March 6, 2017

Forest Park

Forest Park

By Caroline Loughlin and Catherine Anderson
St. Louis: The Junior League, 1986
ISBN # 0-9638298-0-7
304 pages

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

Published in 1986, this book reconstructs the first 100 years of Forest Park. Caroline Loughlin and Catherine Anderson have done a marvelous job. The book is interesting, a real page turner, and a nice mix of historical details – the opening of this or that, the first appearance of that, the disappearance of another – and a discussion of the social theories and ideas that drove the nature of the park at different times. The theoretical sections are tempered by discussion of the people in power and the limits of finances that impinged on the more utopian social theories.

The book itself takes a chronological approach, from the struggle to get the park in 1876 and closes with the state of the park, in a bit of confusion and readiness for a new “phase” of development, in 1986.

I’ve decided to review it more in terms of the ideas that drove the park in different periods, and the politics and finances which influenced those theories. However, I append a link to a chronology which I am constructing with this book as my key source, but adding material from other sources. I hope to keep adding to the chronology as I find new key dates and developments.

Additionally, and certainly a significant part of my delight in this book, are numerous wonderful photos from the earliest days through the later years. Throughout the authors have this repeated map of the park, but in each case it is particularized for the years of the past chapter. I spent hours with these wonderful maps. In the appendix, too, are several useful charts and lists of various things including a photo listing of nearly all monuments and buildings in the park in 1986 and some older buildings which have disappeared over the years.

This book was a gigantic and very successful undertaking,

Finally, since I live on the south side of the park in Dogtown, and my primary interests are my nearly daily use of Forest Park, and as an adjunct to my history of Dogtown (Forest Park being our “back yard”), I write from the perspective of a Dogtowner, a resident of the south side of the park. Given that affectation, the history of the park might very well have a subtitle:

Forest Park, The Three-Sided Rectangle

We, of the south side were not much welcomed in the park community, and relatively ignored in its history. This is in no way a failing of Loughlin and Anderson’s treatment. Rather, it is a very real feature of the history of Forest Park. To this end I will append yet a second link to this review – bits and pieces and passages which are more pointedly in reference to Dogtown / Cheltenham, or which were just very striking on their own.

The 1860s-70s was a time when industrialism and growing large cities created some serious social and health problems and there was nation-wide concern about quality of life for all, and especially for the poorer classes. One issue that came up was park space in the growing industrial cities. New York had become famous for its Central Park and Brooklyn and Philadelphia also had well-established parks.

The idea came to St. Louis, floundered a bit during the Civil War and then rose again after it. All the idealism was there for a park to protect some land for the city dwellers and to have a place for all citizens to get “to the country” and “nature” and do so without a huge trip from the city. Also, always said, if not always very heart-felt, was the reiteration of the need of the underclasses for some respite from the harsh conditions of life in an industrial city.

Proposals were afoot to purchase land far far out to the west, past Kingshighway. There were howls of protest. This was just too far and the poor simply couldn’t get there. It would only be reached by horseback or horse and carriage and that was a mode of transport of the wealthy. Nonetheless, the efforts continued and eventually the current park, 1370 acres was purchased, a city park much larger than the famous Central Park of New York which is a mere 840 acres.

However, there was another strong motivator. The wealthy class was interested in getting out of the crowded and very unhealthy industrial downtown, and wanted land, lots of land, for a housing boom of suburbs for the wealthy that would have some serious protection of air quality, and certainly, a buffer to keep out the hoi-ploy.

The park from its beginning had the same basic boundaries it does now. There was a street – Kingshighway – on the east, but none on the north or south. On the west was Skinker Road, but it was quite undeveloped. The plum to be exploited for housing for the wealthy was the north side, what was first Park Ave. (actually an extension of Lindell Blvd., which it is today called) at least up to Union, and the streets to the north of Lindell. The irony here, one of the plums of the area was the beautiful, clean and clear River des Peres which wandered through the land which would become the park, running many blocks on the northern edge. Within a short period of time this river would cause many problems with horrible pollution to the level of becoming an open city sewer, and even worse, one that tended to flood most springs. In the mid to 1923 it was finally put underground to as far south as Manchester Road near Macklind.

What becomes very clear early on is that while we here in Dogtown LATER came to embrace the park and, as we often do, call it and see it as “out back yard,” it was never viewed that way by the city in the early days.

Even the attempt to spread this upper class real estate boon to the east took root much more slowly and the authors report: “Attempts to create a real estate boom east of the park were not successful, probably because of the industrial district to the south.” .

The district to the south. If you don’t recognize us folks, THAT’S US in Dogtown / Cheltenham. This was the most established area anywhere near the park. A HEAVILY industrial and mining area since 1852, and a haven of the underclasses and immigrants. The famous unwashed of the U.S.

Later on is an even more blunt discussion of us Dogtowners as a “serious problem” for the park.

Increasing neighborhood development caused serious problems for the park. By 1894 the Cheltenham district south of the park produced more fire clay sewer pipe than any other district in the United States. Other industries grouped along the railroad tracks included the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company. These industries were among the dirtiest of the time, and the smoke and sulfur fumes often blew into the park and damaged the trees.

Cheltenham/Dogtown was a THREAT to the very health of the park. The trees were endangered, says the quote above.. What about the health of the thousands of HUMANS who lived and worked there? No such concern was expressed

Further, there was a road over here on the south, Clayton Road. Part of it still runs through the park and is called Clayton Ave. today. It begins at Euclid, just south of Barnes, at the southern end of their parking lot along Euclid. Just where it enters Forest Park, going under a bridge at Kingshighway, is just about where a bridge was over the River des Peres.

“ Clayton Road, through the south-eastern section of the park, was a major thorough-fare, since there were no roads along the northern or southern boundaries. St. Louis County farmers used the road to bring wagonloads of hay and produce into town, not the kind of traffic the commissioners wanted in the park. Kern reported in 1876 that he “confidently hoped” Clayton Road would soon be removed from the south-eastern section of the park, but it wasn’t. Union Avenue no longer crossed the land north to south as it had before the park was established. Traffic went either to Kingshighway or to Skinker Road.“

Clayton Road (Avenue) as it came through the park is still there for about 2/3 the distance. It runs from Euclid, along the back side of Barnes southern parking lot, between the two large lakes (Bowl Lake on the south, bordering the highway, and Jefferson Lake on the north), past the entrance road to the planetarium, between the baseball fields and Triple A and ends at the circle by the Jewel Box.

It used to continue on straight and came out of the park exactly where Clayton Ave. today turns left off Oakland, right where Imo’s Pizza is.

Thus this was a heavily trafficked road and not in keeping with the park ideal.

There was a huge uproar and crisis in 1881 when the wooden bridge over the River des Peres collapsed. The farmers thought they were being excluded and an uproar ensued. But a new bridge, this time a stone and iron bridge kept the life-line of hay and food stuffs coming into St. Louis.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that Oakland Ave, a border of the park on the south, was constructed.

By 1885 Street car came on what was later Oakland Ave. all the way to Skinker.

After the establishment of the park and the beginnings of some development – a few unpaved roads cut and such, housing began on the north and northeast side. It was still quite difficult for the poor to get out to the park, so far from the city and no public transport, but those who could afford it began to use the park arriving in horse-drawn carriages and on horseback.

As indicated above by 1885 the street car did come and even the underclasses could use the park. More development was made and even a pavilion was built to protect people from rain and sun while the were waiting for transportation back into the city.

This development and increased use of the park developed with vigor, and some problems, until the time of the world’s fair. The fair was to have an enormous impact on the nature of the park.

It is important to note that the fair used neither the entire park, nor was entirely within the park. Rather, it was limited to the area west of today’s Hampton Ave., and continued on west beyond Skinker Blvd, and even a bit past Big Bend for a small part of the fair grounds. The 1904 Olympics used the current Washington University stadium at the corner of Big Bend and Forsyth.

Perhaps the greatest lasting impact of the fair was that many trees of the southwestern forest were cut. Until 1902 a large portion of the park had been left in primeval forest. This was significantly cut, and even some hills leveled and others constructed to make the grounds desired for the fair.

There is no question that the fair did bring Forest Park into the minds and habits of St. Louis residents in a way that nothing else had yet done. There were even many who sort of wished that never-never land would remain, and that even after the fair the grounds would retain and all the magnificent (temporary) buildings as well, a sort of gigantic fairly land of an amusement park.

That was not to be and never taken seriously by anyone in authority. In matter of fact, the fair commission had contracted with the city to RETURN THE PARK TO THE CONDITION IT WAS BEFORE THE FAIR. Obviously this was never done, and simply couldn’t not have been done, if for not other reasons is it would have taken hundreds of years to return the ancient trees sacrificed for the fair.

(Perhaps, as the history progresses, it’s important to remember this: Often in consideration of the changes to be made for the park, one must keep in mind – to what extent does this change or proposed change alter the park in ways that cannot be undone without massive work and expense. It is still a concern today, and calls for constant citizen monitoring of special interests and encroachment on park land.)

It was expected that the fair commission would return the park to the city – in the condition it had been – by 1905. It was in fact much later, April 1913. The fair commission tried valiantly to do all they could do, and they had profits from the fair to do a lot. They did remove virtually every building from the park, the art museum being the sole exception, and, in lieu of perfect return, did build the Jefferson Memorial (today the Missouri Historical Society Museum), and the World’s Fair Pavilion in 1907.

By the time the park had been returned to the city a new social situation existed in the U.S. and a new progressive concept of parks was in the air. The U.S. had “suffered” (that word is from the perspective of the powers that were in the U.S., especially the older established and wealthier citizens) a great deal of immigration. The immigrants were often of the lower classes of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, Italy and Ireland, and they needed to be socialized into the Protestant Ethic and capitalist ways. Parks could be an important factor in this social engineering of these “unwashed” lower classes. It was widely believed that competitive athletics would teach the immigrants many of these values of competitiveness, obedience to the team concept and energize them to be better workers who knew their place in the capitalist order. Later psychologists would point out the power of competitive athletics to channel energy away from political radicalism which addressed poverty and unequal distribution of wealth. (This DEFINITELY isn’t the language that Loughlin and Anderson use, but that was the principle as one finds in social histories of the period, along with the notion of compulsory schools for children which would inculcate capitalist values and concepts of obedience needed for future underclass workers. That’s another whole issue.)

This major change, began with Park Commissioner Dwight F. Davis in 1911. He continued in that position until 1930. Some of the views he defended were:

  • “…regularly scheduled recreation and for special civic events…”
  • “… the raising of men and women rather than grass or trees.”
  • On civic virtue: “…would promote health and build character through teaching children to play by the rules.”

In any case, the theory that dominated Forest Park development from the post-fair days until the end of World War II was this theory of the park had to have lots of places for competitive athletics. Thus the development of the baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, public golf courses, handball courts and even the specialized areas for cricket, rugby and polo (definitely NOT for the underclasses). There were bridle trails, and just across from the park near Oakland and Macklind, two large stables where one could board and even rent horses. Bike trails had been in the park since there very beginning, and they were developed further. Fishing and bait casting developed and even boating in the park, but it was more for light recreation than part of the theory of competitive athletics.

These additions were not to the exclusion of other uses. There were still lots of green spaces for just ‘BEING” in the park, and a few times, in periods of extreme summer heat, the city would temporarily repeal the night-time curfews on the park and masses of people would sleep in there.

As must be obvious, the park, 1370 acres or not, was getting crowded. It was serving many competing interests, including, of course, a growing and sizeable (free) zoo, a large art museum grounds, the Muny Opera, Jefferson Memorial and on and on. Later will come the planetarium, and Steinberg Rink as well.

In both periods under discussion – from the beginning in 1876 until 1913 and then the period from 1913 until the end of WWII, there was a pattern of great enthusiasm for a social idea/ideal which the park would serve, some great enthusiasm for this idea/ideal, and some funding for it. Things got built and developed, the park was serving the functions desired, but economic conditions changed, the enthusiasm of reformers of a past generation waned, and the park fell on hard times, the “improvements” fell into some ruin and the park had some serious problems. Roads deteriorated, fountains stopped running, trails deteriorated, and on and on. (These are very sobering things speaking to this very moment. Within the theme in which I am writing, today in 2004 we are at the very high point of the THIRD of these dominant idea/ideals, that of Forest Park Forever. We all see a park on which millions and millions and millions have just been spent, ideals of ecology and natural areas “constructed” and are protected, yet many of the use areas of the park — bike and walking trails, golf courses, water ways, athletic fields, even forest areas) have been dramatically improved and new items have been added. Oh my, this section on past history, and the decline and fall of each period, typically some 20-40 years after each period of enthusiasm and building, is a dire warning again to us citizens to be generous to our park and vigilant for its care.)

Loughlin and Anderson develop the shifting nature of the park from the end of WWII to 1986, a period with changing social needs, a huge shift of population from St. Louis City to the county, a decrease of property values in the flaunted north side of the park and many other changes that bring some hard times to the park, and at the same time, some wonderful changes as well – coming of the planetarium and later the Science Center and the Steinberg Rink, as well as the spectacular growth in the nature and fame of the zoo, and continued development of the art museum. The park was, I think, as Loughlin and Anderson’s book ends, ripe for Forest Park Forever’s dreams and concepts to come to the park for a major renovation.

These days Forest Park is on a huge high. I look back on Loughlin and Anderson’s work and wonder – was it ever better? I’m not sure about the “better.” But, certainly in the very early days of 1876 until the 1890s it was on a great high, and oh my, would I have loved it then. And I tremendously enjoyed the park as it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s of my youth with all its fields and athletic resources which I, one of those of the unwashed of Dogtown, evidently still needing indoctrination into capitalist values, simply embraced and loved, even though, as Loughlin and Anderson point out, I was seeing the park on a down slide. Not being aware of the “better times” I thought those “down times” were mighty good.

Of the several Forest Parks I have read about and experienced I am torn. I simply adore today’s park. Yet I loved the much less developed park of my youth as well. I suspect that nostalgia is perhaps less for the park of the 1940s and 50s, than the freer life I had at that period without all the protectionism and fear of risk in life that today’s “cleaner” and more antiseptic world offers (such as declining to have such a “dangerous” thing as a canoe to rent at the boat dock)..

Regardless of such difficult issues and which park was the best park – which obviously different folks will see differently – Forest Park is an important part of the city of St. Louis, and the history of Loughlin and Anderson, sort of under review in this combination of notes on the book and personal reflections, is a book I highly commend to any reader. It is a “pretty” book and even though the photos are black and white, it is probably regarded by many as a “coffee table book.” Alas, such books tend to be owned by many, glanced at by many others and read by few. I, myself, have owned the book for years, consulted it often, but never really sat down and spent three weeks reading it with care until a few weeks ago. It is a book of richness and fascination to any who know and enjoy the park. I recommend you either pull out your own copy, or head on over to a local book store and get one — they sell it in several places in Forest Park including the Lindell Pavilion and Missouri Historical Society Museum, and I would guess at the zoo and art museum as well.