The pieces of the Rivoli Theatre’s facade are incredibly ornate, to put it lightly. The medium orange-red terracotta has a white clay overlay that was carved away to create intricate scrolling designs in some panels and display the theater’s name in another.
“It’s a very rare example of sgraffito for St. Louis, probably the most elaborately designed building in this technique in the city,” says Stephanie Weissberg, curator at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Avenue, 314-754-1850, pulitzerarts.org).
It’s hard to imagine that elaborate decorations like these — even if they were the fanciest of their kind — were once the norm for St. Louis buildings. The Rivoli, which was established in an existing building on North 6th Street downtown in 1922 as a home to theater productions, came down in 1983 after the space had morphed into a seedy B and X-rated moviehouse.
That sort of devolution of a highly decorated, landmark building isn’t an unusual story in St. Louis in the late 20th century, as the city’s inner core lost residents and people moved to the suburbs. The new exhibit Urban Archaeology: Lost Buildings of St. Louis at the Pulitzer presents salvaged architectural pieces from the late 19th and early 20th century buildings they left behind.
“What makes this exhibition notable is it’s not just looking at the architectural history of the city but also the history of salvage and preservation,” Weissberg says. “[We’re] asking questions about what objects’ lives are after they’re removed from buildings. Who saves or doesn’t save objects from different neighborhoods, or different places? Which places get prioritized? Who makes decisions to prioritize saving parts of buildings or neighborhoods? And how well can we understand these buildings when we’re experiencing only fragments of them that are no longer in their original context?”
The pieces in the show come from the collection of the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois, which has worked for four decades to preserve aspects of historically significant buildings that were being razed. Like the Pulitzer itself, the building arts center is a nontraditional organization. It was only natural for the Pulitzer to approach NBAC Executive Director Michael Allen shortly after he took up his leadership position a year ago.
The partnership was a good opportunity to show the building center’s holdings in a museum space for additional exposure — but close enough to home base that curious viewers can make their way over to check out the larger collection in Sauget afterward.
And there’s plenty in Urban Archaeology that will pique that interest. For one, though the show has plenty of cool-looking building fragments, that’s not the whole deal. Each gallery is paired with an oral history from community members related to the objects in the space, as well as ephemera such as newspaper articles and photographs that help contextualize them.
For example, that first gallery with the Rivoli artifacts includes an oral history from Dave Lewis about the process of deconstructing the theater. (Like all the oral histories, it’s available on headphones in the gallery and also via a QR code.) There is also a photograph of the facade decorations in their intended context, which makes them appear less like artifacts from a bygone time and more as something not entirely out of place in the modern St. Louis city.
The exhibit also includes perspectives from neighbors and activists in addition to curators and academics.
“Throughout the process, we were thinking about how to get other voices in the show,” says Molly Moog, curatorial assistant at the Pulitzer. Moog, Weissberg and others reached out to community stakeholders for their thoughts on what to include in the exhibit as well as how it should be treated and contextualized.
“The loss of buildings and architecture can be a very sensitive topic and also one that many people are very personally affected by,” Weissberg says.
One place this influence is apparent is in the final gallery, which includes a video giving different perspectives surrounding salvage and preservation that’s a sort of case study on three neighborhoods: Jeff-Vander-Lou, St. Louis Place and Soulard. In the 1970s, all had grassroots preservation efforts that helped the neighborhoods become thriving community spaces despite threats such as loss of buildings, city plans for demolition or newly constructed freeways.
“We wanted to close the exhibition with the gallery that introduces more questions than answers and acknowledges the complexity of the subject, salvage and preservation and the built environment that we live in,” Weissberg says. “The notion of preservation or architectural loss isn’t something that’s in the past. It continues into the present moment. It’s something that we’re all living today.”
The awareness of how buildings going up or coming down has changed St. Louis and the complexities surrounding that is, of course, the main takeaway from the show. But it isn’t the whole appeal.
There’s also the pleasure of seeing beautiful old objects from the streets we tread everyday — Grand Center, Downtown, Dogtown and its brick-industry past — and marveling at how our forebears would construct an all-marble building or why they covered the Buder building (also the Union Pacific Building, which once hosted the St. Louis Times paper) downtown with decorative lions and how different new construction is today.
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