Emmy Award

Emily Pulitzer's gift to St. Louis has arrived in a concrete box. Hidden inside: the portrait of a woman who changed the city.

"She had her ideas on what I ought to do," Woo laughs, "but those decisions were always left to me, and sometimes she was pleased with them and sometimes she wasn't."

Pulitzer's focus would shift back to "the tough world of art" in the '90s as the dream of the Foundation began to take hold. On a trip to Japan, one she had planned to take with Joe, Pulitzer saw Ando's buildings with her own eyes. When Pulitzer returned, she commissioned Ando to design a whole new structure, one that would be built without compromising the integrity of the architect or the vision of the client.

"I think it took on a life of its own," says Traurig. "When she saw what Ando was doing she became so enthusiastic about it. She didn't know that much about him when it started; she just fell in love with the idea of it. It didn't make sense to try to retrofit a building as opposed to just do the whole thing. But I think the size and scale and scope of the project were probably a surprise to her, too. It took off."

Richard Serra's "Joe," commissioned for the Pulitzer Foundation: The walls fold in on each other and pull away, close then open to a center of sky.
Dirk Reinartz
Richard Serra's "Joe," commissioned for the Pulitzer Foundation: The walls fold in on each other and pull away, close then open to a center of sky.

Walls were poured and repoured until they were exact and achieved a consistent texture throughout. Although the cost of the Ando has been estimated at $17 million, that figure is probably low considering the time, labor and materials Pulitzer invested in producing an uncompromised work of architecture.

Pulitzer did not keep herself at a patrician's remove. Her white hair covered with a hard hat, her feet in workboots, she was a frequent visitor to the construction site and a full participant in guiding Ando's conception to realization. After the Foundation was completed, one of the first receptions Pulitzer gave was for the construction workers and their families.

But as the concrete walls began to take shape on the vacant lot near the intersection of Washington and Spring avenues, the Foundation suffered from public-relations gaffes. Pulitzer did not communicate clearly what the Foundation was supposed to be, because the mission itself was as much a work in progress as the building. At first the Foundation was to be for artists and scholars only, causing some consternation in city government, which had granted the land in Grand Center to Pulitzer for nothing. Then, it was reported, the Foundation would provide limited access, but how limited? A New York Times article questioned the legitimacy of the Foundation's nonprofit status. Why should a public institution receive a tax exemption if it wasn't fully open to the public?

It didn't help that as the building rose it looked like a concrete bunker, which seemed an apt metaphor for the Foundation as well. A flap over access to the disabled was handled ineptly by the Foundation's attorneys and appointed spokespersons. Pulitzer caved in grudgingly to the need for an elevator and ramps, it appeared, as if pure form was being corrupted for the sake of wheelchairs.

Pulitzer is one of the wealthiest citizens of St. Louis and one of its most private. The cold concrete walls were a reflection of her demeanor, it seemed. The woman who delivered "Twain" now was planting opaque rectangles of concrete on an already fractured urban landscape.

Traurig sees the eventual resolution of the Foundation -- for the public (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) and for artists and scholars -- as part of the continuing dialogue between Joe and Emily. "I think that's probably Joe's influence," says Traurig. "If it had been just Emmy, it would have been a place for scholarship, because that's how she thinks -- not because she's selfish at all; it's just the way she thinks. If it had been Joe, it would have been 'Let's let everybody come and look and share and learn from this.'

"I think after he died she was more sensitive to his opinions because she was more aware of them."

When viewers enter the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, they find the space within those walls warm, expansive, even revelatory. The concrete invites touch the way velvet does. These hard materials play in sunlight, the gradations of the day. The art inside is, at times, literally breathtaking: Monet's "Wisteria" and "Water Lilies," Rothko's shimmering canvases, Picasso's woman in a yellow dress who locks the viewer in midgaze. More than a display of art, the Foundation provides intimacy.

Emily Pulitzer may keep at a cool remove, and what she gives she gives on her own terms, but she has given an incalculable experience of art and architecture to a city that has not been wholly appreciative of what she has brought it before.

Rather than offer Cor-Ten steel in the public square, Pulitzer has delivered a building in which art -- her art -- can be viewed in an intimate manner. She invites the public in rather than placing her aesthetic in the thoroughfare.

Before the building was completed, when it was rectangles of concrete on a barren lot, it seemed like an architecture of a past time -- a last modernist gasp amid postmodern squalor. But now that the Ando is a finished work, Pulitzer's long-held aesthetic seems to have been a sure one. She has planted a brazen flag, an aesthetic mark. With the Foundation, Pulitzer makes a stand for the values she has developed and maintained since she was a Bryn Mawr undergrad in the 1950s. As Kelly's wall sculpture confirms, a tall strip of aluminum spray-painted blue and black has all the vitality a work of art needs and some of the inspiration a life needs. The principles of form, line, light, space and color; the belief in beauty and the civilizing influence of art -- they're believable here, just as faith is reassured in a precious sanctuary.

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