Fairground Park: What History Remains

For many St. Louis area residents, Fairground Park is a faded memory, or an unrecognized part of the city and its history. Before St. Louis was nationally and internationally recognized for Forest Park and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the city hosted the annual Agricultural and Mechanical Fair (1856-1902), drawing crowds from around the country. The 132-acre Fairground Park is situated in north St. Louis at the intersection of North Grand Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue.

The land that is now Fairground Park was the site of this fair for half a century. The city’s website for the park describes the old fairgrounds, which included exhibition halls, a racetrack and jockey club, and the largest amphitheater in the country at the time it was built. In 1876, St. Louis’s first zoological garden was constructed on the fairgrounds of the Agricultural and Mechanical Fair. The city’s original zoo included a monkey house, a carnivore house, and a bear pit, among other attractions.[1] In the space that is now Fairground Park, St. Louis established itself as one of the country’s preeminent cities.

In 1908, six years after the last fair was held on these fairgrounds, the city purchased the land for use as a public park. The renowned landscape architect, and the designer of the grounds for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, George Kessler, was responsible for the design of Fairground Park. While most of the fair’s structures were removed, the façade of the bear pit from the city’s original zoo remained as part of Kessler’s park design. Despite the dismantling of the old zoological garden’s structures, between 1910 and 1913, Fairground Park was considered as a potential site on which the Zoological Society of St. Louis might have established the Saint Louis Zoo that area residents know and love today.[2]

Today, the only remnant of the fair and the only reminder of the park’s history as a fairground is this façade. It sits at the northwest corner of Grand Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue. The city’s website claims that the façade “still guards the park’s main entrance like a medieval castle and [serves] as a reminder of the glory days of the popular St. Louis fair.”[3] However, the façade is in need of significant repairs and lacks any signage that reveals the history of this feature or of the park. This picture, taken on November 10, 2010, shows boarded doorways and broken windows and reveals a lack of care in the maintenance of the aesthetic appeal of this piece of St. Louis’s history. Moreover, the appearance of the façade hardly encourages visitors to enter the park as its solid face appears more imposing than inviting.

{bear pit facade today – photo by author}

{bear pit facade in an undated photo – courtesy of stlouis.missouri.org}

If you enter the park from the south, west, or north, you get a very different view of this remnant of the city’s original zoo. The photograph below is the view that park users have of the facade as they approach it on foot from inside the park. You can see the turrets of the bear pit on the left hand side of the photograph, but the visual landscape is dominated by fencing and maintenance equipment.

Despite the fact that the park houses a separate maintenance building at its northwest corner at the intersection of Kossuth and Fair Avenues, this corner, on the opposite side of the park, has become a repository for the maintenance equipment for both Fairground Park and O’Fallon Park. At the end of the work day, this area will be full of trucks, lawn mowers, and other maintenance machinery, and later in the season, it will also house picnic tables and benches that the city removes from the parks for the winter months.

{maintenance equipment storage with bear pit facade at far left – photo by author}

The deteriorating condition of the bear pit and the open-air storage of maintenance machinery at the “park’s main entrance” reveal a lack of concern for preserving the park’s history. The façade of the old bear pit, which is the last remnant of part of St. Louis’ rich cultural heritage, barely masks the industrial equipment stored behind it today.

{bear pit facade with fence enclosing maintenance equipment storage – photo by author}

For those who are familiar with the park’s history, the structure represents an underutilized opportunity to expand area residents’ understanding of their city’s past. As the façade is used now, it is just that: a mask. It obscures land use that is a certain violation of Kessler’s early vision for the park, and it eschews the part of the city’s history that it represents. The seeming disinterest and lack of effort in preserving or showcasing this historic structure or this historic park exposes the general disconnect between residents of north St. Louis and residents of the larger metropolitan area. Our desire to recognize and our willingness to forget specific stories of our city’s past reflect those things which we value today.

{Fairgrounds grandstand and track circa 1895 – courtesy of stlouis.missouri.org)

{an early map of the “Fair Grounds” – courtesy of stlouis.missouri.org}

[1] “Fairground Park,” City of St. Louis Community Information Network , http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov/parks/parks_div/fairground.html (accessed 11 November 2010).
[2] “A Zoo is Born,” Saint Louis Zoo website, http://www.stlzoo.org/home/history/azooisborn.htm (accessed 16 November 2011).
[3] “Fairground Park,” City of St. Louis Community Information Network website, http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov/parks/parks_div/fairground.html (accessed 11 November 2010).