ST. LOUIS • Rayon shrouds rippled in spring bluster. Edith Aloe pulled a rope to reveal bold bronze sculptures amidst fountains, all to symbolize the joining of two great rivers.
"I'm speechless," Aloe said, but not for the reason that had caused such a fuss.
The main sculptures were of men and women facing one another to represent the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The figures were naked. The males were anatomically complete.
"Meeting of the Waters," by Swedish-born sculptor Carl Milles, was unveiled on May 11, 1940, across Market Street from Union Station. The idea was to showcase St. Louis' river origin with a stirring artwork at a prime location.
The 3,000 people present for the dedication applauded heartily, although some were dampened by wind-whipped spray from the fountains. Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann called the work "a perpetual advertising medium for the city." Nothing was said officially about anatomy.
The central sculptures, of a man standing on a catfish and a woman on a shell, appear headed for embrace. Milles had wanted to name his work with "Wedding of the Waters." City leaders, seeking to conjure a less-vivid coupling, substituted the word "meeting."
It had been a matter of public sensibility since 1937, when Milles displayed clay models of his inspiration. Two members of the Municipal Art Commission were shocked by the representations.
"We can't let our children see things like that," said commissioner Hubert Hoeflinger, who also was a city alderman. "What's the matter with fig leaves? It would be better to leave something to the imagination."
Edith Aloe responded that the sculptures would be modified "over my dead body." Her opinion was powerful because the new plaza was named for her late husband, Louis Aloe, the city's aldermanic president from 1916 to 1923. She also was charmed by Milles' art and donated $12,500 to the project.
Louis Aloe had been a driving force behind voter approval of an ambitious $87 million bond issue in 1923. It paid for landmarks such as Kiel Auditorium, the River Des Peres channel project and parts of today's Gateway Mall, the downtown parkway along Market Street.
The plaza was intended to replace the dumpy taverns and flophouses that lined the north side of Market and inflicted a grim vista on visitors arriving by train. Demolition took place in 1931.
Commission chairman Francis Healy sided with Hoeflinger, but the vote was 4-2 to accept Milles' design. Commissioner Victor Berlendis, a sculptor, mocked the minority view, saying, "What's wrong with a little nudity?"
In a final protest, Hoeflinger and Healy had their names omitted from the accompanying plaque, which scrap thieves swiped two decades later. The city still maintains the plaza, the sculptures and their fountain sprays.