Lucianna Gladney Ross: Philanthropist and preservationist
One can reasonably doubt that noblesse oblige will survive the slings, arrows and callousness of modern times. Yet it's reassuring to note that for now some men and women of wealth and privilege continue to subscribe to the notion that "those to whom much is given, much is required," and practice it still.
We need only to look at the life of Lucianna Ross for a luminous example.
Mrs. Ross, a creative and often anonymous philanthropist, a tireless preservationist, a supporter of educational and horticultural enterprises and liberal political causes, died Wednesday evening at her home in Portland Place, in a house she rescued from ruin in the 1960s. She was 96 years old.
Lucianna Gladney Ross was one of three children of the late Frank and Katherine Graves Gladney. Frank Gladney, a lawyer, joined forces with financier Edmund Ridgway and partnered with Charles Lieper Grigg, the inventor of, among other things, the popular lemon-lime soft drink 7-Up. The partners' association resulted in the generation of a huge fortune that in myriad ways has been put to work for the public good.
Mrs. Ross, her late sister Katherine Gladney Wells and her late brother, Graves Gladney, were beneficiaries of 7-Up. All three, one way or another, were artistically inclined. Graves Gladney was an illustrator and painter and taught in the School of Fine Arts at Washington University. Mrs. Wells was a poet, a musician and a composer -- and a gregarious extrovert. Mrs. Ross was quieter and more restrained than her sister, yet indeed influential in her own way. Her interests inclined toward architecture and its preservation and its ability to serve as a window into the history of St. Louis and St. Louis County. She found exquisite beauty in growing things as well.
She was an alumna of Mary Institute, then in the Central West End. Mrs. Ross easily could walk to school. Her family lived only a half a block away, at 5057 Westminster Place.
She graduated from Mary Institute in 1932 and continued her education at Smith College, Northampton, Mass., from which she graduated cum laude in 1936, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she spent her junior year. After college, she was on the staff of the Post-Dispatch's society page. Her husband, the late Walter Ross, from whom she was divorced, worked for the paper as well. His father, Charles, was press secretary to President Harry S Truman.
Mrs. Ross inherited the Westminster Place house from her father, and she and her family lived there until in the mid-1960s, when they moved a few blocks away to a far grander house at 33 Portland Place. This house, 100 years old last year, was designed by the firm Mauran, Russell & Crowell of St. Louis and was inspired by 18th-century French neoclassical architecture; it sits splendidly where a stretch of Lake Avenue dead-ends into Portland Place.
In the 1970s, her interest in the old Mary Institute building was rekindled. By then, the building was owned by New City School, an independent kindergarten and grammar school organized by neighborhood residents in the late 1960s. It opened for business in 1969, moved to the Mary Institute building in 1971. Not so long afterward it found itself on the financial ropes.
Mrs. Ross was a good friend and neighbor of the school; she had warm memories of her years as a student in the building and believed New City was a beneficial presence in the struggling Central West End. When she was approached for help with New City's financial crisis, she stepped up and made what has been described as a "substantial donation" to the school, spread over a period of years. Her gift, like many others she made, was anonymous. New City survived and thrives.
She could not avoid publicity, however, when she rescued an entire Missouri town.
For decades, the Gladney family has owned a country place called Sunnyside near Kimmswick, a town settled first in the mid-19th century, located about 25 miles south of St. Louis near the Mississippi River.
In 2005, an article in Mary Institute's alumni magazine reported that the day the school term was out, the Gladneys headed for Sunnyside and didn't return until the day before school started. In the 1960s, Mrs. Ross took a hard look at Kimmswick and recognized it was in a rapid state of decay. In 1970 she began systematically working to save the town by buying up property in various stages of dilapidation and rehabilitating the buildings. She then rented the buildings to shops and some residents, thereby helping to reestablish an economic base int the town. The plan was eventually to sell them to owners who would maintain them. Mrs. Ross was also given a couple of log buildings that sat in the way of the building of I-55. These buildings were restored and erected in the town, providing a additional view into the region's built past.
The Kimmswick Historical Society credits Mrs. Ross with saving the city.
Mary Hostetter was a star participant in this rescue effort. In a telephone interview, she ticked off the names of the buildings in downtown Kimmswick that Mrs. Ross bought, rehabbed and sold back. She stopped counting at 25. About 10 years ago, Mrs. Ross began selling the property she owned in the town center and its outskirts.
Hostetter owns a Ross-restored building, the location of her popular Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery on Second Street. Today the Blue Owl is a regional landmark. In May 1985, however, the building was in distress. An existing restaurant in the Blue Owl building had gone through several owners and was struggling. Hostetter and Mrs. Ross met at the Blue Owl building to talk business.
"Before I left that day, I'd agreed to move my bakery out of my home and into the Blue Owl building. But I had to agree the Blue Owl would remain a daytime restaurant too." That requirement was part of the Mrs. Ross's strategy for revivifying the town by bringing in tourists.
"We agreed with a handshake to open the restaurant, and I promised Mrs. Ross that someday she would have to stand in line to get in. She said, 'Oh, honey, you don't know what you're getting in to.'
"I put my heart and soul into the business, and in a couple of months, she was waiting in line. I tried to move her to the front, but she refused.
"I consider her to be the matriarch of Kimmswick, and I am so fortunate to have had her in my life. She is an amazing person to know."
In July, 2000, the Missouri Gaming Commission gave the Isle of Capri casino permission to build at Kimmswick. The town was up in arms, fearing the effects of a casino in its midst. The casino developers and the gaming commission had not included the steely will and financial resources of Lucianna Gladney Ross in calculating what had looked like a sure bet.
"Without Mrs. Ross," Hostetter said, "we would never have been able to fight that battle. We as merchants and citizens were testifying in Jefferson City against that monstrosity and Mrs. Ross put her lawyers on the case." Ross and the opponents won.
Mrs. Ross's daughter, Lucy Natkiel, said her mother was politically astute in other ways and was committed to issues such as women's education and civil rights. "She told me her parents were very forward-thinking and treated all of their children equally in promoting their education and abilities," Natkiel said, and Mrs. Ross followed suit.
Natkiel said in addition to supporting candidates of the Democratic Party in Missouri, "She gave dinners and fundraisers for Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem," as well as many events for Smith College.
Mrs. Ross was a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood and of the Cradle, an adoption agency in Evanston, Ill. Natkiel said, "It was through the Cradle that Helen (her sister) and I joined the family in 1946."
Mrs. Ross was a long-time and enthusiastic supporter of the Missouri Botanical Garden where the Gladney Rose Garden is named for her family. She was appointed the first woman member of the board of trustees in 1979, and in 2002 she won the Garden's most prestigious prize, the Henry Shaw Medal.
Peter Raven, emeritus president of the Garden, said, "Lucianna was a delightful person with a twinkle in her eye and a purpose in her soul. Generous, enterprising, modest and forward looking, she made great contributions to the spirit of everyone who knew her. For more than 45 years, she supported the Garden through her direct efforts as a guid and in other volunteer capacities and financially as well. I shall always remember her as a friend and benefactor."
In addition to her work on behalf of the Garden, she also represented the City of St. Louis on the St. Louis Art Museum's board of commissioners. In 1977 she was named a Globe-Democrat woman of achievement.
Besides her daughter, Lucianna Ross Natkiel of Hill, N.H., another daughter, Helen Griffith Ross of McLean, Va., and her son, John Franklin Ross of St. Louis, survive her. She has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The family requests in lieu of flowers that donations be made to the Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, or to Smith College, Northampton, Mass. 01063. Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 30, at Alexander White Mullen Funeral Home, 11101 St. Charles Rock Road, St. Ann, where her funeral will be conducted at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Burial follows at Valhalla Cemetery, 7600 St. Charles Rock Road.
Contact Beacon associate editor Robert Duffy.