Scaling Art Hill

Old Post Office deserves a look as museum option

I believe I've made a bit of a museum find.

It's a small Post-Dispatch article dating all the way back to June 11, 1994, which reported that a strategic-planning committee of the St. Louis Art Museum had made recommendations on the subject of expansion. If you've followed recent controversy over the museum's future, it might come as a surprise:

"ART MUSEUM NEEDS 2ND SITE, PANEL URGES; BUT PLAN WOULD KEEP TIES TO FOREST PARK."

The story said the committee recommended that the museum "immediately begin to search for a new museum site 'large enough to accommodate growth in the century to come.'" The committee considered -- and rejected -- the notion that the museum leave the park altogether, according to the Post.

Today, we have a different story.

The museum's board of commissioners officially passed a resolution in December 1997, stating bluntly: "A satellite facility is not a viable option for the St. Louis Art Museum and we will not at this time further consider development of any alternative site."

My archeological journey yielded no further finds that would give us a clue as to why the commissioners rejected the idea so adamantly. What we know is that the museum sees the 1997 Forest Park Master Plan as a mandate -- and commitment -- to expand in the park.

The museum plans a $100 million addition (including the cost of earthquake retrofitting) that would roughly double its current space by adding two new wings. Kay Porter, director of community relations, tells me she sees "no possibility" that the board would now entertain a second location.

But the opposition is not going away. On July 9, a group calling itself "Citizens for a Downtown Art Museum Satellite" ran a full-page ad in the Post urging the museum to consider converting the historic Old Post Office downtown into a second home. "For 117 years this magnificent museum space has been used as a post office," the ad proclaimed about a picture of the stately structure. "Why destroy more acres of Forest Park to expand the St. Louis Art Museum when a breathing building sits empty, begging to take in the museum's treasures?"

It included a coupon that urges commissioners to consider a feasibility study for the site, which the citizens' group promises to fund. Kay Drey, the group's organizer, says more than 2,000 coupons were sent in. "They're so upbeat about reinvigorating downtown, saving the Old Post Office, preserving green space in the park and at the same time doing something good for the Art Museum," she says.

Arguably the state's premier environmentalist, Drey has long opposed losing Forest Park's green space to museum expansions. In 1992, after the Art Museum persuaded the city to approve a massive expansion plan of more than 22 acres, the green-led opposition crushed it at the polls by a margin of 2-to-1.

But in recent years, Drey has focused on the idea -- advanced by Tony's restaurant owner Vince Bommarito and others -- that the Art Museum consider taking over the Old Post Office as a satellite. With 110,000 square feet available -- and its designation as a national historic landmark -- it seems like an awfully good fit.

On the other hand, there's the small detail that the feds' General Accounting Office is negotiating with Desco -- the area's largest retail property firm -- for a lease there that might provide for Webster University classroom space and some office tenants. But it's not a done deal.

It doesn't matter to the Art Museum in any case.

Porter says a satellite facility is a bad idea because it would create many duplicative costs and is inconsistent with the concept of a "comprehensive, encyclopedic museum" that offers students and others the chance "to see the comparative cultures of the entire world in one location."

But it was the museum's own planning committee that envisioned, in 1994, such uses as "a museum of modern art, a special exhibitions building, a museum of non-Western art and a museum of decorative arts and design" for a second site. It can't be out of the question.

Porter acknowledges that other museums have established satellites, but she says "they have not been routinely successful," financially speaking. Besides, she adds, it's simply too late to change direction. "The bottom line is that this community came to a consensus on a Forest Park Master Plan -- after more than 120 public meetings -- and we have a commitment to this park and to this site," Porter says, adding that the museum has committed $10 million to the master plan.

Drey hotly disputes what the consensus was. "My husband Leo was at almost all those master-plan meetings, and I was at a lot of them, and I'm telling you the one thing everyone agreed upon was 'No expansion of the institutions in the park,'" Drey says. "It wasn't until they got to the committees at the Board of Aldermen that they deleted the sentence about not expanding the institutions."

To Drey, the environmental argument hasn't been resolved at all. "The space between the Art Museum and the Zoo is a place where families picnic and kids can run, and it's safe and beautiful," she says. "One of the new wings would encroach on this open space and ruin it."

But Drey says the Old Post Office with "all those great windows on all four sides," would be ideal. "Talk about outreach," she says. "You could see inside the museum from all the sidewalks around it, and that would bring in people who might never go to a museum."

Counters Porter: "The Old Post Office is a wonderful building that might look like an Art Museum from a superficial perspective, but it's not a building that was designed to be a museum and it isn't viable, especially since it shouldn't be altered architecturally."

And Drey again: "All we're asking them to do is look at a feasibility study, which they wouldn't even have to pay for."

With expansion still in the planning stages, that doesn't seem like too much to ask from the Art Museum. But there's a lot of history, and I don't mean the stuff of old buildings.

The Art Museum is about as likely to change course as it is to welcome a Maplethorpe exhibit.

No matter what its strategic-planning committee once thought.

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