The largest attraction in St. Louis that I have never written about is Forest Park. This amazing mid-city, mostly green space has been around since 1876. Larger than New York City’s Central Park, Forest Park is one of the largest urban green areas in the United States. It’s estimated that 13 million people visit it annually, but I think it’s more than that. If you’ve ever tried to find a place to park there on a beautiful fall, Sunday afternoon, you’ll probably agree with me.
Forest Park has a greater share of cultural institutions than the average US park because of a role it played early in the 20th century. In 1904 Forest Park was the venue for the best World’s Fair in history. This international event, also called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, was immortalized in the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St. Louis. It was such a big deal that 1904’s Summer Olympics were also held in St. Louis. Cultural institutions like the building that now contains the Missouri History Museum and the Bird Cage in the still free and world-class St. Louis Zoo were created for this fair. This past summer my grandson and I had photography lessons in a pavilion built for this fair across the street and up a hill from this cage, a regular zoo attraction. The main St. Louis Art Museum atop Art Hill that has been added to was built for this world’s fair. Some innovations still around like X-ray machines, the mobile phone, the incubator, and Dr Pepper made their debuts at this fair.
The iconic statue of the French King above for whom St. Louis was named, Louis IX, was not around for the 1904 World’s Fair. It dates from 1906. There was a statue of this king at the fair, but it stood at its entrance where the Missouri History Museum now stands. The one in front of the Art Museum now that had its sword broken or stolen at least 4 times when Ruth and I lived in St. Louis is a replica of the one that graced the entrance to the famous fair.
Forest Park is full of tourist attractions now. Some of them not mentioned above are the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, The Steinberg Skating Rink. a complete golf course with club house, The Highlands Golf and Tennis Center, and the Muny Opera. Since 1916 the 10,000 seat Muny has been presenting traveling and local productions of shows each summer. More than 1,000 of its nose bleed seats are still free. I met Ruth when she and a friend were occupying 2 of them. Not all of the Muny’s productions are Broadway shows.
Renting a boat at The Boathouse is a popular activity that provides access to many of Forest Park’s lakes including the Emerson Grand Basin below Art Hill. Other natural attractions include the entire Kennedy Forest. Some believe that the art deco Jewel Box that often has floral displays dates from The Fair, but it does not.
This is a park like no other.