Miss-ed Opportunity

Commerce may have thrown a wet blanket on the block party planned for the new federal courthouse by artist Mary Miss

Artist Mary Miss had a "grand and glorious idea" (in the words of one government spokesperson) for the space adjacent to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, an ambitious concept that explored local history and memory through the use of remnants of the past (the internal structures of old buildings, for instance) and reinterpretations of the city's preindustrial landscape (a pond, native grasses, trees). Miss wanted to extend the public space beyond the single block of federal property allocated for the General Services Administration (GSA) Art in Architecture program. Miss told The Riverfront Times last summer that she believed the single block to the east of the courthouse "was so minimal it could barely be effective" ("Public Exchange," RFT, July 14). She proposed moving off-site, to include blocks to the north and south, and off-budget, reportedly to the tune of $8 million, far beyond the GSA's $750,000. Miss' "exuberance" (as one GSA official described the proposal) meant raising the additional money from private sources. But as of last summer, it seemed that various parties were intrigued with the plan, including Bank of America, whose downtown offices lie to the north of the courthouse, and McCormack Baron and Associates, which is developing Cupples Station and the Westin Hotel to the south. Miss told the RFT, "It was a matter of getting the other pieces in place."

Those pieces never came together, however. McCormack Baron has announced that it has its own plan for its block and for Spruce Street to the south, and Bank of America's landscaping is just fine as it is, thank you. "I think the design took longer than people anticipated to get it together," explains GSA project manager Linda Phillips from her Kansas City headquarters. "As the Cupples Station started working toward their whole building complex, they wanted to do more their own thing. I don't mean that in a mean way; it was just better for what they were doing. I think NationsBank (now Bank of America) looked at their property and said, 'This looks pretty good the way it is. Do we really want to spend a million bucks changing it?'"

Overtures had been made to local foundations, to the state, to private business and citizens, but the GSA came to realize, as Phillips puts it, "Everybody kind of said, 'It wasn't going to happen.'"

"It was nobody's fault," says Senior U.S. District Judge Edward L. Filippine, head of the local Art in Architecture panel and a primary liaison between artist, GSA and those other necessary parties. Although there has been some grumbling locally about Miss' "exuberance," presumably delaying and complicating an already difficult process, Filippine asserts, "Everybody agreed to let Mary go ahead and expand. It just got to a point where it became sort of impractical. In the case of the bank, they thought their situation looked pretty good as it was. They thought it would coordinate with any other plan. (McCormack Baron) just kind of went a different way. It was a situation where it just never really got together.

"It had to do with budgets and what was involved, a number of aspects -- whether there would be a little pond through the Missouri Department of Conservation -- there were a lot of loose ends. It was considered, but they never really got tied together. It wasn't just one day we had a meeting and everybody walked out of the meeting in a huff. It was just considering it, trying to work it out and to see if that was the way it should go.

"We have an Art in Architecture budget, and that's what we had. That's what we were going to use to develop our property. To do three or more blocks would have cost a whale of a lot more money. Everybody looked at it and considered it: Would this be nice, or would that be nice? An adjustment here -- do you like the concept? A general evolving-in and a general evolving-out."

One of the parties that "evolved out" was Bank of America, whose green space of grass and trees would have become part of Miss' expanded project to the north, providing a corridor to the Gateway Mall. The complications involved in making any public-art project happen, especially one that attempts to extend beyond the standard strictures, are evident in such matters as the shifting identities of the parties involved. When the project began, Miss and the GSA were negotiating with NationsBank. Now, Julie Westermann of Bank of America fields questions about why they were part of the "general evolving-out."

"We were willing, eager partners," she asserts, but Bank of America currently owns only one-third of its downtown building, which is up for sale. Beneath that "green space is a footprint for a foundation for a twin tower that could be there," says Westermann. So although NationsBank and then Bank of America participated in discussions until it became clear that the additional millions weren't going to be raised, competing ambitions were also a factor. A new owner might want to build another tower and wouldn't want a public-art space to get in the way.

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