Thursday, June 8, 2017

Tower Grove Park

Between June, 2013 and October, 2014 I blogged on all 108 St. Louis parks. As part of that project, I chose not to include Tower Grove Park since it's technically not a city park. Per the official city designation, Tower Grove Park is an Independent Park:
But it would be wrong not to cover it here for completeness sake. And, since I moved to this part of the city nearly six years ago, I've really taken to this park. Driving by the perimeter or within the interior just doesn't do the park justice. This is one of the best walking parks in the city. You have to experience it at a slower pace if you want to take in the full ~289 acres.

There are plenty of places in this park that could frame one of those "perfect days". The park is an escape from the city. I mean that in the best of ways. Sometimes you just need some peace and quiet, and this is a place you can certainly find it.

Just like Forest Park, it is activated on all levels at nearly all times of the year. First by the densely populated Shaw, Tower Grove South, Tower Grove East and Southwest Garden neighborhoods that surround it.

These four neighborhoods alone bring ~30,882 people living in walking distance of the park (source); that is ~10% of St. Louis' population.

There are popular playgrounds, horseshoe pits, grass and hard surface tennis courts, soccer, baseball, softball and cork ball fields, etc. that the locals routinely use.

It's a regional draw as well. This is one of the most common backdrops for high school prom, wedding photos and the like.

There are well attended single-draw annual events like the Festival of Nations, Tower Grove Pride Festival, Pagan Picnic, as well as the recurring events like Food Truck Fridays, weekend kickball leagues, community events like St. Margaret of Scotland soccer/baseball/softball/track practices, Tower Grove Farmers' Market, outdoor yoga classes, brunch at Cafe Madeline,  horse-drawn carriage rides and much more.

There is even a "Young Friends of Tower Grove Park" that have launched a fantastic fund raiser for the park:
The Young Friends of Tower Grove Park are excited to be hosting a spring fundraiser in Tower Grove Park’s iconic pavilions. Modeled after progressive dinner parties, the event will feature three of the historic pavilions in the park. Attendees will begin at the Turkish Pavilion, progress to the Old Carriage Pavilion, and end at the Music Stand, enjoying food and drinks from local restaurants and bars, as well as live music, at each location. (source)

Lots going on and it seems to grow every year.

So I've struggled with how to summarize this park in a single blog. To be honest, kind readers, it's a hard park to photograph. It's vistas and expansive views are what make it so special; therefore, it must be taken in-person.


So I will focus on the physical elements of the park: the buildings, statues, pavilions, grand entrances and gates.

You'll just have to take my word for the natural beauty and walk the park if you haven't already. The park hosts over a million visitors every year, so you won't be alone.

You just need to go there and find your favorite spots and get there as often as you can; the park is a true four-season spectacle. It is a great place to bring kids and pets, see urban nature, become part of a community and get connected with your city. The perfect picnic spots are aplenty. Our's is right by the "trees knees", a grove of bald cypress trees that line a man-made babbling brook toward the east side of the park.

Let's star with a little history.
Officially opened to the public in 1872, Tower Grove has been characterized as the largest and best preserved 19th-century Gardenesque style city park in the United States. This formal landscape architecture style features winding paths, symmetrical features, intense planting and the use of architecturally elaborate gates, pavilions, and houses; it differs from the much more numerous Picturesque landscapes of Frederick Law Olmstead and others. The 289-acre tract in the south central part of the city, along with the adjacent Missouri Botanical Gardens, was a gift to the City of St. Louis by merchant philanthropist Henry Shaw (1800-1889), who was largely responsible for its design. (source)
Second, a little colloquial perspective from a person who's lived in these parts for years.

This park has come a long way from a safety and dignified public space perspective. It used to be a place you could roll through and hook up, mainly creepy dudes looking for trysts. I'll stop there. It was kinda gross, but I accepted it as part of big city living.

But things changed over the years. Things became more above-board and people started to question that stuff and crack down. It is not nearly the same place these days. As the neighborhoods of Shaw, Tower Grove South and East improved from a safety and investment perspective, so did the park.

My wife tells me that the sign of a good, healthy park is seeing women walking/jogging around by themselves. TGP is that place now. It didn't used to be and that alone is cause for celebration.

One thing I noticed was the massive investment in the park in the late 1990's. Many of the parks physical landmarks were renovated in part with funds from a Landmark Local Parks Program of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as well as personal and corporate donations.

Nothing that I can say here will be more researched and clearly explained than the towergrovepark.org website (which is currently undergoing an upgrade), so I'll keep it brief and let my photos do the talking.
Tower Grove Park was first authorized by a state law passed on March 9, 1867, and came into existence on October 20, 1868, when Henry Shaw conveyed his lands to the City of St. Louis, by deed of gift. It is governed by a Board of Commissioners appointed under the authority of the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri. The Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of these Commissioners, by virtue of his office. 
Under the terms of the 1867 act of the General Assembly of the State, the Park Board has the “full and exclusive power to govern, manage, direct and control” the park, “to pass ordinances” for its regulation and government, and, generally, has “all the power and authority … conferred upon or possessed by the Corporation of St. Louis in respect to the public squares and places” in St. Louis. The Commissioners submit an annual report to the Board of Alderman of the City. 
Fulfilling the contractual obligations assumed in 1868, when the Mayor and Henry Shaw jointly signed the deed, the City supplied funds for the improvement of the land, and each year since then has placed funds in the hands of the Board, to be expended upon the Park at the discretion of the Commissioners. (source)
Tower Grove Park is a massive 7,676 feet long and 1,550 feet wide rectangular park located between Magnolia Avenue, South Grand Boulevard, Arsenal Street and Kingshighway Boulevard. Tower Grove Avenue (Center Cross Drive) bisects the park between Magnolia and Arsenal.

At 289 acres, the park is the second largest in St. Louis, tucked between the 1,370 acre Forest Park and the 180 acre Carondelet Park. 

The park has four main vehicle entrances, two on Center Cross Drive, one at Grand and one at Kingshighway.

To make this a little easier to orient, I'll break the park into quadrants with Humbodt Statue/Circle as the center point. 


I'll start on the north west corner at Kingshighway and Magnolia. This the most jam packed quadrant of the park, so it'll take the longest.
The grand pedestrian entrance at the corner is a striking visual for the park, with the foreground densely planted with colorful annuals.
An entrance through this archway leads you right to the Robert and Martha Gaddy Wild Bird Garden.
The Missouri Conservationist Magazine recently published a wonderful story on the birds of Tower Grove Park.
Robert and Martha Gaddy Wild Bird Garden in the northwest corner of the park. The Gaddy Garden consists of a forested area, denser than that found in the rest of the park, and a landscape fountain, known to local birders as The Bubbler, which attracts an impressive variety of birds, including warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, woodpeckers, kinglets, sparrows, hawks, and owls.
This wildlife area has been successful. Walk through this section of the park and there is a noticeable increase in bird songs. It is quite striking if you take a long walk and finish in this section of the park. The birds love it here and the numbers drastically increase. 

The bird garden is as advertised. And it a charming little spot to sit and relax by a fountain.

It's really the only part of the park that could be considered "the woods".
Head back north toward Magnolia Avenue and you come to one of four private residences within the park, the Magnolia Residence:
Head east from there and you are in the Gus Fogt Picnic Site, the first of five official picnic areas that may be reserved. All five of these are on the west side of the park. They have BBQ grills, tables and trash cans.
Continue east and you come to the second private residence and stone stables that house a Clydesdale and I believe a donkey. 
You can take carriage rides through the park

East of there along Magnolia you come to the northern Center Cross Drive gates:
Enter here and hang a left and you are among a cluster of five buildings which, to many, is one of the most photogenic sections of the park.

The first building is another of the four private residence, this one the Park Director's residence:
I was told the current director lives in the suburbs to the west of St. Louis, not here.
The other buildings are the Piper plant house (the park office), Piper palm house, the park maintenance building and the park greenhouse, the oldest standing greenhouse west of the Mighty Miss.
You've probably seen prom dates, graduates, newlyweds, etc. taking photos near the lily ponds, iris gardens and ruins. Henry Shaw constructed these faux ruins back in 1872 and 1873. They were restored in 2010.

From the TGP webpage:

In 1867, shortly before Henry Shaw deeded the land that would become Tower Grove Park to the City of St. Louis, the Lindell Hotel at Sixth and Washington burned to the ground. The Lindell Hotel was at that time the largest hotel in America. Shaw saw potential “ancient ruins” in the building’s fire damaged blocks as a popular location for weddings.

In this section you'll come to the first of 12 pavilions that may be reserved, the Lily Pond Shelter:
The music stand is home to summer concerts and available for private events:
There are busts of six composers on columns surrounding the music stand:
Head back west across Center Cross Drive and you come to one of two formal playgrounds that sits right by the popular wading pool/fountain.
This wading pool is a great, positive place, right in front of the main park pavilion & space used for weekend Tower Grove Farmer's Market, yoga, etc. On a hot Saturday morning, it is packed and has a 1970's Sesame Street vibe, a personal favorite.

Notice the fresh paint and new windows on this beauty:
Just north of here are the hard surface tennis courts and building with plaques commemorating Shaw and some past park directors.
Heading west from the courts you come upon the concession picnic site and the Stone Shelter built in 1923:
Now I'll head to the south west quadrant at Kingshighway and Arsenal:
The entry off of Kingshighway has another of the four private residences:
Head to the southwest corner across a baseball and softball field used for kickball, you'll come to the Maury Pedestrian Gate along Arsenal.
Head northeast from the Maury Gates and you come to three of the four formal picnic sites including West End, Gurney and Tunica Sites. 
There is a comfort station currently being upgraded as of publishing:
Continuing east you come to the fenced in grass tennis courts. I'm not sure if these are in use or not, there are no nets and the gates are locked, but the surface is mowed and looking good.
Head east to the Center Cross circle where there is a large flagpole, a marker for an old Mulberry tree planted in 1880 and a William Shakespeare statue.
Head south past the 1872 Turkish Pavilion:
Then east to the 1873 Old Carriage Shelter:
Head south across several more softball fields (used for kickball and soccer) to the Center Cross Gates at Arsenal. 
Just north of the gates you have the charming South Gate Lodge which currently houses ArtScope, an arts education organization with summer camps, scouting events, classes, etc.
Now let's head to the southeast quadrant at Grand and Arsenal:
I'll start at the Grand and Arsenal gates built in 1933 and renovated in 1995:
Heading northwest from the gates, you come to the Stupp Center and Memorial Garden built in 1983. 
So who are the Stupp's, one of the prominent late 20th Century donors within TGP? They founded a bridge and iron company in St. Louis and are still in operation in the suburbs just outside of St. Louis.
photo source: Stupp Bros., Inc.

You can rent out this area for events. The outdoor space provides a private and insular little section of the park.

Head just north and west to the Sons of Rest Pavilion built in 1872:
Head west and you come to the 1873 Chinese pavilion:
Continuing west you come to the 1871 Cypress South Shelter:
Further west is the 1871 Humbolt South Shelter:
Just north is the Alexander Von Humboldt statue, a German geographer, naturalist, explorer and proponent of Romantic philosophy and science (source).
Head south across six softball and four cork ball fields you come to the Cemetery Pedestrian Gates along Arsenal built in 1870:
Finally, let's head to the north east quadrant at Grand and Magnolia:
The gates at the corner of Grand and Magnolia have a plaque indicating they were built in 1931 and restored in 1996. 
A tree lined path leads to another comfort station that is currently in disrepair and the bathrooms are not opened. I was told that there are plans for upgrades.
Just on the other side of the comfort station is the east playground, the second of two playgrounds.
Heading north you come to the Christopher Columbus statue just inside the Grand entrance gates.

There are two placards that read: "To the discoverer of a new world" and "The XIX Century to Christopher Columbus 1884". There are also two sculpted scenes on the remaining sides of the statue.

The Grand entrance gates just to east include columns with standing griffins were restored in 1995. There are additional columns with slumbering lions.
There is a center sign constructed in 2001, another generous donation by the Stupp Foundation. 
Heading west past the Columbus statue you come to a stand of bald cypress called Cypress Circle...maybe the most impressive stand in the entire city. Just north of that is the 1871 Cypress North Shelter.

Head north and you comet to the Bull Pen pedestrian gates (circa 1872) along Magnolia Avenue. 

They were renovated in 1997 and open up to a stand of tall, columnar trees that are in need of replacement as they are starting to die off:
Head just west and you come to the Thurman pedestrian entrance:
As of publishing, the park is going through some major infrastructure upgrades. In addition to the comfort station fixes, the streets are being repaved, the drainage is being upgraded with respect to the laid-stone gutters in some parts.  There are much needed ADA upgrades for enhanced accessibility. And finally, some much welcomed upgrades to the former speed bumps (which were brutal on bikes, scooters and cars). They switched to wider humps. I'd like to see more of these throughout the city. These, along with the closable gates will slow traffic and direct traffic within the park.
So, recently the park asked for public input into what users would like to see in the future. After giving this much thought, it really doesn't need that much. The feedback I respectfully provided was to fix or move the horseshoe pits to a more prominent location within the park and upgrade the tired fitness circuit.
I don't think this park needs a frisbee golf course or an other more programmed or gimicy additions. My main feedback was to landscape more areas with structured planting, a la:
As well as conversion of much of the mowed flat expanses to prairie/no-mow to provide shelter for animals, insects and provide some plant diversity. There are a couple examples of this, especially off Magnolia near the bird garden.
What do you think the park could use?

Hope you enjoy Tower Grove Park as much as we do!

1 comment:

  1. This is such a good summary of the park. I love walking there, feel safe, and love living nearby. I think my concerns when I filled out the survey were the speed bumps (removed), some paths that disappear into nowhere, the lack of bathrooms, the lack of trash cans, and some desire for dog waste dispensers so maybe more residents would make good choices. Beyond that, the park is great and the changes needed are minimal. I also can't wait to see a website with more information.

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