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Look Back: King Louis IX statue on Art Hill

The bronze statue of King Louis IX (St. Louis), 13th century French king, saint and namesake of this region, has held its place of honor atop Art Hill since an unveiling ceremony on Oct. 4, 1906. The statue was inspired by the popularity of a similar statue made of reinforced plaster that was outside the 1904 World's Fair at the main gate, at Lindell and DeBaliviere boulevards. The original statue became popular as a place to meet and caught the eye of newspaper illustrators and cartoonists as a symbol of the fair. The committee that ran the fair presented the $42,000 bronze version as a gift to the city during its cleanup of the park. Jane Wells, a daughter of Mayor Rolla Wells, pulled a cord that unveiled the statue during a lengthy ceremony, attended by 25,000 people. (Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS  • The soldiers of Battery A fired a smart salute — the cue for Jane Wells, daughter of Mayor Rolla Wells, to pull the lanyard to a heavy canvas shroud. Across the expanse now called Art Hill, a breathless crowd of 25,000 suddenly roared with joy.

Thus was the statue of King Louis IX of France, the saint for whom the city is named, unveiled in Forest Park on Oct. 4, 1906. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition Committee, which had managed the 1904 World's Fair, offered the statue of the 13th century king as a gift to the city.

A reinforced plaster casting of the same design had adorned the fair's main gate, at Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. It was popular among newspaper cartoonists and fairgoers meeting friends, the Stan Musial statue of its era. The permanent work in bronze, set upon a high stone pedestal in front of the Art Museum, would become an unofficial symbol of the St. Louis area, eclipsed only by the Gateway Arch in 1965.

The statue's formal name is "Apotheosis of St. Louis," meaning perfect example.

Mayor Wells accepted the committee's gift with suitably grandiose words, calling it "a monument of remembrance to generations to come of the able and disinterested part that you and your co-workers have taken in production of an exposition never before equaled."

Look Back: King Louis IX statue on Art Hill
The statue quickly became one of the city's most visible symbols, rivaled only by the clock tower at Union Station. Hundreds of businesses added the statue's likeness to their advertising and stationery, just as many businesses do now with the Arch. This photograph from March 1948 shows four participants in an annual fashion promenade in Forest Park, with King Louis IX in the background. They are, from left, Mary Rascher of 7041 Sutherland Avenue, Germaine Palmer of 6924 Flyer Avenue, Candy Eggleston of 2012 Mitchell Avenue, and Carol Letcher of 6943 Pernod Avenue.

Then came the parade of mounted police officers, elected officials in coaches and nearly 5,000 city employees. Newspaper accounts contrasted the sharp formations of police with civilian employees "in working clothes, careless of formation and continually out of step."

It also was an outpouring of workers' pride. Many among the 1,200 street workers shouldered brooms. Refuse workers drove cleaned and decorated wagons.

Harbor department workers pulled a likeness of their work riverboat, the Mark Twain. Health workers rode in horse-drawn ambulances. Bands added to the happy commotion.

The parade lasted more than two hours.

During the speechmaking, fair director David R. Francis (and former mayor and governor) pitched for public support of the Palace of Fine Arts behind him. It was the only building from the fair designed to be permanent, and it had opened two months before as an art museum.

He was persuasive. The next April, city voters adopted a property tax to support a free Art Museum, the first step toward today's city-county Zoo-Museum District.

Look Back: King Louis IX statue on Art Hill

The first snow of the season in late fall 1949 covers Art Hill and sticks to the statue. (Post-Dispatch)

Over the years, the statue of Louis IX has towered over sledders and public gatherings. Maintenance has been little more than an occasional scrubbing and a few new swords.

Once a tempting trophy for vandals, the king's raised sword was replaced several times until the city applied a welder's heavy touch.