The marble floor that for nearly a century greeted downtown St. Louis department store customers will soon welcome fans of the blues.
Work is nearly done to redo the first floor of the long-ago Grand-Leader store as the National Blues Museum, which is scheduled to open April 2. The museum and its music will occupy part of the Grand-Leader, which opened in 1906 at 615 Washington Avenue.
The Grand-Leader became Stix Baer & Fuller, which Dillard’s bought in 1984. Dillard’s closed the store in 2001. Years passed before developers redid the building — expanded twice over the years — as the Laurel Apartments and an Embassy Suites hotel that opened in 2011. But most of the ground floor remained empty.
After years of fundraising, the $13 million blues museum is only months from opening. The space is no longer anything like a department store even though the original marble floor remains in the museum’s entry, ticketing area and small theater.
Steve Metherd, one of the museum’s developers, projects 100,000 visitors per year.
“We see this as a national museum, hence the name,” he said while acknowledging that most visitors will probably come from the St. Louis region.
Visitors will enter the museum under a new marquee. To the left will be the gift shop and to the right the 150-person theater with “plug and play” equipment capability for touring blues acts and area musicians. The theater’s design by V Three Studios, of Maplewood, is meant to provide recording studio-quality acoustics while allowing a view from Washington Avenue. A double set of windows will hold down outside noise but preserve visibility.
Speakers on Washington will allow people outside to hear as well as see the performers, said Metherd, director of design and construction for Spinnaker St. Louis.
“We hope that when we have concerts here we’ll have people in lawn chairs across the street,” he said.
Speakers also will be put in Sugarfire, a barbecue restaurant under construction next to the theater. V Three also designed the restaurant and the rest of the 23,000-square-foot museum.
Kurt Kerns, principal of V Three, said the design preserved some of the building’s original details, including its structural columns, even those that got dinged over the years.
“Some of them look great; some have seen better days, let me put it that way,” he said.
During hours the museum is closed, an 18-foot-wide door will swivel on a track near the entrance to shut off the exhibit area from Sugarfire and the theater. Metherd said he hoped the theater would hold events weekly.
The museum is laid out to show development of the blues from its origin in the rural South. Explored is the role of the great 1927 Mississippi River flood that displaced thousands of black people who left Louisiana and took the blues north to Memphis, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis.
Visitors will proceed to exhibits about the blues’ influence on early rock ’n’ roll and how white artists in the 1950s adapted the blues and won commercial success rarely experienced by the music’s black originators.
Also included will be exhibits about more recent blues-influenced artists and bands, including Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, and bluesmasters such as Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Bessie Smith and St. Louisan Chuck Berry will get special tributes.
The museum’s exhibits are the work of Gallagher & Associates, of San Francisco. Lisa Dunmeyer, G&A’s project manager, said that although the exhibits would be laid out chronologically, care would be taken to show links between early blues artists and current players.
“We will layer in a more contemporary feeling,” she said.
G&A has much experience in designing museum exhibits. Its work includes Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington; the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky.; the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas; the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.; and the Atlanta vault that protects the secret Coca-Cola recipe.
The St. Louis museum will have a feature that will allow visitors to compose and record their own blues songs. Visitors may use touch screens at a series of kiosks to choose instruments, assemble lyrics, build melodies and, finally, to enter a studio-like room to mix and record their compositions on a downloadable file.
Little musical skill is needed to use the “Mix It Up” feature, but Eyal Ohana, G&A’s interactive media director, said the program would allow users to follow a series of provided notes or experiment “with playing your own melody.”
Museum officials said “Mix It Up” had a “six-figure” contribution from rocker Jack White.
On the North Sixth Street side of the museum is a nearly 3,000-square-foot educational center and space for traveling exhibits. The area has a wall of weathered galvanized metal roofing that Gabe McKee, design principal at V Three, said came from an old barn near Columbia, Mo.
McKee said the rusty metal was meant to remind visitors of the modest “vernacular” Southern shacks and sheds where the blues was born.