With a lengthy prior vacancy, historically significant architecture and an astonishing secret, the backstory on the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum reads like a previously unpublished Nancy Drew mystery – What the Drop Ceiling Concealed, perhaps.
Sans spunky girl sleuth, that 7,000-square-foot Georgian gem on the Missouri Botanical Garden campus reopened in April following, first, a 36-year tenure as an unused improvement and, next, a yearlong $8 million renovation and eastern addition financed by private donations as part of the garden’s capital campaign.
The renovation and addition involved heating, ventilating and air conditioning improvements, nowadays-de rigueur audiovisual upgrades and requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the garden’s website, it plans to use the museum “as a space to host a varied program of events and botanically themed exhibits” focused on various subjects, as well as “a future event venue available for rent.”
The biggest surprise of the project – conducted by St. Louis’ Tarlton Corp. in cooperation with U.S. National Park Service conservators, reflecting the structure’s reported listing on the National Register of Historic Places – came in the structure’s first-floor rear south room. When the Tarlton team dropped a drop ceiling there, they found a trio of vintage painted portraits, one damaged beyond restoration.
The restorable canvases depict George Engelmann, a German-American botanist whose work focused on the flora of western North America, and Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who formalized modern science’s binomial nomenclature.
The portrait beyond restoration depicted Asa Gray, a longtime professor of botany at Harvard University, reputedly regarded at the 19th century’s most important American botanist.
Tarlton has served the metro area for almost three quarters of a century and previously replaced the bridge in the garden’s celebrated Climatron greenhouse. Sondra Rotty, the company’s project director, briefly reflects with pride on her team’s discovery.
“Being a historic renovation, the entire project was unique from start to finish,” she says. “However, uncovering the murals of Engelmann, Linnaeus and Gray was one of the most fortuitous discoveries we’ve encountered in all of our experience. We feel very fortunate to have been part of a great team restoring and enhancing this treasure in St. Louis.”
When English emigrant and philanthropist Henry Shaw founded the garden in 1859, the structure in question housed the original library, a herbarium and a collection of natural history specimens; it also served as the center for the garden’s scientific research. Moreover, when Shaw died three decades later, his body lay in state in it for public viewing.
After that – even though George I. Barnett, the influential English emigrant nicknamed the Dean of St. Louis Architecture, designed it, along with two other garden structures – the building harbored a hodgepodge of uses before shuttering in 1982.
Catherine Martin, public information specialist for the garden, gamely speculates on the whole Nancy Drew aura surrounding the portraits and their concealment. “We don’t have an exact date as to when the drop ceiling was put in,” she says. “However, the materials used and type of construction suggest the 1930s or 1940s.
“This is based on consultation with the architects and construction crew, who have seen this type of old drop ceiling before in previous projects. The drop ceiling was probably installed at the same time [some earlier construction team] installed the retaining stars and rods for the upstairs room directly above, which was starting to have structural issues.”
Initial guests to the museum – entry to which comes free with garden admission – have enjoyed hearing its history, Martin continues, and “are especially fascinated by the story of the uncovering of the portraits.
“We believe the portraits were added during Shaw’s lifetime but not at the initial opening of the museum. The Engelmann portrait appears to be based on an image of him from the early 1860s. These ceiling portraits were most likely done at the same time the balcony portraits were painted – sometime during the 1870s or early 1880s.
“We don’t know if there were additional portraits to the right and left of the three existing [paintings], as these barrel vaults were damaged by the upstairs floor caving or were replaced with concrete when [the earlier construction team] ‘fixed’ the upstairs floor with the retaining rods and stars. No images exist.”
Martin also provides brief background on the reopened structure’s christening as the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum.
“Louis Sachs was a successful businessman and philanthropist across the St. Louis community,” she says. “His father founded Sachs Electric, and he founded Sachs Properties. Lou was also a garden trustee for more than a decade and a strong supporter of our development. In 1996, Lou initiated the lead gift to build and name the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in honor of his stepmother.
“Similarly, Lou initiated the lead gift to renovate the museum building in 2011. He passed away during the fundraising phase, and his son Stephen took over the project for the family. Sadly, Stephen passed away during the renovation. His brother Peter had passed away in 2003. To recognize Lou’s support and the memory of his sons, the family decided to name the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum to honor them.”
Beyond the time-forgotten portraits, another component of the architecturally historic structure has attracted widespread attention from visitors since the reopening. “Many guests are captivated by the mural in the open two-story gallery,” Martin says. “The botanical mural was originally painted by Leon Pomarede, a French landscape painter who immigrated to St. Louis in 1830. Today, Pomarede’s mural has been re-created to include the original plants as well as other species found growing throughout the garden.”
And she herself? “Like the guests, I’m enchanted by the mural,” Martin concludes. “The rich colors and intricate details are a wonder to observe.”
Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, 314-577-5100, mobot.org