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Tower Grove Park lily pads bloom again

Streetcar "car-card" advertisement
Provided by Tower Grove Park
Streetcar "car-card" advertisement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Visitors won't be coming on streetcars to see the lily ponds in bloom as they once did -- note the "car card" advertisement above that would have been posted on the interior of a United Railways Co. streetcar. And more than likely, you won't see women in long dresses holding parasols and men in Victorian suits standing on lily pads.

But what you will find these days in the middle of historic Tower Grove Park are the same three lily ponds, newly revived after a $400,000-plus renovation. And they are looking as they did nearly a century ago when people rode streetcars to see them in full bloom, and some did pose for pictures standing on lily pads.

"The landscape in and around the lily ponds now is probably closer to the original Victorian appearance than it has been for decades," said John Karel, the park's director. "We really looked hard to find plants to recreate the Victorian tropical summer garden look."

Friends and supporters of the park are gathering there this week for a special celebration. They'll dedicate the colorful lily ponds with potted palms, caster bean and elephant ear plants and other Victorian-era landscaping around them. They'll also applaud the major contributors: Emerson, which gave $250,000; the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, which gave $100,000; and Friends of Tower Grove Park, which raised $40,000.

Also at the gathering, park officials will turn on newly installed nighttime lighting so visitors can see once again varieties of lilies that close by day but bloom gloriously at night. (The lily pads can be seen until the first hard frost, which could be in October.) For the lighting renovation, park officials decided to go modern, rather than recreate the past.

"The old lighting was clunky, on big metal frames, and kind of worked against the aesthetics of the park," Karel said. "The new lighting is more sophisticated, with very modestly scaled fixtures that can focus a remarkable amount of light on targeted spots."

The ponds will be lit on some evenings but likely not all of them. "We will have the lights on for special events, and we might end up keeping the lighting on if people like it. But we are also keeping an eye toward conservation," Karel said, "and we're still evaluating what the best times would be."

A walk into the Victorian past

The lily pond renovation is part of an on-going effort, mostly privately financed, to revive the 289-acre Victorian walking park. Tower Grove Park is St. Louis' second largest, after Forest Park, and one of the few in the country that's a designated National Historic Landmark. Park supporters have raised or contributed more than $20 million for restoring the park's ornate pavilions, domed bandstand, monumental entrance gates, landscaping, and other structures and features. Much of that was in the park, or part of founder Henry Shaw's plan for the park, when he gave the park to the city of St. Louis in 1868.

The lily ponds, however, were not part of Shaw's original plan. They came after English-born Shaw hired James Gurney, a water-lily enthusiast trained at Kew Gardens in London. Gurney left his job at the Royal Horticultural Society to come to Tower Grove Park and as chief gardener, he built the lily ponds, probably in the 1880s.

"Through the years, there was a lot of collaboration with the Missouri Botanical Garden (also founded by Shaw) for the breeding and development of different varieties of water lilies," Karel said. "The park became a premium display area for water lilies, certainly in the country, because a lot of the varieties displayed here became standards for the industry, and are still standards, such as the St. Louis Gold (yellow), the Henry Shaw (blue), and the Missouri (white)."

Restoring the lily ponds was just one improvement finished under John Karel's tenure.
Credit Provided by Tower Grover Park
Restoring the lily ponds was just one improvement finished under John Karel's tenure.

Gurney also devised an unusual system for recycling and conditioning water for the lily ponds, which the renovation adopted. The water comes from nearby Fountain Pond, which includes ruins from the old Lindell Hotel. From there it goes by pipe into a cattail marsh where it runs freely and is filtered. Then the water flows through pipes into the lily ponds, out of the ponds and beneath Magnolia Avenue into the lake in the Botanical Garden's Japanese Garden, across Magnolia from the park.

Karel said the system still works well today. "The water in Fountain Pond is city water, which has chlorine. What really conditions it is going through the cattail marsh. That helps render it more suitable and natural so by the time it gets into the lily ponds, it is in better condition to support tropical plants," he said.

A blooming improvement

The lily ponds were a popular attraction and still illuminated at night at least into the 1930s, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran news stories telling readers when the lilies were in bloom and "at their best" for viewing.

They continued to bloom after that, although not as luxuriously as they once did, as the park faded and grew shabby. And the lilies continued to bloom amid the more recent renovation work although Karel said problems were growing beneath the surface.

"The ponds were leaking badly. The plumbing was in bad shape. The walls of the ponds themselves were failing. Also, the soil in the bottom of the ponds became unhealthy and lacked nutrients for the lilies," he said.

That's how things were early last year when Karel and Anne Stupp, president of the park's Board of Commissioners, gave Robert M. Cox Jr. a tour of the park. Cox is senior vice president of administration at Emerson, which contributed toward other restoration projects in the park. He was looking for perhaps another.

"They took me over to the lily ponds and showed me how they needed to be totally redone," Cox said. "We were involved in restoring the Palm House, and this (the lily pond area) was right out front of the Palm House."

Stupp said project was particularly important for the park because of its location, "in the heart of the park." And, she said, "it fulfills one of our dreams for the park."

Karel said that while care was taken to recreate the ponds as they once were, there are updates. One is a sprinkler system for plants and vegetation around the ponds, so no one has to water with hoses anymore. Also, potted plants around the ponds used to be displayed for visitors in the winter inside the palm and plant houses, which have been renovated for other uses. Karel said they'll now be taken into the park's greenhouses, "although we might decide to put some of them out in the Palm House over the winter again, as they did originally."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers historic preservation and urban redevelopment.

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