By Don Corrigan (West End Word)
Did you get a cupcake? I didn’t either, but it was my fault for showing up late at Forest Park’s 140th birthday party celebration. I promise to be on time for the sesquicentennial birthday slated for June 24, 2026.
Although the birthday cake was all gone by the time I showed up, two party revelers were still very much in attendance. It was great to visit with Forest Park Forever’s Lesley Hoffarth and Greg Hayes, who has a lot to say about Forest Park as director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry for St. Louis.
Hoffarth and Hayes concede Forest Park has had some rough stretches over the years. In the 1980s, the park infrastructure was literally crumbling and some of its prime landmarks were deteriorating. The City of St. Louis and a non-profit known as Forest Park Forever, established in 1986, teamed up to come to the rescue.
They raised money for more than $100 million in reconstruction. And not too long after the turn of the century in 2000, the two entities were able to show off amazing restorations of such treasured sites as Pagoda Circle, the Grand Basin, the Boathouse and more.
“The City and Forest Park Forever are not resting; there are more projects in the works,” said Hayes. “Roads are being rebuilt at the north entrances of the park. We also have the restoration of the Central Fields, the location for the balloon races and the LouFest music events and other activities. We are connecting water features and we have restorations like the Liberal Arts Bridge between the Muny and the Boathouse in the works.”
Forest Park Forever President Lesley Hoffarth notes the ambitious master plan that rebuilt golf courses and athletic fields, refreshed lakes and waterways, restored buildings and the Grand Basin – a place where charter buses now line up and where wedding parties seek perfect photos with fountains and Art Hill as a backdrop.
Forest Park Forever is about more than raising funds for repairs, rehabs and restorations. It’s also about public participation and public awareness about the park’s natural and wildlife assets. To that end, Forest Park Forever wants to make sure that the park is an outdoor learning lab for all, and particularly for the young.
“We have a full-time outdoor education coordinator on our staff now,” said Hoffarth. “We do programs with boys and girls clubs. We have a Voyage of Learning Teachers’ Academy where teachers learn how to use the park for experiential learning and as an outdoor classroom for their students.
“We know that kids are not spending as much time outside as they used to. If we can get them outside, they are going to learn conservation and sustainability,” she said. “And with a combination of classroom work and outdoor experiences, young people are going to learn and retain the lessons of stewardship of the land.”
Forest Park, ranked by USA Today as the top city park in America, readily deserves the accolade as “crown jewel” of St. Louis. There’s so much going on at park venues – all the time.
Consider right now. At the Muny, “Young Frankenstein” is bringing a bit of Transylvania to St. Louis. At the Missouri History Museum, you have a bit of time left to get your kicks at the Route 66 exhibit or to see the “Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night.”
Night or day, the sky is always alive with starry constellations at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in Forest Park. An exhibit entitled “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum” is now on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum through Sept. 11.
America’s birthday has been marked in Forest Park since the park was founded. However, the celebration has gotten a whole lot bigger since Fair St. Louis came to Forest Park after the Arch grounds closed for renovation.
In a bit of city-county cooperation, Des Peres resident Steve Pozaric served as general counsel and general chairman for Fair St. Louis this year. While Sammy Hagar was playing on the main stage, Pozaric was staying on top of 30 fair contractors, 28 food vendors, 25 exhibitors, 15 mobile marketers and 400 porta-potty Johnnies.
Next year, Pozaric will help our Gateway City plan for large crowds anticipated in August, when St. Louis will be a prime viewing spot for a total solar eclipse. I’m counting on Pozaric to reserve me a seat on Art Hill for that 2017 eclipse. I won’t be late for it.