Statues evoke 1904 exposition

Friday, April 30, 2004

It has been 100 years since the World's Fair of 1904 brought St. Louis to the world and the world to St. Louis. From April 30 to Dec. 1, what was officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition brought in nearly 20 million visitors. The event was so huge that its impact was felt throughout the state, including Cape Girardeau.

The memories are still felt through 34 sculptures at the Southeast Missouri State University Museum. The works are a lasting reminder of the World's Fair.

These plaster replicas of actual works from the classical, Renaissance and neo-classical periods were created by August Gerber of Cologne, Germany.

Gerber ran a company that mass-produced these reproductions. He brought a sample of his work to the World's Fair, where they were displayed at the German Industry exhibit. That's where Louis Houck of Cape Girardeau happened to see them.

Houck was a member of the board of regents for the State Normal School, later to be known as Southeast Missouri State University. Houck was also a lawyer, historian and railroad company owner.

Houck liked the sculptures so much that in October 1904, he purchased 58 pieces from Gerber for the school at a cost of $1,888. Houck later purchased two additional pieces, the Venus de Milo and the Apollo Belvedere, for the university.

The original works that Gerber modeled can be found in the British Museum in London, The Louvre in Paris and the Vatican in Rome.

"It kind of represents the viewpoints of great statuary produced in the last two and a half millennia," said University Museum director Dr. Stanley Grand.

In 1905, the sculptures were placed in the specially created Statuary Hall in what was then the brand new Academic Hall.

According to Grand, the architecture of Academic Hall was done in a neo-classical style very much on purpose, to reflect a sense of enlightenment that the statuary also encompassed.

Bringing a more enlightened perspective to Southeast Missouri was a "grand vision" of Houck's, the museum director said.

The statues remained at Academic Hall until the 1930s when, because of space issues, they were dispersed throughout the campus. In 1976, museum director James Parker decided to bring the sculptures together again, but quite a few had been lost or broken, and the remaining ones were in need of restoration.

Houck's fair deal

In addition to bring sculptures to Cape Girardeau, the St. Louis World's Fair did something much more important for the city.

To make sure as many people as possible could visit the fair, rail lines were extended around Missouri, including lines extending from the Cape Girardeau-area to St. Louis. Helping in this endeavor was Houck, who owned a railway company.

With the extended rail lines, people in Cape Girardeau could make it to St. Louis in three hours.

"They offered very inexpensive tickets to St. Louis if you bought fair tickets. The reasoning was that everyone in Cape would go up to the fair," Southeast history professor Dr. Frank Nickell said. "Cape Girardeau really got caught up in the fair."

Two of the people who took a trip from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau were George and Harry Naeter.

The brothers had heard about the town of Cape Girardeau while attending the fair and went and checked it out themselves. According to Nickell, the brothers saw a sign in a window that said a newspaper was for sale for $1,800 and after they had borrowed half that amount, put a down payment on it and then started The Daily Republican, which became the Southeast Missourian.

The World's Fair was held to commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the exploration of Lewis and Clark, but for St. Louis it presented something far greater, the opportunity to bring a new vision of the city to not only America, but the rest of the world.

"It was a big event for everyone in the whole region," Nickell. Of course, it's impact was most profound in its home city, which had a bad reputation in the years leading up to the fair. It made St. Louis a major city," Nickell said.

To celebrate this event that meant so much to the city, several celebrations and exhibits are planned in St. Louis.

The St. Louis Art Museum will offer a look into the artwork on display at the Fair with "1904: Art at the Fair" exhibit, running today through Sept. 12. From 3 to 7 p.m. May 7, the St. Louis County Library will hold "A Celebration of the 1904 World's Fair." The Missouri Historical Society's exhibit on the fair, "Looking Back at Looking Forward," will open Sunday. There will also be a commemoration at Forest Park, where the fair took place. Activities get underway at noon today with an opening ceremony and will continue from noon to 7 p.m. until Sunday at the Grand Basin in front of the St. Louis Art Museum.

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