Immerse yourself in the rich history of St. Louis at the Panoramas of the City exhibit on display now at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Featuring seven floor-to-ceiling panoramas, along with impressive supporting artifacts, this free exhibit shows the past of the River City like it’s never been seen before.
Although all seven massive images – most 10 feet tall and up to 40 feet long (roughly the size of a whale shark!) – are quite moving, perhaps the most compelling is an image taken after a tornado ripped apart the city in 1927. The panorama faces north on Page Boulevard between Vandeventer Avenue and Sarah Street, one of most damaged areas of the city after the twister left 70 dead, 500 injured and 1,000 buildings damaged, many beyond repair.
“It was one of the deadliest tornados in the country’s history at that time,” says Adam Kloppe, public historian for the Missouri Historical Society. “It was the middle of a work day in an era before tornado sirens, so people were stuck where they were and had no way to get to safety.”
The image shows a seemingly never-ending line of Ford Model T cars driving down Page Boulevard, so the 1927 Ford Model T sedan on display perfectly complements the panorama. “It was the first big disaster to hit the city after the rise of the automobile, and citizens were gawking at the damage,” Kloppe explains. “It got so bad the police chief called the sightseers the greatest threat to public safety.”
The second most interesting part of the exhibit for me was the image of the Veiled Prophet Ball of 1937, along with the elegant gown worn by the Veiled Prophet “queen” that year. If you’re wondering what the heck the Veiled Prophet Ball is, you’re not alone. This annual event is essentially a debutante ball that’s still being held today, though on a much smaller scale than the panorama shows.
“It was the height of the social season for the elite in St. Louis,” Kloppe says. “Thousands came out to the parade and debutante ball and thousands more listened on the radio. The dress has a 16-foot train, so we had to fold it a bit to make it fit in the display case, but you can see most of it.”
The exhibit also features an image of the League of Women voters in 1920, as well as a picture of the 100,000 people who swarmed over Art Hill in 1927 to celebrate Charles Lindbergh’s return from the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Two more panoramas remind you how rampant racism was just a few decades ago; although racism is still an issue, it’s great to see how far we’ve come in being accepting of one another and our differences.
One of the panoramas shows the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a group of civil rights activists in St. Louis in the 1930s. “This was a national communist organization that held their meeting in St. Louis in 1937, and they organized campaigns to battle Jim Crow laws and to pass federal anti-lynching legislation in the 1930s,” Kloppe says. “Another panorama shows a Negro Leagues baseball game played at Sportsman’s Park in 1941. This was the first Negro Leagues game that had been scheduled at Sportsman’s Park in 20 years, and the first ever to feature two Negro Leagues teams facing each other at the famed ballpark. This game was very successful, and it helped to bring about an end to segregated baseball in St. Louis: More and more Negro Leagues games were scheduled at Sportsman’s Park in its wake, and, in 1944, Sportsman’s Park finally got rid of their official segregationist seating policy.”
Because these images have been blown up so large, visitors are able to see details they’ve never seen before — even if they’ve seen the originals. “Even if you think you know the history of St. Louis incredibly well, you’ll learn about things you’ve never heard of and see them a way you never have,” Kloppe says.
Head to the Missouri History Museum to check out these panoramas this summer – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Plus, the museum is always free. What have you got to lose? For more information, visit mohistory.org. M