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Model Forest Park gates get pushback from public and AIA, as well as support

Model of entrance markers for Forest Park
Ben Senturia

A largely ornamental $3 million construction program announced this summer for Forest Park -- one presented as a way to provide visitors a comprehensive idea what that big, leafy, attractive expanse of woodlands, savannas, golf courses, ball fields, fish ponds and cultural institutions between Kingshighway and Skinker actually is -- made a full-scale move ahead when prototypical models of gates, or entrance markers, appeared at two places.

Eventually all eight major entrances to the park would have various renditions of these gates built beside them. The two sites boasting models recently were the Skinker Boulevard-Wells Drive entrance and the DeBaliviere Avenue and Lindell Boulevard entrance to the park, two prominent, highly visible and well-traveled entrances. The installations were temporary and the models were removed. However, Forest Park Forever hopes to bring out the models again in early December. While the markers have their fans, focused criticism has developed along with generous advice from the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The idea driving construction of gates is that the park is a difficult-to-navigate maze, and that somehow the entrance construction will signal a visitor that, once inside the park, answers to navigational questions will present themselves. The navigation answers are there – Forest Park Forever and the City have completed interconnected systems to provide ample guidance for wayfaring through the park.

No wayfaring information appears on these entrance marker models, however; only the name “Forest Park” appears, fore and aft. The $3 million worth of gates would affirm that the big grass carpeted, woodland expanse, with its grand buildings such as the Jefferson Memorial and the St. Louis Art Museum visible from the streets, is indeed a park.

Those architecturally imposing buildings must have been in the minds of the designers of the gates and the advisory board that commissioned them. Another influence on the design is the grand entrances to the nearby private residential places. That aspect of them – the notion of privacy and the intimation of exclusivity -- is addressed by conservationist and environmentalist Ben Senturia.

Senturia is not an architecture critic, but as an engaged citizen he has paid attention to the built environment as well as the natural one, for which he has been an articulate advocate his entire adult life. He appreciates the work done by Forest Park Forever.

"It's a good organization," he said, "and it has done a good job restoring and maintaining Forest Park. So I was surprised to see the mockup, which seemed out of place for Forest Park." His Facebook reaction was, "It looks like something at the entrance to a private luxury neighborhood -- not appropriate for a park or woods."

Forest Park Forever keeps no records of remarks it has received, public relations officer Katy Peace said. Here, however, are a few remarks logged in Facebook that came after Senturia’s comments.

Michael DeFilippo said if a reader wanted something besides architectural design to be angry about that the models are made of Styrofoam, a notoriously difficult-to-recycle material and one that generally is non-biodegradable, at least not in a reasonable amount of time.

Larry White and Patrick Harvey were supporters, however. “Looks OK to me. Sorry,” White wrote. And Harvey said, “Looks okay to me. I like understated.”

Steve Nagle said, “I thought the concept of gateways to Forest Park was put to rest 10 years ago in favor of a blending of the park into the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Perhaps the suggestion was made 13 years ago when foliage-inspired gates designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin were rejected by a cranky and restless public.

Bill Wischmeyer, an architect, doesn’t agree particularly with the blending-in idea suggested by Nagle although he supports a study underway by St. Louis and Forest Park Forever to improve the connectivity of the park to the city.

Wischmeyer knows the park having been responsible for the renovation of the Jewel Box, the south entrance to the Zoo and the Council Circle, an amphitheater of stone, shouldering up to a creek, adjacent to a woodland path and surrounded by trees and vegetation. H​e is against any sort of monumental material construction at the entrances to the park, preferring instead the intensification of landscaping at the entrances as a means of calling attention to the singular glories of the park.

Forest Park Forever and St. Louis have already gone to sensible, practical and imaginative lengths to solve wayfaring problems, perpetual and transitory, inside the boundaries of the Park.

What isn’t recognized fully is that the care and attention given to the design of these markers and the execution of the program that supports them is required by St. Louis. As project engineer Dave Lenczycki described it, the processes of the advisory board, representing Forest Park Forever and the City of St. Louis, have has been lengthy and extremely cautious, the caution likely because of the responses to Halprin’s design.

The budget, which may sound adequate, is tight, Lenczycki said. Each capital project must go through a nine-step approval process and rigorous examination of design plans. Although the 1995 master plan for Forest Park improvements provides specific instructions for many projects, entrance markers and wayfinding materials aren’t among the specified.

The Forest Park entrance markers will be slightly different depending on the location.
Credit SWT Design | Provided by Forest Park Forever
Artist renderings

In 2014, signs were proposed for entrances, and that plan was rejected by the advisory board. “With that as an overarching principal,” Lenczycki said, “it was decided to explore other plans that the advisory board would support.”

And so the designer, SWT Design, St. Louis, slowly went through a design process, Lenczycki said, and on June 15 this year, it presented basically what is shown in renderings and what has been realized in three dimensions and installed at the two chosen entrances. Wind and weather haven’t helped with this architectural demonstration, but in spite of the troubles, Lenczycki says that he and his staff have heard overwhelmingly positive responses from the public.

Lenczycki’s description of the design indicates scrupulous attention to regulations and a genuine concern for finding an adequate solution to a perceived problem and a vague mention in a 20-year-old document.

But it doesn’t really matter if a visitor  lives in Swansea or Lemay or Clayton or is a visitor from out of town, anyone with a GPS or a map or a functioning sense of direction can find Forest Park, and once there, the gates melt into a puddle of superfluity. What matters is what guidance is available inside the park – and that guidance is significant and abundant already.

Week before last, Michelle Swatek, executive director of the American Institute of Architect’s St. Louis chapter wrote to Lesley Hoffarth, Forest Park Forever’s president. After thanking Hoffarth and Forest Park Forever for their continued and diligent work on park improvements, she continued:

“I am writing on behalf of the AIA St. Louis Board of Directors to comment on the proposed gates for Forest Park:

“Each entry to Forest Park has its own character, scale and context. Their common characteristic is that they are openings into the park’s landscape.

“Design solutions of a landscape nature rather than using architectural elements would be more appropriate and more welcoming. They could also reflect the uniqueness of each of entry most effectively.

“We understand the temptation to relate to the historic private street gate structures in St. Louis. But Forest Park in 2015 needs broad, welcoming and individually unique entries, not the suggestion of gates. It also seems unimportant to formally identify the edges of the park or announce the entries since both edges and entries are apparent.

“We hope that Forest Park Forever will try again to find welcoming and unique landscape designs for each of the entries to this magnificent park.

This is the time to reach beyond the ordinary,” Swatek concluded, “to find the best and the most appropriate designs. Should you wish to discuss, we would be happy to meet with you.”

Good sense, that, with the added and attractive offer for officials to take a walk in the park with the AIA.