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University of Missouri

An Urban and Urbane Park for St. Louis

John Karel’s quarter-century refurbishing Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

John Karel

John Karel is the director of Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Tower Grove Park.

John Karel spent the early part of his career working for Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources exploring the natural history of state parks that offer the rural escapes of camping, fishing and hiking. But 25 years ago, Karel, BA ’72, MS ’76, changed course and took on the task of reinvigorating a once-elegant urban park in St. Louis. The job of directing Tower Grove Park at Magnolia and Kingshighway became a sort of mission.

“Places like Tower Grove Park are so important in the lives of thousands of people,” Karel says. Visitors to state parks and national parks typically are making weekend or vacation trips. “But people use city parks on a day-to-day basis. They improve the quality of life for residents who can’t afford to travel to wild parks or are not inclined to do so. This is their chance to see grass and sky and trees and birds.”

To improve the park, Karel set about shoring up security and removing trash. He also organized a fundraising group because the St. Louis city budget for the park was insufficient to refurbish the pavilions, statues, buildings and roadways contained on the 289 acres Henry Shaw donated in 1868.

These days, the park “sparkles like a jewel,” Karel says, citing annual visitors numbering 2.5 million. They appear to be inspired by Shaw’s design for Tower Grove, which drew from Europe’s great parks, Karel says. Shaw, who is widely known for founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, envisioned “a beautiful space, beautifully landscaped that would play an important role making city life pleasant and civilized and uplifting. It sounds a little corny maybe, but it was a valid idea then and still is today.”