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Virtual St. Louis

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

The year is 1850. A woman stands at the corner of two deserted streets, clutching the train of her green silk skirt. Behind her is the courthouse where the two trials of Dred Scott will help spiral the country toward Civil War.

Visitors can sweep past the lady, into the courthouse, retrieve those court decisions, and hear the testimony of a clerk. But they'll do it using a computer mouse. For the courthouse, the woman, and the clerk and the decisions he recorded reside in an Oracle database. Welcome to the St. Louis Virtual City Project.

The lifelike simulation began as informal conversation at a block party by neighbors Louis Gerteis and Willem Davis van Bakergem. Gerteis is chair of the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and van Bakergem is an architect with a passion for historic preservation and computer-aided design.

"I had been exploring the capabilities of visualizing cities with virtual reality and animation software while directing a research center at Washington University," says van Bakergem. "I had constructed a 3-D virtual model of downtown St. Louis and thought it would be useful to historians to see past representations of the city."

Gerteis immediately saw the value of wedding three-dimensional design to history content. "Initially, we talked about working on the Civil War Battle of Wilson's Creek (near Springfield, Missouri) but focused on the urban environment of St. Louis for pedagogical reasons."

What Gerteis, van Bakergem, and fellow UMSL history professor Andrew Hurley will create a simulated world of downtown St. Louis history from 1850 to1950. Fire insurance maps, archival photos, and other local records will be combined to create a fully navigable, geographically correct environment that users can "walk" through or "fly" over.

In phase one of the project, Gerteis and his colleagues focused on the 1850s and 1950s. The Web site ( for the St. Louis Virtual City Project functions as an educational resource for elementary, secondary, and post-secondary school instruction. Short narrative texts and primary source materials are linked to structures in the 3-D landscape, and lesson plans are posted to make the site useful in the classroom.

"Most students are more at ease with navigating through virtual environments than are their teachers," he explains. "So the technology is no barrier to effect classroom exercises that involve exploring the 3-D environment and finding information in it. Students generally enjoy such exercises and find them to be a welcome break from the more traditional reading and research assignments."

Hurley has employed the Web site in both graduate and undergraduate courses, as well as working with middle school students. "What really gets students excited," says Hurley, "is contributing to the Web site's expansion, either by attaching new information to the already built structures in the electronic landscape or by building new structures through our online 'build a block' forms. These tasks invariably involve more traditional research strategies on the part of students."

Student contributions also build pride of ownership, knowing that their efforts will permanently remain on public view, says Hurley. "There's an added measure of accountability that gives them an incentive to do a good job."

The amount of historical information involved in creating the project is formidable. The 1850s section contains pages detailing not only the Old Courthouse but a virtual Mercantile Library Hall, home to the library's most valuable holding, four volumes of John James Audubon's The Birds of America. Virtual visitors to the library can view some of these precious plates, as well as transcripts and scans of letters by Thomas Hart Benton, who lectured at the Mercantile in 1950.

There are also pages about B'nai El, the first synagogue west of the Mississippi, and the luxurious Planters Hotel. Those "attending" the virtual Varieties Theatre can view original playbills and read all five acts of George L. Aiken's adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was performed on the original theater's stage.

The multi-layered offerings of the Web site help put the period's people, places, and events in historical perspective. Biographical information about Dred Scott is interlaced with information about slavery, and the Underground Railroad, the Lincoln-Douglass debates, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The section on the 1950s documents a time when downtown St. Louis underwent dramatic changes in the name of urban renewal. A permanent civic organization, Civic Progress, was founded in 1954 to address issues such as the construction of express highways, housing, new business, industrial facilities, and slum clearance, and the Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation, which purchased three-quarters of Chinatown, was formed in 1959.

A click on virtual St. Louis documents Chinatown with its hand laundries and restaurants. The site includes comments from people like Annie Leong, who told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1966 that "We all hate to leave this place. This building would be good for another 150 years I guess, but that's progress. We'll get used to the new neighborhood in time."

The On Leong Merchants and Laborers Association and the Asia Restaurant were two of thirty-six firms forced to relocate to make way for the $89 million sports stadium proposed in the Stadium Redevelopment Plan. On August 20, 1966, Chinatown ceased to exist when its last remaining building, the Asia Restaurant, was leveled to make room for a parking garage. (Busch Stadium itself was razed in 2005.)

Another section called Mill Creek Valley met a similar fate. Although dilapidated, the neighborhood was home to twenty thousand residents and more than eight hundred businesses, and was at one time the home of Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker.

The virtual city project does not shy away from documenting the decade's racial history. A "walk" through 1950s downtown allows visitors to stop into the original Woolworth's five-and-dime variety store at the corner of Washington and Fifth streets. Like many other downtown eating establishments, the Woolworth's lunch counter was racially segregated, prompting civil rights organizations to stage demonstrations and sit-ins.

When the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education mandated desegregation, St. Louis obeyed. Web site visitors can read a transcript of the decision, look at a cartoon from The St. Louis Argus, an African American newspaper, that declares "Jim Crow Dead," and listen to audio interviews with people who were schoolchildren in the 1950s. They discuss their lives and education. Each click adds another layer to the historical record.

Gerteis is enthusiastic about offering future historians such a contextualized view. "As in other disciplines, visualizing data in 3-D brings into view relationships that are otherwise invisible or obscure," he says. "I look forward to the day when a 'walk' down Market Street (in the 1850s), for example, will reveal the proximity of servant residences, artisan shops, mercantile houses, churches, and firehouses."

The real-time implications are almost limitless. "Digital technology has revolutionized the way historians do research in a way that no one in my generation could have imagined as we worked on our doctoral dissertations in the late 1960s," says Gerteis. "Some things were predictable--the NIH (National Institutes of Health) medical library pioneered electronic biographical searches in the 1960s. But the digitization of records and the search technology related to Optical Character Recognition make collections readily available and useful in entirely different ways."

Hurley agrees and is excited by the thought that visitors from around the world will be able to submit material relevant to specific places in the digitized landscape. Still, he doesn't see virtual environments replacing real archives.

"I can't imagine that traditional archives will ever become obsolete," says Hurley. "I cannot imagine that we will ever summon the vast resources necessary to digitize the stock material stored at thousands of repositories around the world. Nor should we aspire to do so. Virtual archives such as ours serve an important function to in widening access to primary source material. But we hope that our collection will also serve the purpose of encouraging visitors, particularly students, to visit the archives in which the original documents are housed."

Not content with the limits of their current time machine, the UMSL team is partnering with other institutions such as the Missouri Historical Society, the Campbell House Museum, the Museum of Western Expansion, and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. Given enough time and resources, they'd like to travel even further afield.

"I'd like to broaden our geographic territory to include other U.S. cities and then, expand to a global information landscape," says van Bakergem.

The components of the project are designed to be compatible with advances in virtual reality technology. "Who knows," Bakergem muses. "Maybe we'll end up on someone's iPod."

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Funding Information

NEH has provided $465,000 in funding for the St. Louis Virtual City Project.