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Beacon blog: Wischmeyer, Karel and the possibility of parks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2010 - The exciting news from the Arch grounds took precedence in the Beacon's reporting on civic affairs and urban planning this week. We are proud to say our news organization continued its assiduous watch on the project and was quick and nimble in bringing our readers news of the selection of Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates of Brooklyn as designer of the ambitious and necessary project. The Beacon was tipped off by the UrbanSTl.com blog;  following its lead, we put up our report as quickly as possible, well ahead of other media in the region.

That little self-congratulatory pat on the back aside, I want to offer congratulations to all concerned, to everyone who dedicated so much time and visionary energy to the competition, as well as to the Van Valkenburgh group, which rode the contest merry-go-round hell to leather and claimed the golden jubilee ring earlier this week.

But that is not the only good news in regard to parks in the region.

Last week, on a particularly spectacular afternoon that appeared to bring promise of autumn, the Beacon was summoned to two happy celebrations. The first was a birthday party thrown for an old and valued friend of mine, William Wischmeyer, by his wife, Regina. Bill and I were at Washington University together in the 1960s and now we are both in our 60s.

In a rather counter-intuitive fashion, birthday celebrations become more important, if more poignant, as we get older. There is a tendency of some getting-oldsters to skip the celebrating, simply because all those candles and corny senior citizen jokes serve not to enliven us but to remind us of the passage of time, of missed opportunities and to turn up the volume of the racket kicked up by time's winged chariot's hurrying near.

Bill Wischmeyer, however, seemed to bask in the glory of this birthday. It is important to say here that he is courageous and not the sort to be frightened by the noise of any old winged chariot. He navigates the world, in fact, with a disability that might stall a lesser mortal. Bill, however, has integrated this existential reality into his being, and he proceeds with it, with vigor and admirable grace.

Bill is an architect, a good one, and is a member of a family that has gravitated to that noble calling. He is a staunch preservationist as well, and has served the Landmarks Association of St. Louis for many years as an officer and a faithful member and contributor. His wife, Gina, who wears Corbusier-inspired eyeglasses, actually looks the architect part more than Bill. The place she chose for his party was a natural: the Deer Lake Council Circle she and Bill commissioned and donated to Forest Park, and thus to the people of the region.

I stumbled on the circle last spring, soon after it was completed. It is off a gravel path that originates just behind the equestrian monument to Franz Sigel, where Union Boulevard dead-ends at the park's Grand Avenue. We used it as a performance space for one of the Beacon Festival events in early July, soon after its official dedication. It is the definition of serene, just what the donors wanted.

Gina Wischmeyer said, however, she and Bill had another purpose in mind for the council circle, and that was to provide a place for children to be introduced to and to become accustomed to nature. The circle provided a destination for children who want to bring their families into an untamed place, the better to share their discoveries about natural world around us.

"I've been involved in outdoor education, first through the College School and then the Missouri Botanical Garden. I noticed, when working at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, that some children were fearful when they first encountered nature. I wanted to provide a place in a public park where they could experience it," she said.

The Wischmeyers live in an apartment building with a spectacular view of Forest Park.

"Looking over the park everyday we thought it would be nice to have a place for that purpose." They found the Deer Lake site particularly beautiful and quiet, and it offered what was needed to accomplish their plans. Gina said her husband admired the work of the Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951) and his work inspired and informed the design of the circle. Bill Wischmeyer, of course, had a hand in the design, taking off from the work of Jensen. Jim Fetterman of Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum was the project architect and Tim Hudwalker was project coordinator with BSI Constructors.

The party was festive as can be. Lots of food and drink were set up at the edge of the circle, at the edge of the creek that runs through the site. A spendid group of friends wandered down the path, and those who had not happened upon this Wischcircle before were astonished by its beauty and by the impression it had been in that place forever. It rests that lightly on the land.

All of us gathered round to express our admiration of the Wischmeyers' particularly appropriate philanthropy and to wish heartily that Bill will have many happy returns of his day. And for a moment at least, the experience was a present to me, too - an opportunity to leave pressures and troubles outside the peacefulness of the circle, and - like Gina's students - I felt fortunate to experience the gentle power of this alliance of nature and of art.

Simultaneously, another celebration was taking place in a cherished city park, this one at Tower Grove Park, one more gem in the diadem of extraordinary St. Louis resources. Tower Grove Park was developed by the legendary Henry Shaw, and was conveyed by him to the city on Oct. 20, 1868. What a marvelous and durable gift!

However, not so long ago, the park was in trouble and more than simply frayed at the edges. In 1987, a new director, John Karel, came along, and good things began to happen. Karel saw the pressing need to rescue this Victorian-era masterpiece for the region and its people, and with the help of a board possessing plenty of civic and financial muscle, set about to improve it.

The results of his labors are evident everywhere in Mr. Shaw's park. The party last week marked the latest in a series of renovations. This one was work done on one of the park's most fascinating features, the Ruin and Fountain Pond just south of the (restored) Palm House and the (restored) lily pond in front of it.

Shaw, like many intellectuals and landed gentryfolk of his era, was a sucker for the romance of ruins, real or faux. As an Englishman he had seen plenty of these "follies" and actual ruins scattered around the British countryside. Why not a ruin of his own, for the benefit of his new countrymen and countrywomen?

The year before Shaw conveyed the park to the city, the massive Lindell Hotel downtown on Washington between 6th and 7th streets was destroyed by fire. Shaw picked up pieces from it, and constructed his sprawling folly in his park. This ruin and the pond in front of it is so magnetic that it has formed the backdrop for a thousand-thousand pictures of brides and other folks fond of the genuinely picturesque.

The Ruins and Fountain Pond got run over by time's winged chariot, so Karel and the board went after the money needed to fix it up -- for future brides and others, for children who use it to launch their sailboats and for early morning runners like me, who pause there to literally reflect. A snappy-looking group gathered ruin-side the other evening for a drink and hors d'oeuvres. The composition of the group included members, movers, shakers, neighbors and other folks who love this park and support those who are stewards of it.

Emerson has been particularly supportive of the Park, and the company provided funds for the renovation of Tower Grove Park's three lily ponds, as well as for the splendid renovation of the Ruins and Fountain Pond we cheered last week. The generosity and good citizenship of the St. Louis-based company was applauded warmly at the ceremony, and I repeat the gesture in this blog today.

Parks matter. So do those who care for them, and care about them and watch to make sure they not only survive, but also thrive.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.