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Botanical Garden

Missouri Botanical Garden to create museum in unused building built by Shaw

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ST. LOUIS • Visitors to the Missouri Botanical Garden for decades have strolled by a graceful, 19th-century building that never seems to be in use.

The red brick building has been off-limits to garden visitors for at least 30 years, except for public restrooms in one small corner of the cellar. People often ask about it — and so did Peter Wyse Jackson, the garden's new president.

"When I arrived last September, I kept asking about the building, and finally I managed to get in," Wyse Jackson said.

It's worth noting that Wyse Jackson, who previously led the Irish National Botanic Gardens, isn't exactly unaccustomed to grand old buildings. The son and grandson of Anglican bishops, Wyse Jackson spent much of his childhood in Ireland's medieval churches. His last house was a stately 18th-century residence on the grounds of the Dublin garden.

Yet, Wyse Jackson was stunned by what he saw inside the St. Louis building.

"Putting it bluntly, I think it's one of the most historic buildings in St. Louis," he said. "We don't want it to be hidden anymore."

The 153-year-old Georgian-style structure, called the Museum Building, once was the garden's most important building — a library, research lab, lecture hall and herbarium that housed the garden's early collection of 60,000 dried plant specimens. But as the garden and its research grew, the building became too small and outdated. Part of the building was used as a restaurant in 1982 before it became empty, used in later years only for occasional storage.

Built by garden founder Henry Shaw, it is the only building on the grounds that hasn't been significantly altered since Shaw's time. The Museum Building is on the east side of the garden, near Shaw's country house.

Inside, the Museum Building is empty of furniture, and bare bookshelves line the walls behind glass-paneled doors. Over the years, much of the decorative woodwork has been covered in a now faded, institutional white. It's musty in places, damp in others.

But visitors hardly notice those things when they step inside the dramatic two-story atrium. It's lit by a large skylight surrounded by a ceiling mural of tropical plants, palm trees and peacocks.

"Whenever someone goes inside for the first time, it's always the same reaction," Wyse Jackson said, 'It's always, 'Wow!'"

Wyse Jackson wants to preserve the history of the building while using it to showcase the garden's 21st-century efforts to protect plant diversity around the world.

The building would become a museum again, with rotating exhibits and a basement gallery to display some of the garden's collection of botanical art. Displays would be movable, in order to use the building as a revenue-generating space for private events, Wyse Jackson said.

There's no schedule to reopen the building, though Wyse Jackson said he wants to move quickly.

Shaw, who was born in England, made his fortune in St. Louis after opening a hardware store that equipped settlers moving through St. Louis to the frontier.

After retiring at 39, Shaw spent the rest of his life building a botanical garden on a country estate now occupied by the garden, Tower Grove Park and much of the Shaw neighborhood.

Shaw was inspired by England's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the interior of Museum Building was based on a similar building there.

To design the building, Shaw turned to fellow Englishman George I. Barnett, a prominent St. Louis architect who designed several garden buildings and the Missouri Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City.

"He was regarded as Missouri's foremost architect in the middle of the 19th century," said Andrew Weil, assistant director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Although the Museum Building is structurally sound, the garden estimates it will cost about $3 million to restore the building and install an elevator to make it accessible to the disabled.

Fundraising is under way, Wyse Jackson said, and that effort probably will get a boost from the release of a new book on St. Louis architecture.

Robert Sharoff and photographer William Zbaren highlight the Museum Building in their new book, "American City: St. Louis Architecture."

Once the two Chicago natives saw the inside of the Museum Building, there was no doubt it would be featured alongside St. Louis landmarks such as the Wainwright Building and the Gateway Arch.

"I don't know of another building like it in the Midwest, maybe even in the United States," said Sharoff, who writes about architecture for the New York Times and Washington Post. "It's extraordinary, and it's amazing more people don't know about it."

Last week, Sharoff and Zbaren were installing an exhibit of large prints of some of the book's photographs at the garden's Ridgway Center.

Passers-by looking at the pictures recognized most of the buildings. But to many of them, the photo of the Museum Building was a mystery.

"We hadn't put the captions up, so everybody would stop us and ask, 'Where is that?'" Sharoff said. "They couldn't believe it when we said it's right outside that door."

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