Museum Building

A more than 150-year-old building, dormant for many years, is poised to reclaim its role as a vibrant member of the Missouri Botanical Garden community.

Museum Building exteriorHistory

The 7000-square-foot Museum Building, often referred to simply as the old library and museum, is located on the Missouri Botanical Garden grounds just east of Tower Grove House, the country home of Garden founder Henry Shaw. The Georgian structure was built at Shaw’s direction according to plans by prominent St. Louis architect George I. Barnett, for the purpose of housing the Garden’s original library, herbarium and natural history specimens.  

In 1856, Henry Shaw wrote a letter to Sir William Jackson Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the world’s premier scientific garden. Shaw laid out his plans to create one of the finest botanical gardens in the world, and sought advice on how to undertake such an endeavor. Hooker suggested that Shaw seek out Dr. George Engelmann, a practicing St. Louis physician and well-respected amateur botanist, for assistance. Engelmann helped put Shaw in direct contact with the preeminent American botanist of the 19th century, Harvard University’s Asa Gray. Utilizing the advice of Hooker, Engelmann and Gray, Shaw was able to move closer to developing a world-class botanical garden that would feature both beautiful display gardens and a focus on scientific research. In his correspondence with Hooker, Shaw was advised to create a library and museum to support these endeavors. The Museum Building was established in 1859, the same year that the Missouri Botanical Garden officially opened its doors to the public. 

Initially, the Museum Building housed books for scientific research, along with a 60,000-specimen herbarium of dried and pressed plants for scientific study. The building also contained a museum display of natural history artifacts.

The Museum Building cost about $25,000 to erect in 1859. Architect Barnett patterned the building’s interior after the Museum of Economic Botany (or Museum No. 2) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England. Barnett, a native of England like Shaw, designed several buildings for the Garden, including Tower Grove House (1849), Shaw’s townhouse (1851), the Linnean House conservatory (1882) and, in Victorian fashion, Shaw’s own granite mausoleum (1885). Barnett’s work can also be seen throughout the state, from the Missouri Governor’s mansion in Jefferson City to the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. 

Museum BuildingFeatures

The red brick Museum Building features a white stone exterior archway with columns, which frames a smaller doorway with a pediment heading and consoles. Directly in front of the entrance, the pink granite and limestone Nuttall Obelisk (1887) honors English botanist and naturalist Thomas Nuttall, who lived and worked in the United States from 1808 to 1841. The monument was installed at the suggestion of Engelmann and is inscribed on its north side with the words, “In Honour of American Science.” 

The Museum Building interior boasts a two-story auditorium with a wraparound, second-level balcony. The space is dominated by a dramatic skylight surrounded by an ornate ceiling mural by French artist Leon Pomaréde. Bookshelves line the walls behind glass paneled doors. Stairs at one end of the building provide access to the upper level.  

The building was restored in 1930 as a meeting hall and lecture room. The project involved massive salvage and restoration of the ceiling art. Sketches were made and the original was reproduced. Improvements also included a new skylight, roof and gutters. 

The skylight was sealed in 1954 to darken the room so that slides and films accompanying lectures would be more visible. It was reinstalled in 1981, one year after a major restoration of the exterior of the building. 

Museum Building interiorFunctions

In the years after Shaw died on August 25, 1889, the original library and museum served a number of functions. Most uniquely, immediately following Shaw’s death, the Museum Building was the venue where his body lay in state for public viewing. In subsequent years, it has also served as a research lab and a time-lapse photography lab. It has housed offices, a restaurant, board and staff meeting rooms and computer class rooms, and it served as the Garden’s main auditorium until the construction of the Lehmann Building in 1972. In the past, it provided meeting space for many horticultural groups, including the St. Louis Herb Society, Orchid Society and Henry Shaw Cactus Society. From the late 1980s to 1997, the building housed the offices and book collection of Joseph and Nesta Ewan, two well-known historians of botany and nature. In 1998, the Ewan library was moved to the Rare Book Room of the Garden’s Monsanto Center, a 78,000-square-foot facility built to house the Garden’s burgeoning Science and Conservation Division, along with its over six million herbarium specimens and highly valued research library. 

The last time the Museum Building was continuously open to the public was in 1982, when the Garden’s café (then known as “The Greenery”) moved to the newly-built Ridgway Visitor Center.  

Future

The Museum Building has been in plain view all these years, but has been “hidden” in the sense that it had not been continuously used and available to the public for some time. Garden visitors could walk right by the structure or use its basement restrooms without really noticing the building. 

Museum Building interiorDr. Peter Wyse Jackson, who became president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2010, was struck by the historic nature of the Museum Building. In 2011, he called for a $3 million renovation and restoration program. 

“I think it’s one of the most historic buildings in St. Louis,” Wyse Jackson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the spring of 2011. “We don’t want it to be hidden anymore.” 

The Missouri Botanical Garden seeks to restore and renovate this historic architectural and botanical treasure and use it as a space to host a varied program of events and botanically-themed exhibits focused on ethnobotany, economic botany, endangered plants, Garden history and the Garden’s remarkable scientific achievements. The space would also serve as a future event venue available for rent. 

To learn more about the Garden’s efforts to preserve and restore its historic treasures or to contribute to the Museum Building restoration fund, contact the Garden’s Institutional Advancement Division at (314) 577-5195.