Architects Architecture Green Space

Statement on Government Hill

by Michael R. Allen

At a special meeting on July 31, 2006, the Preservation Board of the City of St. Louis considered preliminary approval of a redesign of Government Hill in Forest Park. The Board unanimously approved a revised proposal submitted by Forest Park Forever. I submitted this statement.

I want to offer some comments about the Government Hill proposal being considered by the Preservation Board today.

On June 30, after the Preservation Board decided to defer consideration on preliminary approval a radical revision of Government Hill, Mayor Slay wrote in his blog that “there’s time” for more consideration and public input on the redesign.

When the Preservation Board agenda for the July meeting was released, myself and others were relieved that Government Hill was not on the agenda. It seemed that Forest Park Forever had heeded the call of the Preservation Board and the Mayor to give such a major proposal regarding a much-loved landscape ample time for revision and comment.

Then, last night when I read the mayor’s campaign website, I saw a notice that there would be a special Preservation Board meeting today at 4:30 p.m. to consider the matter of a revised proposal from Forest Park Forever and others for revisions to Government Hill. While there may have been some warning elsewhere, it was the first I had heard of the meeting and I had less than 24 hours to review the plans and provide commentary.

Earlier, I had assumed that myself and others concerned about the matter — including members of the Board — could study the issue and provide measured testimony at a future hearing. Apparently, that will not happen. I am disappointed in this hasty process, and disappointed that I cannot attend today’s meeting due to previously-scheduled appointments. Had I know sooner, even on a week’s notice, I would have made plans to attend the meeting.

As it is, I can barely offer commentary on the new proposal based on the abstract plans contained in the report of the staff of the Cultural Resources Office. The plan seems to be more respectful of the original design, but since no renderings are enclosed it is nearly impossible to tell.

The existing landscape, designed by noted landscape architect George Kessler around 1911, is a stunning example of the “City Beautiful” era of Beaux-Arts formalism. Some of the landscape designs from that period have not held up well as gathering places, due to aesthetic programs that look better than they function. Not so with Kessler’s Government Hill design, which seems to get more popular as time goes by. His grand staircases, central fountain and terraces amid sloping hills create an inviting context with a scale that is respectful of both the World’s Fair Pavilion and the users of Forest Park.

The only flaws in this landscape are the lack of universal accessibility and the lack of maintenance. The new proposal seems to take a good step in addressing accessibility without intruding on the existing landscape. The plan unveiled in June was little more than a giant zigzag ramp, based on intriguing medieval designs but totally inappropriate for the site. In terms of restoration, it seems that the new plan is more sensitive to the Kessler design but still aiming to remake it according to modern designs.

That’s where the first plan for rebuilding Government Hill is better; if something new is going to happen, it should be complementary to the landscape of the park and a compelling and original design in itself. The proposal being considered today is not compelling or original, but the Kessler design even in its decay remains so.

I urge the Preservation Board to deny preliminary approval, and to urge Forest Park Forever to consider funding the restoration project that the wonderful Government Hill landscape deserves. If they seek a grand gesture or some other imprint on the park, they need not worry. Their restoration work to date has been one of the grandest civic gestures in recent history, and a sensitive restoration of Government Hill would be an excellent capstone.