A visit to St Louis, Missouri, is hardly complete without spending at least part of a day in Forest Park, the city's foremost social and cultural gathering place. For over 100 years the park has hosted events and been the site of many attractions for St Louis residents.
The park's recreational facilities include hiking and cycling trails, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and golf courses; in the winter visitors can ice skate on an open-air rink or go sledding in snowy weather. Other attractions include a zoo, a conservatory, performing arts venues and museums. Many attractions are free or charge a minimal admission.
Finally! A Place to Meet Me in St Louis
In the late 1800s, the city of St Louis began trying to establish a major park area for its residents. After a few false starts, Forest Park was designated in a deal that also established two other parks for the city: O'Fallon Park to the north and Carondelet Park to the South. Forest Park was located about two miles west of the city limit and was the largest of the three; covering 1,326 acres, it was more than four times the size of the other two parks together.
In 1874, when the park was established, it was mostly forested land (hence its name). The surrounding area was farmland with a few houses, and there were some industrial facilities a little ways to the south on the Wabash railroad line that cut through the north-east corner of the park's property. The park was bordered by King's Highway to the east and Skinker Road to the west; both were dirt roads and neither went into the city, so the only access to the park from the city was by train. There were no roads bordering on the north and south sides of the park.
In 1875, the city of St Louis became independent of St Louis County, and at this time the city limits were extended to include all three parks. It was still another ten years before a carriage road was completed from downtown to Forest Park.
By the time the carriage road was opened in 1885, much of the eastern end of the park had been developed. Roads trekked around waterways, picnic areas and a few bandstands in a picturesque setting for an afternoon jaunt. The local newspaper, the Post-Dispatch, began a campaign in the early 1890s to build a lake large enough for a boating facility. In the late 1890s, the St Louis Amateur Athletic Association built sporting facilities, including a clubhouse, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and a golf course over 70 acres in the south-east corner of the park.
The early layout of Forest Park also included a restaurant, a horse-racing track and a bandstand on an island in one of the lakes that could only be reached by bridges.
The 1904 World's Fair
With the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase approaching, plans began in the late 1890s to use Forest Park to host the centennial celebration. The agreement between the city and the parks department for use of the grounds stipulated that they would be returned to park use after the exposition closed. With this agreement in place, construction began in 1901 on venues for a fair in 1903. As plans for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition1 grew, the opening was put off until 1904 to allow for completion of all of the projects.
The fairgrounds covered 1,272 acres in the western end of Forest Park and some of the surrounding area. Exhibits represented 22 countries and 44 US cities, states and territories in addition to major exhibits for art, agriculture and industry, among others. To accommodate the fair, Forest Park had been transformed, with dozens of exhibit halls, a Plateau of States, an amusement area and eight major exhibition 'palaces', totalling approximately 900 buildings in all.
The contract for the World's Fair required that the fairgrounds be completely restored to park use within one year of the close of the fair. As a result, many of the structures were dismantled immediately, but full restoration of the park wasn't complete until sometime in 1913.
What the World's Fair Did for Forest Park
Three of the World's Fair structures remain standing. The World's Fair administration building was outside the boundary of Forest Park and is now Brookings Hall on the nearby Washington University campus2. The Palace of Fine Arts is now the home of the St Louis Art Museum. The museum sits atop Art Hill, overlooking the park's Grand Basin. The third structure that remains is the open-flight bird cage. At 228 feet long, 84 feet wide and 50 feet tall, it was the largest of its kind when it was built in 1904. It remains one of the largest open-flight cages in the world today and is one of the main attractions at the St Louis Zoo.
The proceeds from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition paid for a number of improvements to the park, beginning with updating the roads, bridges and sewers. A bronze statue of the city's patron saint, King Louis IX of France, was purchased from the fair organisers and moved from the main entrance of the fair to a nice spot in front of the Art Museum. The World's Fair Pavilion, a refreshment shelter, was built on the site of the Missouri Building, which burned down after the fair. The archives for the 1904 World's Fair are kept in the Jefferson Memorial building which was built on what had been the fair's main entrance. It was the first national monument to the country's third president, Thomas Jefferson, and commemorated his role in the Louisiana Purchase.
Need a Reason to Visit?
The train ride from downtown to Forest Park took 20 minutes in 1874. When the carriage road opened in 1885, the horse-drawn carriage ride was 40 minutes long. Today, the park is a quick ten-minute drive from downtown on Highway 40/64, or a 10- to 15-minute ride on the MetroLink train.
Forest Park is full of attractions for area residents and visitors alike. The art museum is considered the 'crown jewel' of the park; it is majestically lit at night and reflected in the lake at the foot of the Grand Basin below Art Hill. The museum is always free to visitors, although an admission may be charged for special exhibits.
The St Louis Zoo is widely regarded as one of the best in the world and is a source of pride for St Louisans. Zoo-goers enjoy many state-of-the-art animal exhibits, including a few hands-on areas3, plus animal shows, educational areas and a private railroad that tours the entire zoo grounds. Admission is free, but the parking lots are not (though there is free parking available on the streets), and some special exhibit areas require a small admission fee. Coolers and picnic lunches are welcome, making the zoo one of St Louis' best values.
The Missouri Historical Society operates the Missouri History Museum in the Jefferson Memorial building. Exhibits include the World's Fair, Charles Lindbergh and the Lewis and Clark expedition, among others. There is no charge to visit the museum.
The McDonnell Planetarium is a hyperboloid building overlooking Highway 40/64 that is now part of the St Louis Science Center, which is connected by an enclosed bridge over the highway. Admission to the Science Center is free, but there is an admission for planetarium shows.
The Muny is an outdoor theatre on an area of the park grounds selected for its natural geography: a gentle slope down to a flat 'stage' area with a forested backdrop. The area now has installed seating and professional amenities, but the natural surroundings remain. The Muny hosts a number of dramatic performances over the summer months, including a regular schedule of nationally touring shows. Seating prices vary, but there is always a section at the top of the slope of about 1,500 free seats. Get there early, though, as the free seats fill up fast — who can resist a fantastic show in the open air for free?
The Lindell Pavilion pre-dates the 1904 World's Fair. It was a streetcar pavilion until the streetcar tracks were removed during the preparations for the fair; after the fair it was remodelled and used as locker rooms for the sporting facilities. Today the Lindell Pavilion offers locker rooms, a visitor's centre, a café, multi-purpose rooms, internet access and an inclusive playground4.
During the cold winter months, visitors can enjoy ice skating on the outdoor Steinberg Skating Rink. And it doesn't take much snow on the ground to get the locals out sledding down Art Hill into the Grand Basin, a very popular pastime. The boathouse doesn't close for the winter, either — boats can be rented any time the lake isn't frozen. With the exception of the Muny, which does not have a winter schedule, all attractions in Forest Park are open year-round.
If the museums, shows and sporting facilities aren't enough to satiate your thirst for diversion, Forest Park also has a varied list of annual events that are hosted in the park.
On Easter Sunday, car enthusiasts can appreciate the best of the old and new at the Horseless Carriage Club's Concours d'Elegance and the St Louis Street Rod Association Car Show. The Concours d'Elegance showcases original and restored classic cars, while the Street Rod Association welcomes classic and new 'pimped out' street rods. The shows take place on the upper and lower Muny parking lots, respectively.
Every spring, the Shakespeare Festival of St Louis puts on a production of one of the Bard's plays in the park. The show is, of course, different every year, and free to the public. Performances usually run for about a month.
The Great Forest Park Balloon Race takes place in mid-September. The grounds around the World's Fair Pavilion are crowded with about 70 hot air balloons on Friday evening for a 'balloon glow'5. The following afternoon, the balloons lift off for a 'hound and hare'-style race over the skies of downtown St Louis. The glow and the race are both free.
October sees the St Louis Wine Festival, which features wines from around the town and around the world, food from local restaurants and live music by local jazz and blues bands.
Forest Park in St Louis is located on US40/I64 between Kingshighway Boulevard, Lindell Boulevard and Skinker Boulevard. It is enjoyed by more than 12 million visitors annually.