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Malcolm Martin's lifelong dream of Illinois park across from Arch finally becomes real

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2009 - Even on a rainy day, the Gateway Arch is spectacular when viewed from Malcolm W. Martin's field of dreams on the East St. Louis riverfront.

Come Saturday, the Mississippi River Overlook, a new tiered 43-foot tall viewing platform will be hands-down the very best place to take a postcard shot of the St. Louis skyline -- or to watch the Gateway Geyser shoot 630 feet into the sky, reaching the height of the Arch.

The new park, which is operated by the Metro East Park and Recreation District, is named for Martin, a St. Louis attorney and philanthropist, who was determined to create a public park directly across the river from the Arch. Martin, who died in 2004, founded the nonprofit Gateway Center of Metropolitan St. Louis in 1968 to acquire the land on the Illinois riverfront and raise funds for the park. Martin, a lifelong bachelor, left his estate to fund his dream.

"Malcolm would have loved this,'' said Marshall Hier, president of Gateway Center, from under his umbrella, as he conducted a sneak preview of the viewing tower Wednesday in the soaking rain.

At the top level, Hier pointed out a bronze sculpture of Martin that was still under wraps until Saturday's official park opening. The likeness, created by St. Louis sculptor Harry Weber, is seated on the edge of a granite sitting area, facing west -- a tribute to the man who used to observe the Arch from the 24th floor of his downtown law firm, Martin, Peper and Martin. Martin hoped to fulfill the original vision of Arch architect Eero Saarinen who believed the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial should have extended to both sides of the river.

Martin saw the Gateway Geyser, which began operation in 1995, as the focal point of the park. In 2005, Gateway Center transferred title of the fountain and 34.1 acres of ground to the park district, along with about $15 million for development and ongoing maintenance.

Since then, the district has quietly gone about development of the grounds. The viewing platform, designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK) features walkways that are lit at night and wheelchair accessible. It is tall enough so that viewers can see the Mississippi over the East St. Louis levee.

Hier said that Martin never faltered in his quest to establish the park.

"Malcolm's persistence was simply that of a good man who believed that it wasn't necessary to complete one's vision in one's own time if one were able to inspire others to pursue it," Hier said. "When he died at age 91 -- one month short of 92 -- in 2004, he knew that he would never see the completion of his dreams, but that would not have bothered Malcolm.''

Mike Buehlhorn, executive director of the park district, predicts that the site could eventually draw 300,000 to 400,000 people a year to see the inspiring view of the Arch. Future plans call for construction of a permanent security building with public restrooms.

The park district, which is responsible for the development of parks and trails in Madison and St. Clair Counties, used no public funds for the park, he said.

Buehlhorn praised Martin's vision -- and the persistence of Hier and Gateway Center."You have no idea what it's like to be at the end of someone's dream,'' he said. "Those people made this happen."

After Saturday's opening ceremonies, the park, which has its own 24-hour security team, will be open year round with hours varying by season. It is located next to the Cargill grain elevator, two doors down from the Casino Queen.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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