Forest Park is celebrated in recent book


The husband and wife team of Sally J. Altman and Richard H. Weiss have authored, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has published a gorgeous, sumptuous book, Forest Park: The Jewel of St. Louis, which celebrates with crisp prose and evocative photographs the history and highlights of the park and its treasures. Altman and Weiss operate WeissWrite LLC, which offers writing, editing and coaching services for students, journalists, business professionals and anyone with a story to tell.

Altman, who grew up in Clayton and Creve Coeur and lives in Richmond Heights with her husband, spent 30 years working in health care policy and management. Weiss, who grew up in University City, was a reporter, editor and writing coach at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 30 years until 2005. He is an admired and nationally-known speaker on effective writing techniques; those techniques are in evidence in the crystalline writing by Altman and Weiss, which accompanies the beautiful photographs, mostly from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives, which make thumbing through the book a visual and nostalgic delight. Their new book is an excellent companion volume to the equally excellent book on The Muny by Weiss’s P-D colleague Judith Newmark, which was published last summer.

With its 1,200 acres, Forest Park is one of the nation’s largest and most beautifully developed city parks, even larger and more elaborately endowed than Central Park in Manhattan. “Forest Park was a dream shared by a handful of visionaries, most persistent among them the real estate developer Hiram Leffingwell,” write Altman and Weiss, adding that “it was not an easy sell. Too much land was invoved at too much cost ($600 an acre). And while they paid higher taxes, opponents feared land speculators would get rich.” The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County formally “divorced” in an election in 1876, and one of the reasons for the split was that city residents did not want the burden of paying double taxes to support the then-mostly rural western regions of the county. Many insisted that “nobody would move that far out” and resisted including what became Forest Park in the 61 square miles that became the reduced city area.

From Altman and Weiss we learn that wiser heads prevailed, and on June 24, 1876, “50,000 people gathered on a characteristically steamy afternoon to open ‘the people’s park.'” The authors add: “By then St. Louis, with a population surpassing 300,000, was the fourth largest city in the United States, host to the Democratic National Convention and now it could boast of a playground half again larger than New York’s Central Park.” The 50,000 who gathered for the dedication of Forest Park would be surpassed only by the 100,000 who gathered on Art Hill to cheer the return of Charles A. Lindbergh after his non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis; a photograph of that event is included in the book, which alternates pictures from the earliest with the more recent days of Forest Park, driving home the park’s enduring quality.

The facing pages 2 and 3 of the book contain a useful map, highlighting “The Statues of Forest Park,” including the Jewish Tercentennial Monument, designed by Carl Mose, which celebrates the 300th annniversary of the first Jewish settlement in the United States. The monument, when originally dedicated in 1954, to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first 23 Jews from Recife, Brazil to the then-Dutch colony of New Amsteredam in 1654, was the brainchild of the late Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of Temple Israel and businessman and civic leader Howard F. Baer, and is only one of many Jewish-related features of Forest Park. The fountain, which had fallen into disrepair in the 1980s, was restored and refurbished under the leadership of the same Howard Baer and William Kahn, then the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Howard Baer was also the civic leader who spearheaded the historic and successful creation of the City-County Zoo-Museum District, under which residents of both the city and county contribute revenues to support the Saint Louis Art Museum, Zoo, the St. Louis Science Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Baer and his wife donated the Aloe Statue at the Saint Louis Art Museum, in memory of their mother, Mrs. Louis Aloe. The sculpture by Henry Moore, is entitled “Reclining Figure Number 1,” and “Reclining Figure Number 2.”

Among other Jewish landmarks in Forest Park are:

* The Nathan Frank Bandstand, in front of the St. Louis Municipal Opera, which Altman and Weiss inform us is now surrounded by a moat. This was a gift from the late Nathan Frank, who founded the St. Louis Star (later the Star-Times), and who was elected as a Republican U.S. Congressman in 1889, the first Jew to be so honored in Missouri.

* The Bertha Guggenheim Memorial Fountain, at the entrance to The Muny Opera, one of four pieces of sculpture at the entrance to The Muny, that were erected in 1918, in memory of Mrs. Guggenheim, one of the leaders of women suffrage campaigns in Missouri.

* The Steinberg Skating Rink, donated by community benefactor Etta Steinberg, who was inspired by a similar faciltiy, and wanted the same for Forest Park.

* The Yalem Children’s Zoo, one of many facilities and features backed by members of the Jewish community at the Zoo and elsewhere throughout Forest Park. A tour through the many exhibits at the Zoo presents visitors with plaques bearing the names of scores of Jewish benefactors who made those facilities possible. Sam Fox providing both leadership and financial support for the expansion and renovations at the Saint Louis Art Museum, is just one of many examples.

During the 1904 World’s Fair, officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the official Zionist flag, which in 1948 would become the flag of the State of Israel, flew over the Hall of Nations, believed to have been the first official display of the movement founded by Theodor Herzl to be publicly displayed along with the flags of other nation’s at a world’s fair or exposition.

Altman and Weiss devote a chapter to Forest Park Forever, which they term “The Magnificent Restoration.” They point out that Forest Park Forever “was founded in 1986 to work with the city on the shared goal of making Forest Park one of the finest urban parks in the country. Since then, consistent with a master plan approved in 1995, more than $94 million in private and public funding has been raised and invested in the restoration of the park.”

Over the years, Forest Park, which had hosted the internationally-famous 1904 World’s Fair, had fallen into disrepair. Former St. Louis Alderwoman Mary Goldstein Stolar, who died of cancer in 1987, was a prime mover in support of Forest Park Forever, and her valliant and successful efforts to build support for the massive renovation project is honored by the Mary Goldstein Stolar Memorial Gate outside the Dwight Davis Tennis Center, which was dedicated in 1992 in a ceremony attended by Mrs. Stolar’s husband, Henry Stolar, and their son Daniel Stolar and daughter Susan Stolar. As alderwoman of the old 25th Ward, Stolar sponsored legislation authorizing renewal of the park and the Central West End. She was a principal founder of Forest Park Forever.

Altman and Weiss inform us, “The work included the grand refurbishing of the pavilion,” along with the Jewel Box and the addition of a new Boathouse, including a year-round restaurant. “The lake was expanded once again, and boaters can now travel more easily to the Grand Basin, into lagoons and around the islands dedicated to wildlife and picnicking.”

Thanks to Sally J. Altman and Richard H. Weiss, and the rich archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the entire history of Forest Park, which they properly describe as “The Jewel of St. Louis” can be celebrated with both prose and pictures for generations to come. Their book should grace every coffee table in St. Louis as a source of both interesting information and sheer visual pleasure.