A Visit to Forest Park, the Crown Jewel of the 108 St. Louis City Parks

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Forest Park is one of St. Louis’ 108 parks. It is the largest park and is clearly the crowned jewel of the park system. Per the city website:

Forest Park was dedicated on June 24, 1876, coinciding with the centenary of the United States Declaration of Independence. It played host to the 1904 World’s Fair and Summer Olympics. The 1,300-acre park offers something for everyone — amazing destinations and institutions that challenge the mind, a Dual Path system that invites both leisurely walks and intense workouts, quiet places to picnic and read, and a variety of popular festivals and events — all set in the background of a city oasis, a place to escape it all.

This is one of the most visited places in the city. The park benefits from a rare St. Louis County – St. Louis City pooling of public moneys with the creation of a special taxing district where the vast suburbs of St. Louis County pay taxes to three institutions within Forest Park, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Zoo, and St. Louis Science Center, as part of the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD). The park itself is funded by a combination of City of St. Louis taxes and donations to the non-profit Forest Park Forever.

Just look at what can be accomplished when resources are pooled! We have a world-class art museum, zoo, history museum and planetarium…all in Forest Park. Oh, and don’t forget the Muny, Steinberg Ice Rink or the Jewel Box.

{Bird’s Eye View from Forest Park Forever (source)}

The surrounding areas of this sprawling park include some of St. Louis’ most swanky neighborhoods including Skinker-DeBaliviere, Central West End, Wydown-Skinker and DeBaliviere Place but Forest Park is also flanked by very affordable yet equally charming neighborhoods to the south including Hi-Pointe, Clayton-Tamm, Kings Oak and Cheltenham.

Now, you can’t talk about the park without mentioning Forest Park Forever (FPF).

“At 1,300 acres, Forest Park is one of the largest parks set in an urban environment in the U.S., surpassing New York’s Central Park by 500 acres. Much like other parks in urban cores around the country, heavy use — combined with decades of deferred maintenance — took their toll; by the 1980s, Forest Park was in an alarming state of decline.

Forest Park Forever was created in 1986 as a private, nonprofit organization to work in partnership with the City of St. Louis to reverse this downward trend and strive to make Forest Park a premier American urban park once again.” (source)

Forest Park Forever has done an amazing job re-investing in the park. And the good news just keeps rolling in for the park as a historic donation was made:

June 10, 2015 – Forest Park Forever announced today it has received a gift of $30 million from Enterprise Holdings founder Jack C. Taylor and his family. This gift marks the largest donation Forest Park Forever has received in its 29-year history and one of the largest gifts to support a public park in the United States. The Taylor family has designated the entirety of this gift toward Forest Park Forever’s endowment, which provides support for the maintenance and operations of Forest Park. (source)

As a result of the hard work and dedication of FPF, the current state of the park is nothing short of stunning. Not only has FPF raised a tremendous amount of money and volunteer capital for infrastructure and hardscape, they have paid special attention to wildlife-sensitive and Missouri-native plantings. They have also done the little things, like not cutting down all the dead trees which are critical habitat for several denizens of the park.

There are surprises around every corner. Everyone likely has their favorite spots, and in order to properly take in this park as a whole, you have to do it by foot. But that is not to say the park is only a pedestrian park. The park is accessible by foot, bike, stroller, Metro Link, Metro Bus’ Forest Park Trolley and car.

Navigating the park has recently become much easier with the installation of beautiful and well-placed maps and way-finding signage:

So, in order to broaden the approach on covering this park, a collaboration was in order. A recent effort of the City of St. Louis’ Web Content Specialist/Writer was updating the data on the City’s park website; they reached out to a small group of like-minded, outspoken park enthusiasts. That small group included, among others: Claire Wolff, Nick Speiser, Sonia Emmons and Liz Kramer from the website “Park Picnic Project” and myself; all city explorers vowing to visit and talk about each park in St. Louis.

We decided to get together and talk about ways to give Forest Park a proper shake. We decided to break the park up into four sections and split up to give the four corners of the park a different perspective.

Here are the arbitrary borders of our sections:

I covered section 1, Claire, Liz and Nick took sections 2 and 4 and Sonia covered section 3. We made separate, in some cases repeat trips to the park to take it in and capture the essence of the park. We converged over coffee and hot chocolate at Rise Coffee in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood to share photos, talk strategy and tell our stories.

One common thing that stuck out was that this park is functioning like a healthy city park should. At most parks you will see fisherman, joggers, picnickers, kids playing, adults exercising, etc. This park had it all and in the greatest numbers of any park we’d visited.The park goers in Forest Park were from all walks of life. More than any other park, this is a perfect cross section of all of St. Louis as well as the inner ring suburbs of Clayton and University City. The level of diversity is high and it is easy to feel comfortable no matter who you are in the park. There is something there for everyone, and probably many others. The overall activity and healthy vibe in the park is infectious and inviting.

Not only are there world-class cultural institutions, facilities for multiple sports (jogging, cycling, softball, rugby, football, hand ball, racquet ball, cricket, tennis, golf, archery, etc.), ponds, lagoons, brooks, picnic pavilions, historical markers, statues, and fountains there are also woods in the Kennedy Forest on the southwest corner of the park. This is more than just a tourist destination, it is a neighborhood park and a regional gathering place all at the same time. This is everyone’s space.

We took hundreds of photos and there is a lot you can say about the history and the recent renaissance of the park. You could easily write a book about the Zoo, Art Museum, etc alone. We decided to take the approach of keeping it short and simple and letting the photos do most of the talking.
Simply jump to the sections below to follow each of our lenses and perspectives on Forest Park.

This final park post completes my personal goal to visit and write about all 111 St. Louis parks, now officially 108 parks after the City revisited the published list. Thanks to Liz, Claire, Nick, Sonia, Jeff Wunrow and Cari Cleeland. You guys make me hopeful for the future of St. Louis.

Section 1: Mark Groth

The first section is along the western and northern edges of the park, defined by Lindell Boulevard to the north, Skinker Boulevard to the west, south to roughly ½ of the park. Then, due east, following Fine Arts Drive north to Lagoon Drive east to Grand Drive to Kingshighway.

This section of Forest Park was bustling with people walking, jogging, cycling, skating, etc.  In fact the thing that struck me was that every amenity was in heavy use, bustling with positive energy and activity.  Handball, racquetball, golf, playgrounds, Lindell field with soccer, rugby and medieval battlers…this section of the park was hopping.

I started on the northeast  corner of the park at Kingshighway and Lindell.  This corner of the park affords fantastic views of the Central West End neighborhood and specifically the Chase Park Plaza.

Heading south and west from the corner, you will come across a statue dedicated to Frank Preston Blair (1821-1875).

Blair was a Union officer, lawyer, politician in the Lincoln cabinet and defender of St. Louis from the secessionist movement.

Blair’s statue was dedicated in 1885 by General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Nothing I am going to discuss herein will be as well researched and carefully presented as the Forest Park Forever website which has excellent write ups on each of the monuments within the park. CLICK HERE to read those. The Forest Park Forever website is essential reading and viewing for anyone interested in the park.

Head south and west from this statue and you will come across the Jewish Tercentenary Monument, commemorating the 300th Anniversary of Jews arriving in North America circa 1654. The monument was dedicated in 1956 and the site was renovated at the request of Forest Park Forever in 1989, raising the monument and adding stairs, fountains, lighting and Lopata Plaza, a beautiful and peaceful spot to relax and take in the park and the bustling city.

Heading west along West Pine, you can’t help but notice the hundreds of new trees planted and carefully placed throughout the entire park. Diversity of species, both conifers and deciduous mark the walk. Older, dying trees are allowed to remain providing valuable habitat for owls and other species who have set up living spaces in the trees. This level of care and consideration will serve the park well into the future.

Eventually heading west on Lindell Boulevard, you come to another peaceful scene with a reflecting pond called Murphy Lake.

The Metrolink trains cut through the park in this section, giving the park a big city feel. Benches on the south side of the lake provide excellent views of the mansions across the street.

Continue heading west along Lindell Boulevard near the Union Boulevard entrance to the park, you will come to the Cabanne House.  Built in 1819, this is the first brick farmhouse west of the Mississippi River (I LOVE St. Louis…Gateway to the West).  The house is easily accessible and can be rented out for events.

Walking west along Grand Drive you come to Confederate Way, marking Missouri’s conflicted involvement in the Civil War at the crossroads of the Union and Confederate causes.  The monument was dedicated in 1914 under much controversy due to St. Louis being a Union stronghold during the war.

Just north is a Spanish cannon from 1783 used in the Spanish-American War and installed here in 1901.  Read the fascinating history of “the Inspector” HERE.

On one my visits, I stumbled upon a group of role playing/medieval battlers dueling near Lindell Field…it seems nearly every part of the park is under heavy use and enjoyment…not one section is inactive or uncared for.

Heading west you come to the Dennis and Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center.  If you are traveling to Forest Park for the first time or coming as a tourist, I recommend getting a cup of coffee in the cafe and reading up on the park and signing up for a guided tour.

Walk west of the building and you come across the Dennis & Judith Jones Variety Wonderland Playground, a half-acre, state-of-the-art playground specifically designed for kiddo’s both able-bodied and those with disabilities.  It’s shielded by tall conifers and is a treat to take in. Damn near came to tears when I brought my kids back to this place…a great, healthy place to playfully mingle with amazing kids of all sizes and abilities.  Amazing.

This part of the park is home to Lindell Field where soccer and rugby were being played, racquetball and handball courts are also in this section…both under use on every visit I made.

Just north and west of the welcome center is the Missouri History Museum dedicated in 1913. The older portion of the museum is the Jefferson Memorial Building. It was constructed on the site of the main entrance to the 1904 World’s Fair. The buildingwas the first memorial built in honor of President Thomas Jefferson.

Heading west from the History Museum, you will wander through a golf course.  Natural borders and wild “roughs” mark the neatly trimmed fairways, tee boxes and greens.  The Norman K. Probstein Golf Course and Youth Learning Center is the handsome headquarters for adult play and kid’s golf lessons.

{“…be the ball, be the ball Danny…”}

Head up Lagoon Drive from Skinker and you’ll hit Fine Arts Drive right at the Edward Bates statue.  This statue is the oldest in the park, dedicated in 1876 to Bates, the first Attorney General of Missouri who helped draft the original Missouri state constitution.

Head south on Fine Arts Drive and you come to the end of my tour….the St. Louis Art Museum and the Louis IX of France (1214–70) statue, one of St. Louis’ most iconic works of public art.

Look to your right just before the Art Museum and notice yet another iconic public sculpture, “Placebo”, the first outdoor sculpture commissioned by SLAM in 2004.

This section of the park is one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire city with Art Hill, a popular winter sledding destination, affording spectacular view of the Grand Basin.

Mansions, highrise condos, churches and Washington University line the park along Skinker and Lindell Boulevards, and the architecture is nothing short of stunning, a great frame for the park.

Claire, Liz and Nick on Section 2 including the zoo, Kennedy Forest and Turtle Park.

Sonia on Section 3 including the Grand Basin, Muny, Boathouse and Steinberg Icerink.

Claire, Liz and Nick on Section 4 including Central Fields, the Jewel Box and the Planetarium.

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  • Scott Ogilvie

    Great tour of the country’s best urban park Mark! I just want to quibble with the paragraph about the ZMD – yes, the County helps support four ZMD institutions within the park via property tax, but their funding does not extend to the park itself. City of St. Louis taxpayers and donors to Forest Park Forever combined support the investment in and maintenance of the grounds of Forest Park. Not that we’d turn down some money from them if they offered it, they just haven’t yet 🙂

    • Alex Ihnen

      Ah, yes. This guy needs an editor! 🙂 It’s been updated.

  • Rocky Stone

    Amazing tour!