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Uproar over History Museum land deal uncovers missed opportunity for black community

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Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012 12:05 am

People who grew up in St. Louis remember that two central exhibitions in the Missouri History Museum, for a long time, focused on Charles Lindbergh and the Veiled Prophet organization.

“While Lindbergh is, rightfully, a St. Louis icon, earlier exhibitions failed to tell the complete truth about his anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies,” stated the Missouri Historical Society in its case statement for the Center for History and Community Collections.

And for the African-American community, this type of missing historical acknowledgment can create a barricade to the museum, the society stated. That’s why in 2004 the society and Museum President Robert Archibald decided to build a center where the entire community could unite its history with that of the museum by sharing and archiving their stories together.

“By engaging underserved segments of the community on new grounds in a new space,” the statement reads, “the Center for History and Community Collections will forge a new partnership focused on providing access to a multifaceted community history that heals old wounds and improves the prognosis for a healthy future for the St. Louis region.”

In 2006, the museum’s board of trustees approved the plan for the $12-million center and purchased a building at 5863 Delmar Blvd. from former mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and his associate, James Armstrong, for $875,000, plus about $100,000 in legal and other fees. Yet what happens with so many plans to build centers that engage the underserved minority community, there was no private funding to make it happen.

Few remember that in 2003, the Grand Center district received a TIF (tax increment finance) for a $400-million development, which included opening an African-American History museum. Almost 10 years later, the plan still has not gotten backing from the private sector to support the vision.

No one probably would have heard of the Missouri History Museum’s plan for the community center had it not been for the recent uproar over the land purchase among local media.

In a recent report of the museum’s procedures, the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD) stated that the Missouri History Museum should get an appraisal before purchasing any property. Local media questioned why the museum and the society did not get an appraisal before buying the Delmar location, especially from a former politician. Media also targeted Archibald for having personal connections with Bosley, who had previously served on the museum’s board of trustees for six years and stepped down in October 2005.

The museum’s Board of Trustees and Archibald have agreed to get appraisals on all future projects and acknowledged the mistake.

“In hindsight, it was a mistake not to get an appraisal, but at the time in general practice of commercial real estate, you didn’t get an appraisal,” said Archibald. “You get an appraisal if you are going to get a mortgage. The argument being made now is that we are a public institution, and we should have gotten an appraisal.” 

The Missouri Historical Society hired real estate consultant David Hoffmann, principal of Hoffman Development, for $10,000 to research properties, compile a list of potential parcels and provide advice.

According to estimates received from professionals, the building would cost about $20 to $25 a square foot. The Missouri Historical Society used private funds to purchase 42,994 square feet of land on Nov. 9, 2006 for $20.35 per square foot.

Recently the museum provided other examples of properties that sold during that time period, showing that their price was comparable to others. One property at 1444 Goodfellow sold on Nov. 29, 2005 at $25.65 per square foot. Another property at 5863 Delmar closed on Sept. 1, 2005 for $31.68 per square foot.

Media focused on a July 29, 2004 purchase by developer Joe Edwards, who bought the old Delmar High School at 5875 Delmar for $9.52 a square foot. However, it was a sealed bid.

Melanie Adams, now the museum’s managing director for community education and events, was hired as a consultant in 2004 to lead the center’s planning process. She said that she, not Archibald, worked directly with Hoffman to find the center’s future location. And Bosley’s property, a failing restaurant at the time, was in the prime neighborhood where they wanted to open the center.

Among several raised in the African American community, the newly surfaced land deal brings up several questions, but few that are found in mainstream media reports.

“I think that the criticism about the sale has less importance than the question of when and why hasn’t corporate St. Louis financially invested any dollars North of Delmar for a cultural facility that highlights African Americans and the contribution they’ve made to the city,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP. “I’m fine with going back six years and talking about the land deal, as long as it includes why the people didn’t invest in it once we got the land.”

By 2008, the depressed economy forced the museum to put a hold on the plan and instead start using the museum itself to incorporate the center’s mission and ideas.

“While the center will not happen as we once hoped, its concept will live on,” said V. Raymond Stranghoener, chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees.

Adams stayed on at the museum to implement these outreach programs to the African-American community, including numerous workshops and exhibits on race, genealogy and urban stories. They also incorporated more programs using technology to tell and share stories.

“Some say we need to find new national myths, new stories to heal ourselves,” stated Archibald in the center’s case statement.  “I say that we don’t need to invent new stories and new myths.  I say that they are right here around us if we will but listen and look.”

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