For more than 100 years, a creek has run underground at the eastern end of Tower Grove Park, and stone bridges along the paths seem to cross nothing.
Construction will begin this month to expose the creek, adding natural play areas for children and acknowledging the Osage Nation, which used the land long before it was established as a Victorian walking park.
Work is expected to be completed in spring 2022.
“This will be the most visually stunning project to take place in the park in many years,” said park executive director Bill Reininger. “You’re looking at about 14 acres of the park that will be enhanced.”
The $2.5 million project is funded by donors, including the Crawford Taylor Foundation and members of the Taylor family.
Tower Grove Park, the second-largest in St. Louis, is 289 acres, established in 1868 by Henry Shaw. Workers there aren’t sure why the stream was placed underground around 1913; they assume it was for sanitation reasons. The stream runs from the southeast corner of the park, near the Stupp Center at Arsenal Street, northwest toward Magnolia Avenue.
Visitors to the park can see hints that a stream once flowed there. In addition to the stone bridges that seem to cross nothing (one bridge now serves as a hiding spot for a geocache), a stone-lined ditch directs water underneath the central road.
A drawing of the park in “Pictorial St. Louis,” published in 1876, shows a stream starting at the Arsenal end and ending at Magnolia. So does another 1876 map of the park, which workers are using as a guide as they grade the land to reestablish the stream. The park doesn’t have other pictures or drawings of the stream.
It will flow south to northwest, with marshy retaining areas along the way to hold water after heavier rains.
The project is a priority of the park’s 2017 Master Plan. Five years ago, the park got a grant to add native plantings to the edges of its two other streams. The plantings extend about 25 feet on either side. For this project, plantings will extend to about 50 feet in some areas, and they will offer different types of color throughout the year. Reininger said the plantings have transformed the other stream areas.
“The insect, butterfly and bird life is just incredible,” he said. “It’s hard to believe it’s in the middle of the city.”
Some decisions about plantings and landscaping came out of conversations with the Osage Nation about the future of the park’s Christopher Columbus statue, which was removed last summer and put in storage amid national protests for racial justice. The Osage people lived in the area more than 1,000 years before the city’s founders arrived in 1763, and the people were forced to cede the land to the U.S. government through the Treaty of 1808.
Around the time of the conversations about the statue, the park started planning the creek project. “The Christopher Columbus commission was a pivotal point for our board of commissioners because through those discussions and that process, it became more clear to the organization that, as silly as it sounds, the land was here long before it was a park,” Reininger said. “It was really reframing our history of what we celebrate within the park.”
And yes, the creek project had to maintain intentional elements of what makes it a Victorian park — stones for seating will have cut edges instead of natural ones, and some flowers will stand in more formal rows. The plantings or stones themselves will hold a certain meaning for the Osage people that will require some interpretation through tours, signage or information on the park’s website.
“The East Stream area of Tower Grove Park will provide a location where community members can enjoy the beauty of native plants and animals utilized by the Osage and get a glimpse of our perspective on the world and universe at large,” Andrea Hunter, Osage Nation tribal historic preservation officer, said in a statement. “The Osage Nation is grateful to be able to share our culture in this historic park.”
Reininger is excited the project will not only help with stormwater mitigation and erosion but also draw more wildlife and serve as a gathering spot for visitors and school groups. “You’re going to see a lot more life,” he said. “It’s mowed grass right now.”