There is no more charming place in St. Louis to picnic, take a carriage ride or pose for wedding pictures than Tower Grove Park – a bequest to the people of St. Louis in 1868 from an English immigrant as the city and the nation still reeled from civil war. Winter, spring, summer, fall – this is a place of pleasure and delight. A generation ago it proved a haven for St. Louisans trying to survive sweltering summer nights by sleeping in the park. Henry Shaw never married. He had no children. But he made his fortune in St. Louis and he generously endowed the city and the state that he made his home. Since then, millions of children have played in his park and thousands of couples have married in his garden. Tower Grove Park forms part of the southern boundary of the south city neighborhood that bears his name.
Voted St. Louis’ “Best Place to Live in 2010” by readers of The Riverfront Times Newspaper, The Shaw Neighborhood is a large, culturally diverse area with a great deal to recommend it: one of the great botanical gardens of the world, the city’s second largest park, two hospitals (St. Louis University Medical Center and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, the only archdiocesan children’s hospital in the nation), The Missouri School for the Blind, numerous church organizations that have passed the century mark, a wide variety of housing styles and the rich, international flavors of South Grand Boulevard, it’s eastern boundary.
Those of us who grow up in St. Louis picture Henry Shaw as an elderly gentleman, sculpted in white marble within a glass mausoleum in the city’s most beautiful garden. You don’t find many children or adults for that matter standing around Shaw’s effigy in contemplation. Like the sad hero of a fairy tale he seems isolated and very alone. And yet we see Shaw as he chose to be remembered with the sensibility of an age that it’s hard in the 21st century to comprehend: weary yet peaceful – having provided that he would never have to leave the garden he loved and that it would flourish and evolve around him.
I try to imagine Henry Shaw as he was when he arrived in St. Louis in 1819, fresh off the Steamboat Maid of Orleans. Only nineteen years of age, he was personable, adventurous and already a man, having been sent by his father from Montreal (where the family had emigrated first) to retrieve a lost shipment of goods in the City of New Orleans, shipped from the family’s ironworks in Sheffield, England – and to turn a profit – as they were badly in need of income in the New World. He hadn’t a single business contact, nor relation, nor even acquaintance here when he climbed the steep narrow road leading up from the river to Laclede’s village. But like so many of the young traders and merchants who were molding St. Louis into a city he was astute, determined and visionary. What wasn’t immediately apparent about Henry Shaw was that he had the soul of a botanist. Not only would he cultivate his own botanical garden but he would endow the School of Botany at Washington University, St. Louis.
Capitalizing on the needs of pioneers flooding through the Gateway to the West for durable hardware and dry goods as they headed west in their covered wagons, Henry Shaw began investing in real estate and retired twenty years later a wealthy man. Wealthy enough to travel the world and to conjure a dream of a garden. On his excellent website, Exploring St.Louis Circa 1804 (http://www.nps.gov/archive/jeff/lewisclark2/Circa1804/StLouis/BlockInfo/Block50.htm) Robert Moore, Jr., the National Park Service’s historian in residence at the Old Courthouse, writes that Shaw was inspired upon his arrival in the port of St. Louis by the garden of Dr. Antoine Saugrain. The first (and from 1800 – 1807 the only physician in Colonial St. Louis) Antoine Saugrain was experimentally growing non-native as well as native plants and the medicinal herbs he used in his practice of medicine. His garden was, according to Bob Moore, “a highlight” of the village, even as Shaw’s Garden became a highlight of the city.
Beyond the Village of Saint Louis vast areas of prairie (http://www.nps.gov/archive/jeff/LewisClark2/Circa1804/CommonFields/panoramic.html)* stretched for miles to the horizon and Shaw was captivated by it. In 1840 he purchased a sizable portion of the Prairie des Noyers (“Meadows of Walnut Trees”) and began to develop the country estate he would call Tower Grove (for the tower of his house overlooking a grove of oak and sassafrass trees). He commissioned fellow Englishman, then St. Louis architect, George Barnett, to design his Italianate country house and the town house that stood at the northwest corner of 7th & Olive Streets downtown.
Henry Shaw was making his fortune in America (he became a U.S. Citizen in 1843) but he re-created his native England at every turn. George Barnett designed for him the charming Linnean House (originally an orangery and the only existing greenhouse in the Missouri Botanical Garden that Henry Shaw saw constructed) it is today famed for its lush camellias and as the oldest, publicly open greenhouse west of the Mississippi River. Barnett also designed the Plant House and the Palm House in what became Tower Grove Park and the English-styled houses in Shaw Place that Henry Shaw leased, using the income to subsidize his growing botanical garden. He brought in experts from Europe and Britain to inform its development, whose scientific descendants today staff The Garden’s World Library of Plants.
One of the largest of the garden’s numerous individual gardens is the tropical rainforest maintained in the Climatron. Designed by Murphy & Mackey, Assoc. of St. Louis it’s the first geodesic dome in the world to be used as a conservatory. Reflective pools planted with water lilies laid out east of the Climatron are presided over by bronze water nymphs and angels sculpted by Carl Milles. During one perfect exhibit glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly reflected sunlight and ripples in a picture perfect setting.
It’s interesting to me that what began as the single, largest, gated, private place in St. Louis (Tower Grove House dates to 1849) is today an open, economically diverse neighborhood where two of Henry Shaw’s finest characteristics – philanthropy and elegance – survive. Constructed in 1854 and converted into a home for aged, Protestant women in 1882, the two-story, Greek-Revival home of silversmith, Renee Beauvais, at 3625 Magnolia Avenue, is one of the community’s oldest, extant buildings. Today it serves as the mid-section of the Beauvais Manor Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center.
I visited the Shaw Neighborhood and the Missouri Botanical Garden on October 3rd for the Best of Missouri Festival and the historic Shaw Art Fair which help to sustain the garden and one of the most vital neighborhood associations in St. Louis. The Shaw Neighborhood Association actively markets its community to homeowners and ecclectic business people like Sweet Art (http://www.sweetartstl.com/) owners – baker, Reine Boyoc and painter, CBabi Bayoc, who are raising three children in the midst of their bakeshop and art studio. The Shaw Art Fair takes place across Tower Grove Avenue from the Flora Place gate to the Garden. It draws an array of splendid artists whose return from many parts of the U.S. St. Louis collectors eagerly await. I was delighted to find Native American inspired crafts being sold by Marilyn Peterie of Springfield, MO – an artisan whose great-grandmother was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Such trade formed the financial base of early St. Louis where an energetic Henry Shaw found a place to settle and prosper.
I enjoyed live, original music by a St. Louis band as I meandered The Garden’s wonding paths with two of my grandchildren, pausing to introduce them to Henry Shaw as I had their mother and her brothers a generation ago.
They had ground corn, pounded wood and petted calves in the crafts village assembled for the weekend and were anxious to lose themselves in the maze; not the elegant floral maze adjacent to Shaw’s residence but “the big maze, Grandma!” As I have so many, many times from childhood on – since I walked this garden with my mother as a little girl, picnicked with my husband and our children in the park beyond the garden, watched our daughter and son-in-law marry, attended concerts and gloried in the beauties of nature – I silently thanked Mr. Shaw for his magnificent generosity to countless St. Louisans he never met.
* Thomas Danisi’s priceless contribution to the National Park Service of visual context for the Prairie Fields of Colonial St. Louis: Nicolas de Finiels’ beautiful rendering of Colonial St. Louis & its environs 1798
References: The History of St. Louis Neighborhoods Website: http://stlouis.missouri.org/neighborhoods/history/, The Shaw Neighborhood Website and the Missouri Botanical Garden Website, among other sources.
Photo Credits: Henry Shaw’s Mausoleum, The Parish Church in Sheffield, England 1819, The Floral Garden Maze in the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Black & White Image of Shaw’s Garden in 1883 – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons; Snowy Image of the North Entrance to Tower Grove Park & Photo of The Jenny Kavanaugh Band – Thomas Kavanaugh, remaining photos – Maureen Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.