson, the condition of the Court of Honor contradicted what it stands for.
"It's the Court of Honor, the place we're supposed to honor," Magnuson said.
To make the court friendlier to visitors, Conzelman designed a plan with shorter, more colorful plants. She consulted the court's original master plan by architect E.J. Mackey Jr. in 1945. Despite having the original blueprint on hand, Conzelman did not restore the court to its original form.
"When we started looking at the plants that Mr. Mackey had specified, we found that most of them are what are considered invasive species now," Conzelman said. "They're plants that botanical gardens say not to plant."
Conzelman enlisted her friends from the Master Gardener Association to help design the project, while the St. Louis Department of Parks and Forestry tilled the beds, delivered the plants and donated 25 ornamental grasses. Flora Conservancy, a non-profit volunteer group, purchased, planted and tended seeds for 1,000 blooming annuals, and Baxter Gardens Nursery donated 45 boxwood bushes. The Mission Continues planted the grasses and bushes, while employees from Bausch and Lomb prepared the beds, spread mulch and planted 1,000 annuals.
Bausch and Lomb employees participated on their Day of Caring, an annual event that allows workers to take a day off work to volunteer. About 20 employees helped at the memorial that day. Many felt the experience was patriotic because of their own military connections.
"It meant more to me because I had brothers who served in Vietnam," said Karen Woods, who works in the Bausch and Lomb finance department. "It felt really good."
Thanks to the volunteer effort, the memorial's Court of Honor is now surrounded by red, white and blue annuals. Since the revamp, Masters has noticed more foot traffic and more people eating lunch at the memorial.
While much of the volunteer attention has focused on the outside of the memorial, efforts now are being made to enhance the interior. The Friends of the Memorial, led by baseball legend Stan Musial, is focusing on raising $6.6 million to install air conditioning and special windows. According to Magnuson, sunlight can harm older mementos; having windows that block it would allow the museum to display more items.
"That would be a huge benefit for us," Magnuson said. "We wouldn't have to change things in and out all the time, and we'd be able to keep things on exhibit longer -- and put things on exhibit that we currently cannot have out."
All the volunteer efforts, says Masters, have given the memorial a new lease on life.
"This place has been here for 60 plus years, and it's going to be around for another 60," Masters said. "There's no other place in St. Louis that's like this."