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The Missouri Botanical Garden and Gateway Arch National Park are two iconic and uniquely St. Louis institutions. These two landmarks are more closely linked than you may realize—intersecting at a critical moment that would dramatically reshape the city’s history and its riverfront. In recent history local historians have learned more about the connection between the Garden and the Gateway Arch—analyzing newly-digitized historic images, poring through our archives, and working with the Missouri Historical Society and the National Park. Service. As it turns out, the Garden and its founder played a sizeable role in the St. Louis riverfront for more than a century.
The Garden’s involvement in the riverfront starts with founder Henry Shaw, who came to St. Louis in 1819 and began making his fortune with a hardware business on North First Street. By the time of his death in 1889, Shaw owned about a dozen parcels in the footprint of the Gateway Arch grounds, and thousands of acres of land across the St. Louis area. He envisioned rent from these properties as an important source of income for the Garden, laying out those plans in his will and through an act of the Missouri General Assembly. The Garden’s Board of Trustees would assume ownership of many of Shaw’s buildings and lands after his death. As landlord, the Board had a vested interest in keeping its properties in good shape and occupied by successful tenants, thereby playing a meaningful role in the development of the riverfront business district.
Before the Gateway Arch rose above downtown, the area looked much different. Packed with riverboats, warehouses, and storefronts, this was where St. Louis did business. Grocers, fishmongers, fur traders, and manufacturers are just a small sampling of the riverfront businesses that would call the Garden “landlord” at the end of the 19th century. Although only associated with the Garden as a renter, Eddy & Eddy saw much of their success from the manufacture of plant-based pantry items such as fruit flavoring extracts, spices, mustard, catsup, and olive oil. Among its other notable products were baking powder, perfume, and wash blue, a laundry whitening agent.
The Garden would sell its building at 500 North Main to railroad interests a few years later. Today, that location is an outdoor amphitheater at the north end of the Arch grounds, and for years prior was the site of the Arch parking garage. Determined not to lose Eddy & Eddy as a tenant, the Board of Trustees would tear down an old building at Main and Market and build a six-story warehouse in its place. Eddy & Eddy moved there in 1903 and stayed until the Board of Trustees sold the property for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial project.
The riverfront real estate landscape began to change dramatically after the founding of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1935. The bold civic endeavor required clearing 40 city blocks, including the properties owned by the Garden. The reasoning at the time was that increase in rail traffic had moved the center of business away from the riverfront, making a less-than-ideal first impression for travelers coming across the Eads Bridge. The Board of Trustees’ own reports note the changing markets.
Gateway Arch National Park has its own archival photos of the area just before the demolition of the riverfront. By comparing the Garden’s images to those from the National Park Service you can see how the riverfront changed, or didn’t, in the span of about 40 years. One noticeable difference can be seen on the streets in front of these buildings, where cars replaced horse-drawn carts.
Among the properties set to be cleared for the Memorial was a Garden-owned building at 218 Chestnut. In 1939, the tenant was Nonpareil Manufacturing Company—makers of basketball hoops and punching bag stands. Faced with eviction for the Memorial project, the owner went to court for an extension and won. He argued it was his busy season and moving at that time would dramatically hurt his business. Among the items in the National Park Service archives at the Old Courthouse is a Nonpareil pamphlet advertising its basketball hoops and other products. The Garden’s own archive holds hundreds of documents dealing with the Memorial project—court filings, property appraisals, eviction notices, newspaper clippings. The Board of Trustees would eventually sell everything to the government by 1940, ending its more than a century of involvement on the St. Louis riverfront.
Construction on the Arch began in 1963, opening to the public in 1965. The grounds and the museum underneath the Arch are in the midst of a massive renovation in celebration of the monument’s 50th anniversary. Much like the old Museum of Westward Expansion, the new museum opening underneath the Arch in July 2018 highlights the city’s role in the westward expansion of the United States.
One new exhibit includes a replica of the St. Louis riverfront, much like Henry Shaw would have experienced it nearly 200 years ago. This heyday as a commercial hub helped make St. Louis the 4th largest city in America. For Shaw, it provided an opportunity to supply travelers with the goods they needed on their journey west—a financial foundation that would later blossom into the Missouri Botanical Garden. Another exhibit focuses on the riverfront transition from business hub to Memorial grounds. See how St. Louis looked just before the area was razed. Learn more about the design competition that gave us the Arch, including a glimpse of the competing plans that ultimately lost out to Eero Saarinen’s towering steel structure.
Take the famous ride to the top, and peer down from 630 feet up. The rolling green lawn and sleek new museum entrance looks much different than the view would have been 100 years ago. Can you spot the places where Eddy & Eddy made their famous flavorings, or where Nonpareil was twisting basketball hoops until the very end? If you look off toward the southwest, you may even see Henry Shaw’s crowning jewel, the Missouri Botanical Garden.