St. Louis statues: a great tradition of public art

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

St. Louis has many great works of public art on display, throughout Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, and other locations in the city. They put to shame the public art of many other cities that are now more prosperous and populated.

During my recent visit, I accidentally stumbled on the statues of great white men, as I call them, in Tower Grove Park in the south central area of the city. Businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw of St. Louis believed that public art played an important role in the welfare of a city, and left a legacy, including the statues.

The statues I photographed depict William Shakespeare, Alexander von Humboldt, and Christopher Colombus—a man whose controversial legacy is questioned today. The statues, regardless of their merits, evoke a period of wealth and pride, when the city chose to promote art when it was at the apex of its economic and political power. Much of that art celebrates European civilization and few other traditions and races. St. Louis has always been a city that did not recognize the contributions of non-European groups until the late 19th century.

I also discovered a wonderful bronze sculpture in the Dutchtown neighborhood, in South St. Louis, just off Grand Boulevard. Atop a neighborhood gate entrance sat two jolly foxes, swigging from pints and likely smoking pipes. These are located next to the popular Ted Drewes frozen custard stand, where I gulped down a delicious dessert. Now this was a real discovery.

There are no jolly foxes where I live in Portland. I think we need some. We take ourselves far too preciously, and we forget other cities have understood the power of public art better than the new cool capitals of the United States.

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6 comments

  1. Note, the park’s website has removed its statues page that used to reside here: https://www.towergrovepark.org/statues/. This could be because they redid a website? But I doubt it. They no longer list the park’s statues as resources, which seems more of a political decision than one that actually is based on providing park facts. You can search for “statues” (and I put in that link instead–and pictures, truncated in some cases will appear).

    I am in favor of being honest about what is in the park and why, even what is wrong. I noted in my essay the park’s artwork reflects the Western and white male version of history and art and culture, including the controversy now surrounding Christopher Columbus. The past, including ideas from the past we now reject, can still be acknowledged in a way that shows how views have changed over time. We can also render informed judgment.

    The city of St. Louis also recently removed a Confederate memorial in Forest Park following outcry of similar monuments in New Orleans. I had covered that monument on this website previously–search for “Confederate.” I had compared that monument to monuments erected of the Union forces. The legacy was simply erased without any discussion of it, and that is still possible to do. We missed a chance to describe the brutality of slavery and the institution of slavery in Missouri and St. Louis before the Civil War, or how the legacy of that war lived into the 20th century, as seen in the funding of the monument. We can and do have informed dialogue about history, and its many ills, all the time in our cultural institutions. We cannot learn if we do know and understand our past. It seems like this approach is going the wrong direction. Ignoring what is before your eyes is willful blindness.

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  2. I revisited the park’s website, and found they have moved the statues page here: https://www.towergrovepark.org/statues1. This information is buried in the “history” section of the “about” page. I do believe that was intentional. As this park is no longer funded by the parks department, it’s not clear how decisions are being made. However, I’m glad all the information is still online. I think the park could have a display board that talks about the history of the worldview when the statues were created that puts these pieces of art in the context of their time. I fully expect the Christopher Columbus statue to come under fire. His legacy truly is controversial, as is the entire history of colonization of the new world the destruction it left on the first peoples of the Americas. We likely should honor those first peoples in this park.I think the legacy of Dred Scott, the statue of him and his wife, is beautifully done at the Old Courthouse.

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    1. I’m going to tick a lot of boxes by way of introducing myself and vaunting my opinion’s bona fides. It’s only my opinion and I can’t speak with any authority on what the website or governing body has to say about it. I’m an Italian-American, middle-aged, female, educated, history and science loving, left-leaning centrist, native St. Louisan who lives near and loves Tower Grove Park.

      The Park’s management has posted a sign next to the statue of Columbus expressing welcome to all visitors and that a commission has been named “to determine the future” of this statue. The unspoken plea is ” … so be a mensch and please don’t vandalize it. That costs us money. Give us a break… ”

      Now as a kid in the 1960s I was proud of my family’s Italian immigrant heritage and was also taught to be proud of the achievements of other Italian Americans. We took Columbus as one of our own. My memory of the history and social studies lessons were of being so impressed with his navigating ability and his taking such a wild risk based on math that not everyone with an admirable (for the time) education agreed on yet. I thought he got too much credit for accidentally smacking into a continent he couldn’t possibly have avoided, on his way somewhere else, and not enough for the calculating he had to do to even consider such an undertaking—being the first one to go the other freaking direction!

      Time moves on and movements have their times. With the rise of the Internet more information became more available to more people. We learned things that were never in my 5th grade geography book. Wholesale slaughter, violence of unspeakable dimensions, enslavement of native peoples. And people started talking about Columbus differently. They called him everything but a white man, to quote my Irish American grandma. In the collective-outrage hive-mind of the Angernet, poor old dead Columbus went from admired, heroic pioneer to irredeemable Euro-centric, marauding, pillaging, racist, bloodthirsty monster in a few keystrokes.

      And these people occasionally visit Tower Grove Park and tear their gaze from their screens and and see that statue. They see that statue just… just… so disrespectfully STANDING there! Just existing and enduring with such effrontery, impervious to their umbrage, which must surely be so righteously intense as to blow the thing to atoms with a baleful glare! So some of them get so mad at Columbus, who they know they can’t hurt anymore, that they take it out on a piece of metal molded in the shape of a guy. They throw red paint on it. Get it!? It looks just like blood! Get it?! Or they fling a chain around it & wind up pulling the bumper off their truck.

      If you ask me–and nobody but that RELY button did– the Park’s governing body should consider replacing the Columbus statue with a monument to the Italian immigrants who helped build St. Louis. A nearby neighborhood called the Hill was home to waves of Italian immigrants who came to work the clay mines. Much of the St. Louis we love was built by those new Americans. An Italian-American civic group lays a wreath at the Columbus statue every October. Get these guys to work with the Park on a suitable replacement. If the mobs insist on a real wiseacre slap at Columbus, they can melt down his statue and use the metal to cast a copy of “The Italian Immigrants,” a splendid statue of a young couple, their baby, their one valise and their hopes and dreams. It sits by the steps of St. Ambrose Church in the Hill. I’d happily contribute to fundraising efforts for such a thing and I bet thousands of my fellow St. Louisans would as well. I’d even pawn my 8 inch replica of the “Immigrants.”

      The trouble is not a statue. Or a website hinting at another website’s murky motives. It’s that we’re all so stupidly busy being mad at the long-dead people the statues depict, that we think we’re justified in vandalizing or pulling down these objects that don’t belong to us. You don’t have to like them. Write a letter, start a petition, but vandalism of public property doesn’t solve squat. It won’t teach anyone a lesson. Columbus is not gonna come to life, slap his forehead, learn about Instagram so he can issue a heartfelt mea culpa and “take full responsibility for my actions, ” perhaps with the ever-supportive Mrs. Columbus at his side with a damp smile and jeweled pomander she lifts to her delicate nose now and then. Use the energy from your outrage to learn and to teach about racial inequality and stop lashing out at the wrong things.

      Geez, it’s hard to a reasonable person these days!

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      1. Libby, I am not aware of the current developments you described. I appreciate you visiting my site and sharing your thoughts. I couldn’t tell if you were speaking to me in your last paragraph or to others. Regardless, your comments are now here. I hope you visit my site again. As for these statues, I would not support removing them. I am predicting something will happen, if it hasn’t already.

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      2. Hi Rudy,

        I apologize for losing my thread and slipping from addressing you to railing at the Angerweb, as I so ironically label other passionate people. You’re right, I should have been more clear there. And maybe a hair less passionate.

        As for developments, so far it’s only the sign by the Columbus statue as far as I can tell. I haven’t heard of any controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s or Humboldt’s monuments. Your photo of the Humboldt statue is what brought me to your site. I’ve always admired the guy since reading a biography of him by David McCullough. I like that our statue seems to be a younger depiction than most, as though his likeness was captured just as he stepped off the ship from South America, flush with his triumph.

        I thank you for your kind words about St. Louis’ devotion to public art. We’re pretty proud of that reputation. I hope you get to visit us again. For no other reason than the artistry of the buildings (which can tend to whimsical foxes) you must take the Anheuser Busch Brewery tour. The Clydesdale Stable is nicer than my apartment! The 2 free beers at the end are just a bonus! The Missouri Botanical Gardens are a treat for the public art lover as well, if you don’t mind Chihuly. (I do.) But the sculpture throughout the Garden will knock you out. Lafayette Park, Forest Park, Fairgrounds, heck, even Bellefontaine and Calvary cemeteries are like galleries of art to compete with the best of Europe. Come back to St. Louis and I’ll take you to the Hill to a 100 year old Italian deli for lunch.

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  3. Libby: Yes, St. Louis has many great treasures. I grew up there and have family there and try to get there often. I love all of the places you mention, and more. If you use the search tool on this site, you’ll find most of those locations documented. Best regards.

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