Remembrance of Things Past

Angel Do you believe in guardian angels? I have my own theories, based upon some pretty concrete evidence, so to speak. Each day upon arriving at the Museum of Art & Archaeology, I say “hello” to my angel in the alcove, the beautiful winged cherub (created by the famous Winkle Terra Cotta Manufacturing Company of my hometown Saint Louis, Missouri) who once adorned the former Title Guaranty Building in downtown Saint Louis. We are old friends, you see.

My aunt and uncle used to own and operate a wonderful downtown jewelry store called The Jewel Box, so this little bitty baby-boomer always looked forward to riding the Lee Avenue bus downtown to visit them and explore the fascinating architecture that enveloped me. I don’t know for certain that I saw my angel personally, but do feel rather certain that she saw me from her ten-story vantage point. It seemed that all of the historic downtown buildings possessed a powerful kind of magic when I was young.

Fast forward about twenty years to the young urban professional. I was coordinating the downtown plan element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The critical issue being hotly debated involved the fate of several historic buildings along Seventh Street near the celebrated Wainwright Building designed by master architect Louis Sullivan. Many civic leaders wanted to clear the old buildings out immediately to make way for an open mall, while some of us recommended preserving them because of their classic features like the terra cotta figures that graced their cornice lines and the context they afforded the Wainwright Building. But Saint Louis in 1981 had not yet discovered historic preservation as public policy, so one Saturday morning I watched in great sorrow as enchantment fell from my beloved downtown. Not long afterward the City of Saint Louis laid off two thousand employees, and my “historical neck was broken”, in the words of American historian Henry Adams.

Fast forward another twenty five years or so. Psychologist Thomas Moore writes in The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life that “the soul is always searching for itself, and it takes great pleasure when it finds itself mirrored in the material world.” Not everyone gets a second chance in life, so each morning the Academic Coordinator (hey, that would be me!) smiles as I fondly pay my respects to my guardian angel. Because of the Museum of Art & Archaeology’s commitment to preserving our cultural memory, I find my soul literally mirrored in the material world in a most astonishing and inspiring manner. Every time I enter the Museum, I am keenly aware that I am blessed with an opportunity to share the enchantment of our lavish heritage with a new generation of students, many of whom seek to reconnect to that great heritage in the wake of disenchanted development. And I could swear that the angel is smiling, too…

One Response to “Remembrance of Things Past”

  1. Paul Stebbing says:

    As a preparator at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, I have moved the “Winged Figure” pictured above from storage to gallery to alcove where it now resides. In doing so I have cursed the concretness of it many times. Each time I was asked to estimate its weight, which is estimable, it became heavier. Finally, I had to wonder what sardonic wit brought this architectural ornament down from its high perch to adorn at such close range the details of my work day?

    After reading Mr. Mehrhoff’s musings on the figure I hope to amend my attitude about the big girl. I no longer refer to her as “it.” I am trying to personalize my relationship with her, make it more than merely a matter of lugging her around. I want to partake in the multifaceted impact art can have on our lives, as the figure has on Mr. Mehrhoff. If he can be lifted from the humdrum of every working day by art, perhaps I can as well.

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