Tower Grove Park’s 150th anniversary commemorated in new book
In 1872, the Missouri Republican newspaper heralded the arrival of St. Louis' newest park beneath the headline: "A New Lung to the City."
Now, Tower Grove Park is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The park’s rich history is the subject of a new and lavishly illustrated coffee table book by local author Amanda E. Doyle. It explores the people, plants and buildings that have made the 276 acres in south St. Louis what it is today.
Inextricably tied to the beginning of Tower Grove Park is the Missouri Botanical Garden, which was founded 12 years before the park.
“Henry Shaw, who was the benefactor, creator and visionary of the Missouri Botanical Garden, also was all of those things for Tower Grove Park,” explained Amanda Doyle, author of “Tower Grove Park: Common Ground & Grateful Shade Since 1872.”
At 19 years old, in 1819, Shaw arrived in St. Louis by riverboat. He quickly made a fortune in the hardware business.
“At the ripe age of 39, [Shaw] thought he had made every dollar in the world he could ever possibly need,” Doyle said on St. Louis on the Air. “So then he spent a lot of time traveling, and he returned to England. He traveled elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world, and he saw these gardens of different kinds: public gardens, private gardens, a lot of them are called pleasure gardens.”
Shaw wanted to re-create what he saw elsewhere in St. Louis, a rapidly growing city — the fourth-most populated in the U.S. at the time.
“Lots of writing at the time referred to St. Louis as the next great future city of the world … and he really thought that we needed these kinds of public institutions to support the kind of community life that he thought would be required for a great city,” Doyle said.
Aside from many of the park’s structures and its roads, Tower Grove Park looks different today than it did in 1872. The area was on the outskirts of town, and the residential neighborhoods that today surround the park weren't yet built. Another key difference between then and now: the trees. The formerly treeless prairie only had fresh saplings. Today, Tower Grove Park is an internationally accredited Level II arboretum.
The activities in the park are different too. The Victorian-era park in the 1800s frowned upon sports — even kite flying was considered too boisterous. Today, the park is known for the sports played there and the festivals and annual events that call it home.
In many respects, the park was also a reflection of America’s history with segregation and racism. Henry Shaw envisioned the park as being for “all classes.” It wasn’t.
“Like so many things in St. Louis, the segregation that existed in the park was not codified anywhere but was informally understood by everyone,” Doyle explained. “The park never had written rules saying that Black people couldn't use the different facilities or weren't welcome in the park.”
However, park officials “tactfully discouraged” Black people from using the park at least up until the 1950s, when then-Superintendent Bernice Gurney recorded that the park “was no longer operated in a segregated fashion.”
The present and future of the park are more inclusive.
Recent projects such as the restoration of a historic stream have been completed in consultation with the Osage Nation. The Osage people were the inhabitants of the land for the longest period and were forced to cede it to the United States in 1808.
Other recent features of the park recognize the history and heritage of the Osage people.
“The Osage have a historical ancestral tie to this land and the park,” Doyle said. “Working with them to continue to make it a relevant place for people who live there now, but also people who have that kind of history, I think is the way forward for the next century and a half.”
What: Tower Grove Park’s Birthday Bash
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Tower Grove Park, 4257 Northeast Drive, St. Louis, MO 63110
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.