After 27 years, John Karel, the director of Tower Grove Park is stepping down.
Karel says during his time as director he always worked to restore, maintain and improve the park. The next person will still have a lot to do to maintain the city's second largest park.
“I think the most important thing that has happened at Tower Grove Park has been the recognition by the people who've known it and love it, how important it is and how important it is to restore the park to its proper position of excellence,” he said. “So it can serve as it always was intended to serve, as a major asset for the broader community of St. Louis.”
This community asset was created in 1868 when St. Louis philanthropist Henry Shaw donated around 280 acres of land to the city of St. Louis. Shaw helped design the park, which features pavilions, statues and walking paths dispersed throughout a 19th-century Gardenesque-style landscape.
When Karel took over as director in 1987, many of the park’s historical facilities needed to be restored; and park attendance was low.
“In the middle of the 20th century, there was a terrible trend in our country away from our cities and part of that was turning away from our great urban parks,” Karel said. “The poster child for that trend was Central Park. Everybody knew that it was great place, but an increasingly questionable place, maybe not as safe as it should be.”
According to Karel, a counter movement to the decline of urban parks grew, and efforts in Tower Grove were part of that push.
“I think that there has been kind of an energy generated around the park as the restoration has progressed,” Karel said. “As the security of the park has improved, as the cleanliness and the orderliness of the park has improved, there has been a natural gravitational pull.”
It’s a pull that’s drastically increased attendance. Visitation was five times higher in 2013, than it was in 1987.
The park was also designated a national historic landmark during Karel’s time as director.
Although he has seen many positive changes, Karel says the work of maintaining and building on the park’s legacy never ends.
“I sometimes joke with people that it took our founder Henry Shaw five or six years to build the park. It’s taken us 27 years to restore it. And it’s not even completely done. There is still more work to do.”
Although Tower Grove is a public park owned by the city of St. Louis, it’s governed by a board of commissioners appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court. The park’s boundaries are Magnolia Avenue on the north, Grand Boulevard on the east, Arsenal Street on the south and Kingshighway on the west.
Karel will stay on as the director of Tower Grove Park until December.