An Art Deco Jewel in Forest Park

12, December 2017
Color photo of interior display at the Jewel Box in the 1940sThis 1940s display at the Jewel Box included a wishing well. Photo by Chand Sansar. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

When artwork showing the proposed design for the “new” Jewel Box appeared in St. Louis newspapers, some residents were less than impressed. One anonymous reader wrote a prickly letter to the editor calling it “simply grotesque” and “not suitable for any public building that is to stand for generations.”

The outrage is somewhat understandable, given that the original Jewel Box was beloved by St. Louisans. It was created in 1916 by Forest Park’s chief gardener, John Moritz, as a way to showcase the plants that could stand up to the pollution-heavy air of early 20th-century St. Louis. Thousands flocked to the greenhouse, and Moritz went on to create seasonal and other displays. The attraction remained popular, and talk of a new, larger structure grew.

Sepia-toned photograph of the interior of the Jewel Box in 1932Interior of the original Jewel Box, 1932. Photo by William Swekosky. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

After Mayor Bernard Dickmann took office in 1933, he turned that talk into reality through a combination of funds from an earlier bond issue and the Public Works Administration. William C. E. Becker, a 1915 graduate of Washington University and current chief engineer of bridges and buildings for the City of St. Louis, was hired to design the new greenhouse. His challenge? Devise something that could withstand hail while allowing enough light for horticultural and aesthetic purposes.

Believing that function needed to drive the form of this project, Becker sought the advice of leaders at Shaw’s Garden (now the Missouri Botanical Garden). By talking with them and observing their greenhouses, Becker determined that if enough light could enter from the sides, his new display greenhouse wouldn’t require an all-glass roof. This was ideal because such roofs were difficult and costly to replace, a fact the Garden had discovered after an intense 1928 hailstorm caused at least $50,000 worth of damage in just 15 minutes.

Four months and thousands of lighting tests later, Becker was convinced he’d landed on a design that would work: very tall glass walls, a stair-stepped roof, and eight steel arches. The nearly 50-foot glass walls provided enough sunlight to eliminate the need for an all-glass roof; the stair-stepped roof created more shading than a traditional, solid roof; and the steel arches strengthened the building without the use of columns, which take up floor space and block light.

Black-and-white photograph of the "new" Jewel Box under constructionThe "new" Jewel Box under construction, 1935. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

On December 12, 1935, the Robert Paulus Construction Company began work on the new Jewel Box. Less than a year afterward, Jefferson City’s Daily Capital News observed that “Shaw’s Garden . . . now has a worthy competitor for the flower-loving public.” It went on to describe the “display of more than 3,000 chrysanthemum plants, in a formal Chinese garden design” as a highlight of the November 14, 1936, dedication ceremony.

Just two seasons later, between 1938 and 1939, the Jewel Box welcomed more visitors than the Saint Louis Art Museum (416,000 versus 390,000). The year 1938 also saw a major victory for Becker’s design: A bad hailstorm that spring broke more than 1,000 glass panes at local greenhouses but left the Jewel Box intact.

Black-and-white photograph showing interior of the "new" Jewel BoxAn interior view of the "new" Jewel Box, date unknown. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The art deco greenhouse was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and renovated two years later by St. Louis–based Christner Inc. Updates included a new heating and cooling system and greater flexibility to use the interior space for events.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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