City Insight: St. Louis
Spanning The Middle Of America

464 An apogean view: peering out from the cramped space at the top of the St. Louis Arch. CLUI photo ST. LOUIS IS IN THE middle of America. It is north/south/east/west. It is at the end and beginning of the Missouri River, and on the Mississippi waterway between the Gulf and the Great Lakes. As early as the legends of Lewis and Clark, we know St. Louis as a gateway between the East and the West, a notion so boldly reasserted (posthumously) by Eero Saarinen in 1965. From the historic prose of Mark Twain, the city is a river town, and steamboats connected it, lazily, to the south. In later years, with locomotives and industrialization, St. Louis became stitched to the industrial Midwest (which is, geographically, really the northeast).

Overall, Missouri may be the most in-between state, sharing its border with many different states and regions: the Great Plains on its west side (Kansas and Nebraska, Oklahoma); the Midwest on its north and east side (Iowa and Illinois); the South on its south side (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky). The federal census has placed the population center for the nation in Missouri since 1980. Meet me in St. Louis. Indeed!

Though its gotten alot harder to meet people in St. Louis: The city lost half of its population due to outmigration between 1950 and 1990. Once the fourth largest city in the country, St. Louis was ranked as the 49th largest after the 2000 census. But that might be changing, as the general trend of redeveloping inner cities continues. As it stands today, the economy of St. Louis is service, followed by industry. The largest private employers are the health care company BJC, Washington University, and retail companies (grocery, fast food, and Wal-mart). The largest industrial employer, by far, is Boeing, which has at least 15,000 people working in a number of research and production centers (including their “secretive” Phantom Works) next to St. Louis Airport. The next largest is DaimlerChrysler, with around 7,000 employees. Other automotive companies are also major employers in the region, as is the agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto, which has its world headquarters at a sprawling campus out on Lindburgh Boulevard.

It may be instructive to look at St. Louis, this center in the middle of everywhere, by carving an arc around its edge, the city’s official and unofficial limits. The effect is twofold: it takes into account its suburban fringe, to the west, as well as its eastern core, along the Mississippi. It performs a circumnavigation and a cross-section, interpretive urban transects from within and without. By looking at a selection of some points of interest within this realm we can learn not just about the landscape, but about the economy and culture of this classic city, this American gateway, and American center.

465 The path to the top of the radioactive waste mound at Weldon Spring is a rocky road. CLUI photo

Sites on the Edge of St. Louis

One way to approach a city is by leaving it. In St. Louis this means heading beyond the I-270 beltway that represents the edge of the metropolitan bowl. One gains distance, while going deep into the milieu of the fringe, as it is on the edge where many land uses, pushed out of the denser developments, thrive, like a bubble emerging from a crack. But with the rapid growth of the suburbs, what was once outside has now been absorbed into the spreading fractal expansion of medium-density-ville, the edge city. For the most part, this is a second generation landscape, where virgin land, developed for rural functions, is now giving way to the demands of increased populations and added value. Farms become housing cul-de-sac networks, dumps become parks, quarries become underground office parks, and the spoiled grounds of toxic industries are collected and isolated in architectonic tombs. This is the new and future landscape of America.

466 The community of Times Beach, before being removed. Image courtesy of the Route 66 MuseumThe Weldon Spring Mound is one of these architectonic tombs, one of a few dozen built by the Department of Energy across the nation, to enclose the remnants of nuclear industries associated with cold-war weapons construction. It is a 45 acre trapezoidal mound containing the demolished remains of what was once the largest explosives plant in the nation, along with soil and other materials made radioactive by the plant’s later function as a uranium ore processing center. Next to the mound is the Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center, operated by a contractor for the DOE, to process visitors to the site. Out the back door of the center is a trail that climbs the bare mound of coarse rip rap. At the top is a four sided overlook, with four canted plaques that describe the construction of the mound, and point out the townsites where people lived before they were evacuated for the construction of the plant. Higher than tree level, the top of the mound provides a good view of the surroundings, which are an overgrown wildlife area concealing scattered storage igloos and roadways of the former ordnance works, the most developed part of which is still off limits, and used as a military training area. Weldon Spring is a pyramid of our subatomic, technological, postnuclear age.

Another site of this new mound building culture is 15 miles south of Weldon Spring, near the town of Eureka. Located on a bend of the Meramec River, the once nationally notorious town of Times Beach is now encased in low grass covered mounds in a newly designated parkland. The community of Times Beach started in 1925 as a promotional program of the St. Louis Times newspaper. For a payment of $67.50 you got a six-month subscription to the paper, as well as a lot in a newly platted recreational area on the scenic Meramec. Over the years, the community changed from a party village with 13 bars to a year-round working class town of 2,000. In the early 1980’s it was discovered that the contractor hired to control dust on the dirt roads of the town had, on numerous occasions, used spent motor oil that was loaded with dioxins from a chemical plant that once made Agent Orange. As the investigation grew, so did concern in the community. In the last days of 1982, after being flooded by the river, which was a common event at the low-lying Times Beach, the residents were evacuated, never to return. The town site was declared a toxic wasteland, and the government bought the properties under the new Superfund law. After nearly ten years of being emptied, all the houses and their contents were bulldozed into piles, along with the cars, swingsets, and everything else. An incinerator was constructed at the site, to burn the most toxic material (another source of controversy when hazardous materials were brought from elsewhere to be incinerated there). The clean up and incineration took several years, and cost over $200 million. Once one of the most famous Superfund sites, the town site is now the Route 66 State Park. All that remains of Times Beach is few test wells, a street grid that is slowly becoming overgrown, and the unmarked mounds that contain the demolished town and the incinerator.

467 Many of the munition igloos at the Tyson Research Center have been creatively reappointed. CLUI photoThe Tyson Research Center is a multifaceted landscape of mystery and diversity. It is a heavily wooded and hilly 2,000 acre fenced property next to Interstate 44, a few miles from Times Beach. Originally a defense site, it is now owned by Washington University, which uses it primarily for environmental research programs. The land was developed as a weapons assembly, storage and training facility by the military during WWII. Structures included 52 munition storage bunkers and several other storage and administration buildings, as well as firing ranges. Used through the Korean War, and known as the St. Louis Ordnance Plant, it was transferred to the University in 1963. Many of the military structures remain on site, abandoned and overgrown, though some have been repurposed for use by the university. Old grain storage sheds are used by the Museum of Transportation for automobile storage. Another tenant on site is the Wild Canid Center, a wolf shelter and research facility that was founded by Wild Kingdom’s Marlin Perkins (which holds public howling events on Halloween.) The now pastoral grounds of Tyson are scattered with the enigmatic forms of research infrastructure, the remains of military use, and remnants of art projects sporadically made on the grounds by students and faculty.

468 The underground office park at Bussen Quarry. CLUI photoThe fringes of most cities have their share of quarries, where rock, cement, gravel, and sand are extracted from the ground to build the roads and buildings of the city. St. Louis has several, but none as interesting or hospitable as the Bussen Quarry on the outside edge of the Interstate 255 beltway, on the Mississippi River. The Bussen family owns and operates three quarries in the region (including the Antire quarry across from the Tyson Research Center). The 500 acre pit and plant site at the river location is one of the oldest and busiest in the region. It started operation in 1882, supplying crushed rock to the Army Corps of Engineers for river construction projects. With rail and waterfront running next to the quarry, Bussen also operates a shipping terminal for bulk products. But it is the underground architecture that is the most unusual part of the site. The company has excavated space inside one wall of the quarry pit, and created an subterranean office and warehouse development, with hundreds of thousands of square feet of rentable space. The project, called Bussen Underground Warehouse, has several tenants, including fur and food storage companies, which save on refrigeration bills in the naturally climate controlled space.

North of the quarry, heading inside the interstate beltway, going north along the river, towards the city’s center, on the eastern edge of the city and state, one passes through the hospitals and cemeteries of Jefferson Barracks. In the early days of the nation, this was a major military outpost for westward expansion. The barracks was a logistics center for troops and supplies heading into the Mexican War, the Civil War, Indian conflicts, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine War, World War I and World War II. Many famous military men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, and William T. Sherman all served here at some point. The barracks was also the site of the first successful parachute jump from an airplane, in 1912. Jefferson Barracks operated from 1828 to 1946, and is now mostly a historic park.

North of the barracks is a major discharge point for the wastes of the city. It is here that the River Des Peres spills into the Mississippi, a drainage channel for the surface run-off for much of the city. This is also the location of the Lemay Treatment Plant, one of the largest of the eight water treatment facilities in the city operated by the Municipal Sewage District, which manages all the city’s wastewater, serving an area of approximately 524 square miles.

469 The hulking remains of the Lemp Brewery are part of the landsacpe of beer in St. Louis. CLUI photoOne of the most prominent presences on the waterfront south of downtown is Anheuser Busch. The corporate headquarters of the nation’s largest beer company is in a sprawling complex of brewery and distribution buildings, the flagship of the twelve breweries that the company operates across America. The company has 50% of the beer market in the U.S., with Budweiser far and away the King of Beers. Brewing has been a major industry in St. Louis for over 100 years. Near Budweiser, the hulking industrial gothic complex of the former Lemp Brewery, once one of the largest breweries in the world, has been repurposed into storage, offices, and other businesses. Adam Lemp started making lager beer in St. Louis in the 1840s, using natural limestone caves around Cherokee Street for cold storage (“lagern” means to keep or “store” and lager beer took off in the mid 1850s as it was more stable and storable than other types). The Lemp family grew the company into the third largest brewery in the nation, in the early 1900s, and made the first domestic beer to be distributed coast to coast. Tunnels connected the brewery, the family mansion, and the much expanded caves into an underground network, which the Lemps developed further by building an underground ballroom and a swimming pool. The company shut its doors abruptly soon after prohibition, and the complex was bought by a shoe company that used only portions of it. Parts of the cave system were opened briefly as a tourist attraction, but then were abandoned as well. The five block brewery complex was sold to a redeveloper in 1992 for $200,000, but not too much has happened. Today, much of the site is unoccupied and the storied underground corridors and caves remain out of sight, with entrances sealed off, except in a few places.

Across a small park from Budweiser is a curious federal agency, located in a former arsenal. This is the primary office of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), outside of the Washington DC area. At least a few hundred people work there, conducting the mission of the NGA, which is to support the defense and intelligence communities with georeferenced information about things of interest in the world. Put another way, NGA is the lead agency in the American intelligence community for identifying targets and putting them on the map. In the language of the NGA itself, their mission is “to provide timely, relevant and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of our national security. Geospatial intelligence is the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth.” The NGA is the new name, since 2004, for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which was created in 1996, and was itself the new conglomeration of the Defense Mapping Agency, the Central Imagery Office, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, and the imagery elements of the National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA. The motto of the agency is “Know the Earth...Show the Way.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, and just a little further up the shore from the NGA, is one of the nation’s most visible and renowned landmarks, the Gateway Arch. Despite its intrusive Mount Rushmore-like psychic prominence, its modernist minimalism and astounding size make it one of the most memorable and remarkable public sculptures, period, and the progenitor of the metallic forms built on rediscovered downtown waterfronts across the country. In 1947, Eero Saarinen’s design for the arch won the competition for a memorial to the Louisiana Purchase and Westward Expansion, planned for the site next to the Mississippi River. Yet it took nearly 20 years for the project to be built. Construction finally started in 1961, the year Saarinen died. Underneath the arch is an extensive visitor center and the Museum of Westward Expansion.

470 Fixing the inclinators at the top of the St. Louis Arch. CLUI photoNorth of the Arch, the city’s industrial shoreline blossoms, starting with the spectacular old dirty gothic Union Light and Power Company plant, which is still generating steam for some of the buildings in the area. Most of the industry in this old industrial part of the city, known as Near North, is in flat industrial buildings that ignore the river entirely, connected by the highway and railway instead. Soap and cleanser manufacturing are some activities that continue to operate here. The large, riverfront Proctor and Gamble plant, for example, makes all of the company’s Cascade and Mr. Clean products in North America. Despite the monumentality of these industries and the mighty Mississippi, it is the floodwall, a continuous barrier running the length of the city’s waterfront atop the existing levee, that dominates the waterfront. The wall, made of steel and concrete, is indicative of the relationship between the city and the river. The wall is a barrier to keep the river out of the city, that also serves to keep the cityand its peopleaway from the river. The wall is perforated with occasional open steel doors, permitting bicyclists and others with momentary glimpses of the river, and providing passage in between the land that would be spared, and that which would be lost, should the flood wall ever be called into action. Some of the bulk materials companies and scrap yards do have physical links to the river, narrowed down to conveyors and pipelines that span the top of the flood wall, to provide a connection from riverside dock to plant. But for the most part, this river city of America is oddly cut off from and disinterested in the river.

471 Jefferson, in the middle of the radiating galleries in the Museum of Westward Expansion. CLUI photoOne grand exception is the Chain of Rocks Park, located at the north end of this waterfront transect between the interstate beltway. The Chain of Rocks is a shallow part of the river, where the river widens, and a limestone ledge breaks the surface. A canal on the Illinois side of the river allows boat traffic around these low rapids. The bridge that was constructed here in 1929 was a famous toll bridge for cars along Route 66, and closed in the 1960s. The bridge is also unique for having a turn, 22 degrees, along its span, in the middle of the river. It also provides a view of the old water intake structures for the water supply of the city. In 1999, it was reopened and is now the second longest pedestrian and bicycle-only bridge in the nation. Lined with historical plaques, it is part of the new Confluence Greenway, a large scale conservation, heritage, and recreation redevelopment program, that is connecting the site of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi, several miles north of the bridge, and downtown, using the new bike trail along the river’s flood wall. At the river confluence itself, a major park and recreation area is being established. The city is discovering its riverness afterall.

472 One of the gates in the floodwall that separates the city from the river, for better and for worse. CLUI photo
473 The municipal water supply intake in the Mississippi, on the left, upstream of the city, visible on the right, as seen from the Chain of Rocks Bridge. CLUI photo

474 Sign at the Confluence Greenway. CLUI photo

475 Field trip having lunch on the Town Mound at Times Beach. CLUI photoThis report on St. Louis was made possible by the “Looking for St. Louis” program, organized by the CLUI and Jane Wolff of Washington University. The program included a two day investigative tour of the city, led by the Center’s Matthew Coolidge. Thanks especially to Dave Larson of the Tyson Research Center, Robert Cassily, and Mark Bussen, of Bussen Quarries for their help, opening their land up for us.