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Tower Grove Park Director Prepares To Leave After Nearly 30 Years

Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio

At the end the year, Tower Grove Park in south St. Louis will replace its director for only the fifth time in its 146 year history.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Joseph Leahy recently took a tour of the park with outgoing Director John Karel as he prepares to turn over his stewardship and place of residence after nearly three decades.


Getting The Job

LEAHY: How did you come to be the director of Tower Grove Park?

KAREL: I had, out of University of Missouri graduate school, taken a position with the State of Missouri and worked or them for almost ten years and had become the director of state parks, which is a political appointment. At one point there was an administrative change, so I rotated out of that and worked with the Missouri Parks Association and the University of Missouri on a couple of projects as a consultant and a co-author on a book about Missouri State Parks

And, then I got a call from an old friend, Eldridge Lovelace, who was on the Board of Commissioners of Tower Grove Park and he wanted me to come visit. I was familiar with the park as I had gone to high school a few blocks away from here at Saint Louis University High School. He indicated that there was a vacancy here and he wanted to talk to me about the park and how to build it back into the kind of positive civic asset that it was always intended to be and had been for a long time but had begun to slip a little bit. It had that in common with urban parks all over the country and there was a movement and counter revolution, if you will, to bring these wonderful urban parks back as living breathing parts of healthy cities.

"I fell in love with this wonderful place. So, I made a real commitment to it and it's been a deeply rewarding experience being connected with it..."

So, I came and was not certain if it was a short-term engagement or a consultancy or what, but I – like so many before me, like so many now and I hope like so many in decades yet to come – I fell in love with this wonderful place. So I made a real commitment to it and it's been a deeply rewarding experience being connected with it.

Working From Home

LEAHY: One thing many visitors here many not recognize or know about the park is that the director actually has residence here. Would you talk about why that is and what the experience is like to live in a park like this?

KAREL:  Our founder, Henry Shaw, had experiences traveling and reading and studying the parks of his native England and also around Europe. A very classic European idea is that the head of a facility would live on the grounds and thereby be totally invested and totally available and totally on call for the management [of the park] and a sense of identity.

Credit Rebecca Smith / St. Louis Public Radio
The director of Tower Grove Park has been required to keep residence on the grounds since the late 1860s.

So, early in its administrative history, this structure over here, which dates to the 1860s, was designated and utilized for the park director – in those days it was called a park superintendent – as a required condition of employment. In other words you had to live in the house in order to be in this position. The house, actually, was in pretty bad condition and it needed quite a bit of work and we found some private funding which allowed us to stop the leaks at least and move in and it's been a wonderful experience.

It's been the park superintendent's residence since the 1860s. So we moved in and have lived there for more than 27 years now.

LEAHY: As you’re preparing to leave your position as director, you also are preparing to leave your home. How does that feel?

KAREL: It's a big transition of course. To some of my friends, I refer to it as the vicarage here at the park: You know that it's not yours. There's certain ways that you relate to it emotionally that kind of protects you from a total nervous breakdown when you leave. So I've been doing that.

Restoring The Park

LEAHY: What were some of the challenges or problems facing the park when you got here?

"...The park was not as dangerous as its image would suggest, but it was becoming increasingly off-color. There were vice issues in the park, drug usage and that sort of thing..."

KAREL: Well, I'd say the park had an unsavory reputation. And that was having a negative impact on visitation. The numbers of visitors were less than 500,000 a year. The park was not as dangerous as its image would suggest, but it was becoming increasingly off-color. There were vice issues in the park, drug usage and that sort of thing. And, the trouble with that is it can become a downward spiral and the fewer people who come because of that then the worse the anti-social behavior becomes and you can end up in a real ditch.

So, the first agenda was to make the park as safe as possible and that, in turn, had a positive effect on the image of the park. We concentrated on the reality and it turned out the park just needed some upgrading in that field and then you know there were some administrative reform that we needed to do and some restructuring of things and clarifying our mission.

Credit Rebecca Smith / St. Louis Public Radio
When John Karel became director, the "mock ruins" at Tower Grove Park needed restoration "to reach an appropriate level of ruination," he said. "It was kind of an expensive project."

One of the first projects was to secure a designation from the federal government as a National Historic Landmark. That was certainly an important turning point. It's one of only a very few parks in the US that are national historic parks. There are a number that are on the National Register, but the national landmark status is the crème de la crème and it really speaks to what was most unique about Tower Grove Park, which was that it was an intact work of art. The park today is a reflection of how it came from the mind of its founder, Henry Shaw, a generous and wise donor from the very beginning. He would recognize this park today, if he came back and looked at it. That's really unusual and special and puts the park in a very special category.

LEAHY: When you got here was there any reason why the park was in the condition was in?

KAREL: I'd say the immediate cause was under-investment and the maintenance and capital repairs of the park facilities, as well as operations. But, I think we should put it in context: in the middle of the 20th century, Americans in general were turning their backs on our great cities. Think of Central Park in New York. Think of all the great parks. The parks were really a reflection of the fact that in the middle of the 20th century America wasn't sure of the relationship it wanted to have with the cities.

That led, I'm happy to say, to a reform movement that grabbed hold in the latter part of the 20th century where obviously we can't abandon our cities. If we're going to live in our cities and they're going to be viable, healthy enjoyable, productive places to live and work, they have to have beautiful, safe, clean, parks. So there is a real movement that sort of began in Central Park with the Central Park Conservancy and it spread to all major cities around the country. It spread to St. Louis and Forest Park Forever was an absolute reflection of that general movement and, in our small way, Tower Grove Park was as well.

"Meadows Of The Walnut Trees": Why The Park Is A Rectangle

KAREL: This park is laid out on an old prairie. This is the Prairie de Noyers. Henry Shaw bought it from French farmers that's why the park is in a long narrow rectangle shape, because the French farmers didn't farm the way that American and Anglo and German farmers did. They farmed in long narrow strips. So he bought some of these long narrow strips. In fact, he didn't even buy it in acres; he bought it in arpents which was the French division of land.

Credit Rebecca Smith / St. Louis Public Radio
French settlers who initially settled in St. Louis in the 18th C. called the area where Tower Grove Park is located the "Prairie des Noyers," or the Meadows of the Walnut Trees."

By the way, Henry Shaw was a Francophile and he related in a positive way to the French community. He also related in a positive way to the Italian community that began to move out here when he was here. He was an Italophile – loved Italian culture, especially music. He welcomed all these people. Tower Grove Park, when it opened in the 1870s, quickly became almost an international meeting ground. This was a place where they could come, relax, enjoy, become Americans. Guess what? It still is.

Inclusion And Segregation

KAREL: This part of St. Louis is still the most densely populated area. It's by far the most diverse, ethnically and economically still and if you come here on a weekend you can still hear four or five languages being spoken. I think that's a wonderful tradition, because it's the same tradition that Henry Shaw built for in the 1860s. It was a different group of languages, but it was still a place from new people to come.

LEAHY: Part of what I've heard about the park is that it was initially segregated. It was not intended for African Americans. Is that an aspect Shaw got wrong, because it seems like he did embrace multiculturalism and internationalism and everything else?

KAREL:  Absolutely. St. Louis was a segregated city. We still are living with some of the legacy of those days.  Henry Shaw was ahead of his time in many ways. We can't fault him if he wasn't ahead of his time in every single way, but the park was segregated as south St. Louis was segregated, as Forest Park was segregated until the middle of the 20th century, but that's very much changed. The park now opens its arms to everybody. It think it's an important refuge for people from all over the metropolitan area. It's a haven and a gathering place for really the most diverse population of people in the metropolitan area.

New Leadership

LEAHY: What plans do you have moving forward and what plans do you have for the park?

"We have a strong team here so I feel very good about the capacity of the park to make this transition to new leadership. I'm sure it will be successful..."

KAREL: Well, when I discussed it was time for my retirement with the Board of Commissionersthis summer, we came up with the idea that a six-month period would be a good transition period. Since then, they have formed a transition committee and they're in the process of strategizing the search for a replacement and I've certainly offered my assistance in helping with that. We have a strong team here so I feel very good about the capacity of the park to make this transition to new leadership. I'm sure it will be successful.

LEAHY: Do you have any advice for the incoming director?

KAREL: I would understand the privilege that it is to serve the people of St. Louis and the privilege that it is to be part of this wonderful tradition and to let this beautiful place continue to enrich the lives of our residents and our citizens and our visitors who come to St. Louis and to this park.

All of that is exciting and a high honor to be part of and I hope that they would respect that and remember that we can be cutting edge. We have a lot of new things going on here, new programs. The secret is to do that in such a way that we don't compromise the historical character of the landscape. In other words, we can have cutting edge new performing arts, or farmers' marketsor Food Truck Fridays or whatever, but we can do that in the context of what is so special and so unique about this park, which is that it is a work of art. It's as if it came fresh from the mind of its original designers and that makes it really interesting and unique in the country. It wouldn't be so interesting, if people didn't use it and didn't find it so rewarding and satisfying to come and experience it, but they do so let's build on that strength. Let's carry the tradition forward and let's understand that the park – we inherited it from our predecessors, but we're also borrowing it from our descendants. So, let's be respectful of our responsibility of that stewardship and try to turn it over to the next generation in better shape than we found it ourselves.

LEAHY: You mentioned visitors. Do you feel like there'll come a time when you feel like a visitor here as opposed to this feeling like home?

KAREL: We'll have to see won't we? I certainly intend to be no stranger here, but I also feel like the new generation of leaders will have to feel like they have an opportunity to develop their own style and their own approach and they don't need to be lectured to or hovered over by the old ex director. 

Credit Rebecca Smith / St. Louis Public Radio