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Forest Park entrance proposal getting mixed reviews

Rendering of a marker at the I-64, Skinker Boulevard and Wells Drive entrance to the park.
SWT Design | Provided by Forest Park Forever
endering of a marker at the I-64, Skinker Boulevard and Wells Drive entrance to the park.

In response to a story about the markers project published two weeks ago, we’ve had thoughtful responses to the entrances-to-the-park issue. Some harkened back to Lawrence Halprin’s proposal for elaborate gates that was hooted down and abandoned in 2001; others expressed ideas about the current plan, created by SWT Design, St. Louis.

The most thorough response came from architect William Wischmeyer, a veteran of years of service to his profession and to the St. Louis community. 

Stephen Schenkenberg, a journalist and now strategic communications director for Forest Park Forever, responded generously to inquiries about the plans and challenges to them.

Wischmeyer’s work as an architect and his professional involvement in several projects in the park (see subhead below) provide credibility for comments by him on any number of architectural subjects, including the entrance markers.

Wischmeyer is skeptical of the value and appropriateness of the entry markers. He was also no great fan of the Lawrence Halprin plan for gates for the park shot down in 2001.

How do you feel about the entrance markers the St. Louis Parks Department and Forest Park Forever will be installing soon in Forest Park? St. Louis Public Radio would like to know. We will publish some of the results, which should be sensible and non-confrontational.

The 1995 Forest Park Master Plan is frequently cited as the wellspring of the gates or markers notion. In the two pages of the plan given over to entrances, the subject is approached vaguely, calling for just about every way to mark the entrances other than in brick and mortar or stone and mortar constructions. The plan does call for diversity of materials, however, and it does call for plants.

Schenkenberg said the Forest Park Forever Advisory Board spent a considerable amount of time before coming to its decision.

Wischmeyer believes the markers approved are redundant and, other than letting a visitor know he or she is entering Forest Park, their potential as agents of wayfinding is minimal, simply because they offer no information other than the name of the park.

As for Forest Park Forever’s plea that they not be called gates, “they certainly look like gates, and have the typology of gates,” Wischmeyer said. “Having witnessed the development of the Forest Park Master Plan, I saw how many constituencies there are – how many different groups use this park. For some of them, these markers can’t help but call up the idea of subdivisions,” he said.

About the $3 million price batted around for eight groups of entrance markers, Wischmeyer said, “Something better could be done with that money.”

Schenkenberg wrote authoritatively on the need for letting visitors know that the vast 1,300 acre urban asset they’re approaching is indeed a park and not some beautiful undeveloped real estate. He wrote that once visitors are inside the park, “We hear requests for navigation assistance so frequently (our horticulturists are stopped daily) that we invest confidently in projects like www.forestparkmap.org, training volunteer Park Ambassadors to assist visitors in the park (33,000 assists in 2014) and the comprehensive new wayfinding system installed in 2014. “More than 20,000 of our printed maps are used each year by visitors as well, he said.

“In a June 2010 Forest Park amenities study — with more than 500 visitors responding — visitors told us that better wayfinding was a top request. They get lost, the roads turn this way and that way, they have trouble finding a place of interest.

“In a ZIP Code study that same year, we found that one third of the park’s visitors live close by, one third is from the larger region and one third is from outside the region. That’s a good percentage of folks who need some help getting around — and into — a 1,300-acre space.”

But those considerations have to do with the helping a visitor once he or she is inside the park. The markers themselves do not provide any nitty-gritty wayfinding information -- no “This Way to the Zoo.” That information is provided on signs inside the park

When asked about the markers as wayfinding structures, he said, “These entrance markers have the twin goals of providing a more formal welcoming experience for visitors and aiding in navigation. On the latter, the people who study these things for a living categorize the markers as ‘Destination Identification.’ ”

A comment on the article by someone identified as Lizzie Smithwitch wrote,

“This looks expensive and very corporate. I don't care to have our largest park 'branded.’ This money would be better spent in: “1. Building another playground, “2. Upkeep to the wonderful outdoor ice rink “3. Addressing marking and traffic issues within the park. “This is a waste and impractical and only comes in second to the new streetcars in u city. I guess St. Louis is just into vanity public projects rather than ones that actually serve a need these days …”

Reader Greg Gibson quoted my story on the subject of context to offer criticism of the markers and maybe me, too.

"They are planned to be contextual to each location... “Really? Seriously? Yeah, okay. Waste of money.”

Gloria Ross, an obituary writer, can’t keep away from that word “gates.” She wrote: “I like the design for the new ‘gates.’ I liked the original designs much better. I hope these make it past the censors. I love Forest Park.”

Mary Elliott O’Reilly entered the discussion via Facebook:

“I came back to St. Louis in August 2001,” she wrote, “and somehow totally missed the Halprin design controversy! From your description of them, it sounds like they would have been perfect - and kind of with a kinship to that FABULOUS Zoo gate at Hampton and Hwy 64. What a shame the city, as you say, has an antipathy to what they see as ‘bizarre’! This description of the new design: ‘... a new, modest, respectful...’ and unpretentious plan has been commissioned ....’ is perfect. “I might have said ‘stolid’ -- afraid they don't do much for me.”

Wischmeyer has ideas to offer that are organic, timeless and appropriate. “The first hundred feet of entry into the park is important,” and that should be addressed in designing for a sense of entry, rather than an abrupt separation of park and city, such as the entry markers command.

Bill Wischmeyer
Credit Family photo
Bill Wischmeyer

Thus, whatever is created should provide an extended experience, one that reckons with the speed and scale of the automobile, which is, after all, he says, the way most people who use the streets as entry surfaces come into the park.

“The transition is formalized for that little bit” of distance blending the workaday world and the park world. The materials? The stuff of landscape, he offered. Gentle shaping of the land, the use of grasses or hedges or trees and bushes – or a bit of all of that.

Wischmeyer says his idea would provide a sense of entry based on a clear sense of landscape, of growth and organic transformation, plus visual evidence that one is moving from one condition of space and experience into another, clear evidence that the entrance has to do immersing oneself in the complex organism that is a natural pleasure garden, rather than perfunctory, any-old-day passage through entrance markers or gates or solemn portals that have more to do with real estate than with the special poetry of a city park.

Council circle gift

Bill Wischmeyer and his wife, Gina, have a rather unique perspective on the park, more richly textured than the satisfaction they reaped from having made their homes on both the western and eastern edges of Forest Park, and more culturally and emotionally significant than their love of the park and the pleasure they take in their proximity to it.

Some years back they decided to make aesthetic, material and philosophical investments in the park, and to provide for the ages a useful representation of their affection for this grand resource.

The Wischmeyers' gift to Forest Park
Credit Provided by the family
The Wischmeyers' gift to Forest Park

Bill’s training and experience as an architect was more than a bit helpful in achieving this ambition. Gina had a critical role too: She is an educator with a special interest in science and matters ecological. Braiding their expertise, they landed on the idea of a quiet, arresting redoubt beside a stream, off of a secluded pathway. This path runs from the Sigel equestrian monument, near Union Boulevard and Grand Drive, to Deer Lake.

Bill admires both the landscape architecture and the philosophy of Jens Jensen, and Jensen’s poetic marriages of stone and plant material and light, and incidents animated by breezes and rainfall and the rustlings of leaves.

In recent years, Jensen’s ideas have been employed in renovating and improving Forest Park. His work provided significant inspiration for the form of a council circle designed by Bill, actually a stone amphitheater, a form that proved more suitable for the topography of their riparian architectural intervention, their contribution to the park.

A corresponding inspiration was Gina’s experiences and work with inner-city children at the science-focused Litzsinger Road Ecology Center. She discovered that when children from the city arrived in the woods of Ladue, their lack of exposure to the natural world was evident. Forest Park and its rich ecological environment provide more access to science-centered experiences for children of the city.

Thanks to Gina and Bill, the council circle took shape and came to be in 2009. The Wischmeyer family – Bill, Gina and their daughter Annie -- donated the money for the construction of this refuge for body and soul, and provided an endowment for its maintenance.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.