Almost everyone associates his or her childhood with a park. For me that was Tower Grove in Saint Louis. From being taken across it in a child’s wagon by my Father to crossing it for years after work, often after dark, as a teen, I knew every inch of Tower Grove Park without knowing much about its history. Ruth and I amended this last spring with a morning visit. A lot about that visit surprised me, including my park’s deep involvement in a contemporary controversy.
I did know that Henry Shaw was the benefactor behind the gift of this park to the people of St. Louis. Unless you’re from this city, you probably don’t know his name, but in the 19th century he was an important resident. As a teenager, I was told that the Tiffany neighborhood on Grand Avenue at Choteau contained the house of Shaw’s mistress, and I never found out if this is a bit of urban legend or fact. When I first heard this, I didn’t even know what a mistress was; and after I learned about Henry Shaw, he didn’t seem like the type of man who would do this. An immigrant from England, Shaw went into the hardware business in a new and increasingly prosperous city and became well-off. By the time he died, he had lots of property and a second home in what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden across the street from Tower Grove Park. Shaw donated the land to create Tower Grove to the city in 1868 with only 2 conditions. One of them was that its 289 acres had to remain a park forever. Shaw is buried beside his 2nd home, an Italianate villa that had become his summer residence. Peering through this crypt’s window as a child crept me out. Shaw was very cultured, and European travel was one of his entertainments.
This probably accounts for the statues of European composers like Mozart that have always been part of this now National Landmark park. There’s also a statue of Shakespeare surrounded by some of his characters, like Falstaff, which was also the name of a brewery near my childhood home that emitted an unforgettable smell. There are 32 Victorian Era pavilions in Tower Grove Park that have survived, as have nearly 400 species of trees and plants. The tulips were blooming as Ruth and I explored my childhood playground and swimming hole.
Tower Grove Park extends from Kingshighway to Grand Avenue in South St. Louis. It’s long but not very wide. At its east end stands a statue of Christopher Columbus much loved by St Louis’ many Italian residents. There was now a sign on it that indicated it has been considered for removal since 2018. This statue has been vandalized and condemned by many who think it depicts a Caucasian male who no longer deserves to be honored. I was also shocked to learn that the ruins in the middle of Tower Grove Park were a bit of fakery created by Henry Shaw 7 years before he died.