FROM THE ARCHIVES: This travel story about St. Louis' arts scene was originally published in October 2011. The University of Kentucky's and Eastern Kentucky University's men's basketball teams — and many of their fans — will be traveling to St. Louis this weekend for the first rounds of the NCAA tournament. This story should provide some ideas for what to do outside the games. If you choose to check out any of the attractions in this story, please call ahead before making plans; information has not been updated since the story's original publication.
St. Louis, sometimes dismissed as a Midwestern backwater by East Coast and West Coast effetes, could give those same poseurs a lesson in how a city can become a mecca for art without losing its community heart. St. Louis delivers what some cities only promise.
This is a city whose residents can sip champagne under the crystal chandeliers at the sumptuous Powell Symphony Hall (modeled after one of the palaces in Versailles, France) and drink beer in the bleachers at Busch Stadium (home of their beloved Cardinals) with equal aplomb.
And lest one forget, their urban symbol is one of America's greatest pieces of art: the Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen's sculptured ribbon of steel towering 630 feet above the Mississippi River and visible from across the metro area.
I visited the Missouri Botanical Garden, where, if the exquisite floral displays of the Japanese, Chinese, English and Ottoman gardens aren't art enough, Dale Chihuly's gleaming glass balls floating in the lotus pool certainly are.
Even my hotel seemed as much art gallery as place to sleep. Not surprising, because the new boutique Hotel Ignacio, across from St. Louis University, is a de facto gallery for pieces from the university's vast collection of contemporary art.
All the rooms are themed, with fine art, performing arts, architecture and music figuring into the décor and design.
Wander Forest Park
A place to begin your art odyssey is the city's Forest Park, site of the 1904 World's Fair. At 1,300 acres, nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park, it is home to many of the city's cultural treasures, a number of which are free.
Chief among these is the imposing St. Louis Museum of Art, housed in the only remaining "palace" from the World's Fair. Its impressive collection encompasses pre-Columbian, Oceanic, Asian, European and American art.
If the art museum is justifiably lauded as one of the nation's most comprehensive, the downtown Fabulous Fox Theater is, well, fabulous.
The over-the-top interior is described as Siamese- Byzantine, a mix of Moorish, Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Far Eastern. It's a mesh of periods, from the time of Cleopatra to the Ottoman Empire.
Among the design touches: two bronze lions with winking eyes guarding the staircase to the opulent Fox Club; a chandelier weighing 21/2 tons and fitted with 2,264 pieces of jeweled glass; and the magnificent Peacock Alley, along which hang portraits of the famous folk who have performed here.
From classic to quirky
You don't have to be in a museum to appreciate St. Louis' dedication to the arts. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, called by Pope Paul VI "the outstanding cathedral of the Americas," is on par with any of the European cathedrals. But what holds the greatest fascination for me are the mosaics, said to be the largest collection in the world, with more than 41 million pieces of tesserae in 8,000 shades of color.
One of St. Louis' most accessible art venues is Citygarden, a multilayered landscape on several blocks of prime downtown real estate, combining lush plantings, water features and sculpture. Open 365 days a year, it is an artistic Eden in the middle of a bustling city. If only more cities would follow St. Louis' lead and realize that a landscaped garden is more valuable to the aesthetics of a downtown than an uninspired building or a parking lot.
Whatever you do, save time for St. Louis' quirkiest museum, called simply City Museum. Housed in a former shoe factory, it is the brainchild of the late Bob Cassilly, described as a classically trained sculptor and serial entrepreneur.
This is 600,000 square feet of sheer delight. You can make your way through the Enchanted Cave, dripping with stalactites and stalagmites; swim through thousands of rubber balls in the Baby Bob Ball Pit; and climb aboard a school bus teetering over the edge of the rooftop terrace, which also boasts a full-size Ferris wheel. Kids ages 6 to 8 may attend a circus school.
What makes it really amazing is that the entire museum is made from millions of salvaged architectural and industrial objects. Every city should have a City Museum.