Washington University - 2016 Presidential Debate

St. Louis – Presidential Story

Wednesday October 5, 2016

By Mark

Credit: Washington University | Facebook

From pizza and Christmas ornaments to debates and campaigning, Missouri has had its brush with presidential lore. Celebrity sightings of presidents and presidential candidates passing through St. Louis herald back to the days of Abraham Lincoln and continue to entertain us even today.

Indeed. Several thousand reporters, photographers and camera crews will descend on St. Louis on Sun., Oct. 9, 2016 when Washington University will host its fifth U.S. presidential debate at the Athletics Complex, the same venue as its previous debates. This marks the sixth time the school has been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, following the 1996 debate that was cancelled when the number of debates were reduced from three to two. The university has hosted more debates than any other institution in history and has easily adjusted to the technical demands of hosting such an event.

In 2004 more than 1,500 journalists from across the globe traveled to St. Louis to cover the debate between President George W. Busch and Sen. John Kerry. According to SBC Communications and Washington University, 1,600 voice and data lines and 60 DSL lines were added at the Athletics Complex; 53 miles of fiber-optic cable stretched across the Danforth Campus and 10 major power generators were used.

Four years later when Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin squared off in one of the most anticipated and most watched (69.9 million viewers) vice presidential debates in U.S. history, more than 3,100 reporters were on campus covering the event, more than double the number four years earlier.

St. Louis’ 15 minutes of presidential fame extends far beyond the debate scene, however. Long before the internet and advent of social media platforms and high-tech fiber optics, St. Louis made other inroads into the celebrity discourse of presidential news. To wit:

Abe Lincoln visited St. Louis on his horse several times to see his friends, Montgomery and Francis Jr. Blair, both West Point graduates and lawyers in the city. President Lincoln later appointed Montgomery Blair Postmaster General. In fact, the Blair house in Washington, D.C., is named after the family and has served as the home away from home for visiting chiefs of state, heads of government, and their delegations since 1942.

Thanks to diaries and handwritten letters, we know that Julia Dent described her Hardscrabble home that her husband, Ulysses S. Grant, built for her in south St. Louis as “crude and homely,” long before millions of Americans could weigh in and post their own opinion by perusing potential photo spreads of the four-room, two-story log house featured in the pages of architectural magazines.

Julia would probably be amazed to know that her Hardscrabble home which she so “facetiously” named, was even dismantled and displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, as well as seen and photographed since by hundreds of thousands of visitors touring Grant’s Farm (www.grantsfarm.com), the 273-acre public attraction located next to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site on Grant Road. A plaque at St. Paul’s cemetery one mile up the road marks the place where the cabin was originally built. The cabin is the only remaining structure hand-built by a U.S. president prior to assuming office. It is owned by the Busch family today.

A popular St. Louis destination since 1954, Grant’s Farm is a two-time winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence award, and ranked in 2004 as a top attraction nationwide by the U.S. Family Travel Guide Zagat Survey.

In addition’s to seeing Julia and Ulysses’ log cabin at Grant’s Farm, visitors take a tram ride through Deer Park, home to a variety of exotic animal species from around the world; the Tier Garten, where one can feed the goats and parakeets, ride a camel or a carousel, and see an animal show; and the Bauernhof, built in 1913, which houses the Busch family’s world-renowned carriage collection and stables. Guests who are 21 years of age or older, are invited to enjoy complementary samples of Anheuser-Busch products in the hospitality room. Admission to Grant’s Farm, the tram rides and all shows are complimentary.

Tours of Julia’s former family home, White Haven, are available across the street from Grant’s Farm at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Free interpretive visits to the Main House are offered every 30 or 60 minutes daily. Due to preservation concerns, space is limited for each time slot and tickets (which are free, and available at the Visitor Center desk) are required to reserve a space. An interpretive museum, located in the historic stable, offers a 22-minute introductory film on the famous First Lady and her husband. For more information, please visit www.nps.gov/ulsg/planyourvisit.

And what else of St. Louis in terms of newsworthy and quirky presidential lure?

  • Since 1904, Missouri has voted for the eventual winner of the presidential election with three exceptions – 1956, 2008 and the 2012 elections – up until then it had commonly retained its title as a bellwether state. Not so much anymore.
  • Democratic National Conventions were held in St. Louis in 1876 (Merchant’s Exchange Building), 1888 (St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall), 1904 (St. Louis Coliseum), and 1916 (Convention Hall).
  • A Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis in 1896 (St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall).

In 1994, a Blue Spruce from Missouri was selected as the Blue Room Christmas Tree, the official indoor treat at the White House. First Lady Hillary Clinton chose the theme “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The tree was decorated with ornaments created by American art students.

  • And speaking of ornaments, St. Louis artist Michelle Ochonicky (www.stonehollowstudio.com) was selected five times to design the Missouri ornament that decorated this honorable Christmas tree, a feat since unmatched by any individual. Each of those years (2010-11, 2013-15) she attended the lighting ceremony of the national tree with the First Family and other celebrities at the White House.
  • Pi pizza owner Chris Sommers received a take-out order called in from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009. Sommers flew to the capital with ingredients to make 20 pizzas for the First Family and staff. The president first tasted the pizza while campaigning in St. Louis in 2008. For more on the hip pizzeria, visit www.pi-pizza.com.
  • This past November, St. Louis fine art photographer Jess Dugan was one of nine individuals selected and honored by President Obama as part of the White House’s LGBT Artists Champions of Change campaign. Dugan’s work continues to explore issues of gender, sexuality, identity and community.

And so it goes. Whether the 1800s or the 2000s, and whether on parchment, in diaries, in libraries or on Instagram – presidential-related personal anecdotes, momentous speeches and deserving accolades – and even a cabin built by hand -- are preserved for the generations of St. Louisans and visitors yet to come.

Join us in St. Louis on Oct. 9 as more presidential history is made.

NOTE: Tickets to the presidential debates are managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). For those visiting St. Louis, various restaurants, bars and other venues will be hosting debate watch parties. While here, make plans to visit Grant’s Farm, White Haven and other area attractions to get your fix on all things presidential.