Call them entry markers or portals or entrances or doorways — call them by any of those names, just don’t call these in-the-works architectural structures planned to start appearing around Forest Park in the spring “gates.”
Why? Almost 14 years ago a grand plan for elaborately designed ceremonial gates fell into an unceremonious heap.
Had they been fabricated and installed, those gates would have swept up from the ground at major entrances to the park to form branches over drives and walkways leading into one of our most cherished public resources.
The concept featured an effulgent weaving of metal vines and branches, a stylistic joining of l’art nouveau and futuristic construction. Visually it offered to pay homage to the park’s name.
The late landscape architect and urban designer Lawrence Halprin created it. He was prolific and highly regarded — among other designs of his are the FDR monument in Washington, D.C., the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, and in suburban St. Louis, the fountain plazas at the Northwest Plaza shopping center in St. Ann, now being redeveloped as The Crossings at Northwest.
The public put a heavy-handed kibosh on Halprin’s design. While there were whispers of informed criticism having to do with the romanticizing of the primary entrances to the park, along with the general grandiloquence of the designs, much of the venom came from the don’t-know-what’s-good-but-I-know-what-I-like school of thought.
St. Louis and Forest Park Forever caved, having seen thumbs-down public opinion polls. Their patron, the Gateway Foundation, which created Citygarden in downtown St. Louis, took its offer and went home.
The coup-de-grâce fell on Sept. 11, 2001, a day of frightening losses of life and political and culture-altering horror. In a joint announcement, the Parks Department and Forest Park Forever announced the plan would not be implemented. In a Post-Dispatch interview on 9/11, Halprin told me he was desolated and appalled. The response to his designs was vindictive, he said, and the negative reactions were exacerbated by media coverage.
“I feel very badly about it,” Halprin said. “I went in with great hopes.” The citizens of the city didn’t get what he was proposing. “Most of the comments didn’t relate to what we were trying to do.”
Halprin didn’t fully appreciate St. Louis’ suspicion of what appears to be bizarre, but in any event, the cyclone that swirled around the gates did not represent one of the area's finest hours.
But in recognition of the fact that the 1995 Forest Park Master Plan calls for a material sense of entry, a new, modest, respectful and unpretentious plan has been commissioned and planned by SWT Design of St. Louis.
With Halprin a distant memory, Forest Park Forever and the Parks Department are proceeding with this far less ambitious plan.
The architectural elements are part of a design kit, and the proportions of these components are such that they can be adjusted to expand or contract, to fit a particular site, and that the parts can be used as single elements as needed. The closest architectural relative is Roman Doric, a graceful, understated and dignified order. The material is Indiana limestone, the building stone of the St. Louis Art Museum’s 1904 building and the Missouri Historical Society.
There have been opportunities for public comment and official reviews in the last two years. The plans have been discussed in the regular meetings of Forest Park Forever advisory board, which are open to the public. Two years ago there was an inaugural charrette, a collaborative process in which teams create sketches of designs and present ideas in support of them. Review meetings were conducted with City Cultural Resources director Betsy Bradley.
Forest Park Forever is a not-for-profit organization. It wears a number of hats, and one of the more important covers working with the Parks Department on Forest Park public improvements. Forest Park Forever is raising the money for the entry markers.
It has raised $300,000 to spend for design and erection of the first entry markers, at the Wells Drive and Skinker Boulevard entrance, just north of the I-64 exit ramp’s connection with Skinker. This site was chosen because work is proceeding to improve that confusing and dangerous intersection and as a prime entrance to the park. The new entrance markers are meant to work with and contribute to the improvements in the intersection and to work as architectural open arms to welcome visitors.
When completed, eight of these markers or marker-ensembles will be built in the park: at Skinker and Wells with an outrigger on the I-64 exit ramp; at Skinker and Forsyth Boulevard; at DeBaliviere Avenue and Lindell Boulevard; on Union Boulevard and Lindell; at West Pine Boulevard and Kingshighway/Lindell; on Hampton Avenue where it enters the park just north of I-64; at Kinghighway/Clayton Ave., and at Tamm and Oakland.
Following Skinker/Wells, entries will be built at the Forsyth/Skinker and DeBaliviere/Forest Park entrances, and decisions are yet to be made about the timing of the construction of the other five markers. Raising money for them will govern the pace of development, according to Ted Spaid, principal of the landscape architecture firm of SWT Design, the firm that is designing the entry markers.
This is not a cookie-cutter process. In each case, the design and development of the entrances is related to scale and terrain, as well as to other work such as planned new construction by Washington University on the northwest corner of Skinker and Forsyth, and improvements around the Forest Park Metro Link Station at DeBaliviere and Forest Park Avenue.
Spaid said the intentions of the design are to provide a welcoming entry experience into the park as a visitor proceeds on foot, or riding a bicycle or as passengers in a car.
And at the same time, he said, when complete, the design should help visitors who aren’t from St. Louis to find their way through the labyrinth of the park. There is a landmark aspect to them too – architectural directional signals proclaiming entrances to the park and, through graphics, establishing pathways to institutions. Consistent design on the edges of the park will offer the visitor awareness that this great expanse of land is, in fact, a single place.
As Spaid said, “It is key to understand that they are more than just identification signs. They are planned to be contextual to each location and in keeping in scale with the environment,” he said. By paving spaces in between the markers with materials that contrast to asphalt and ground level, traffic should be slowed down, or, in the parlance of the day, “calmed.”
A foam mock-up of the Skinker-Wells Drive marker will be installed in late September, to give a sense of the appearance and scale of the markers, and work with actual materials should begin in the spring of 2016, depending on the speed of approval processes in the city.