An icon of modern day St. Louis, Tower Grove Park was first opened over a century ago, during the heyday of the Victorian era when much of American culture was heavily influenced by that of Europe. Over the years the park has remained largely unchanged and still seemingly reflects the original vision of Henry Shaw – the man responsible for the birth of the park and its overall design. Shaw designed the park in what is known as the “Gardenesque” style. To understand the Gardenesque style it is useful to understand the preceding popular trends in landscape design that influenced its evolution.
The Gardenesque is ultimately rooted in the English Landscape Movement, which emerged in the 18th century as an antithesis to the extreme formality and artificiality that had characterized so many gardens throughout Europe for centuries prior. One of the most notable figures of this movement was Capability Brown – an English Landscape Architect who advocated a “gardenless” style, which focused on creating a perfected version of the romanticized rural landscape. His designs did away with all traces of man-made gardens and unkempt nature, and through the use of large swaths of lawn juxtaposed by carefully placed tree groupings and thoughtfully shaped bodies of water, he created landscapes that so closely resembled the naturally-occurring idealized English countryside that they were sometimes difficult to identify as having been designed at all.
Figure 1: Capability Brown’s “Badminton House”
Shortly after Brown’s style of landscape design became en vogue across much of Europe, an opposing philosophy of aesthetic beauty began to take hold known as the “Picturesque”. This movement drew heavily from the techniques and popular style of landscape painting at the time and was driven by an attempt to bridge the gap between two commonly discussed, contrasting ideals: the beautiful and the sublime. English artist William Gilpin was among the originators of the Picturesque movement. He argued that designed landscapes should be composed like paintings, and should evoke both an appreciation for their beauty as well as an instinctual feeling of awe of their sublime power. Building upon this concept, a prominent landowner and author of the time named Uvedale Price took Gilpin’s philosophy of the Picturesque and laid out a more specific framework to which he felt designed landscapes should adhere. Price preferred the informal, asymmetric character of nature. Retaining pieces of the rustic natural character of a site such as old trees or crumbling roads, rather than wiping it all away a la Capability Brown, was a desirable technique of design that set a more picturesque scene.
Figure 2: “A View of the Roman Campagna from Tivoli, Evening” Picturesque artist Claude Lorrain
Fast forward a few decades to a Scottish man named John Claudius Loudon, who worked to establish a new theory of landscape design that grew from a reaction to the Picturesque as well as a sudden spike in public interest in the world of horticulture. Recent advancements in technology at the time were allowing for rapid proliferation of exotic plants throughout the continent and across oceans, and the public at large were eager to learn about and experience these new specimens first hand. Loudon’s theory focused on using exotic specimens to create landscapes that vaguely recalled some aspects of the old Capability Brown style as well as the Picturesque, but above all were meant to ensure that the designer’s intervention was not mistakable for a creation of nature. He believed that a garden should not mimic nature, preferring to allow each plant the space to take on its full natural shape rather than grouping them in “painterly” masses. He encouraged the use of bold, abstract shapes for circulation and planting beds, and saw merit in the Picturesque philosophy of incorporating architectural features into the landscape. Loudon’s theory of design is what we now know as Gardenesque – the same that a retired businessman, philanthropist and horticultural enthusiast from St. Louis named Henry Shaw would soon draw inspiration from for the design of Tower Grove Park.
Shaw donated the 280+ acre tract, adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Gardens (which he founded in 1859) and his own private residence, in the late 1860’s in order to provide the city of St. Louis with a “pleasure ground” for citizens of all classes. Well-educated in the fields of botany and horticulture, Shaw had spent several years in Europe touring the great public landscapes and private gardens, gaining inspiration and knowledge that he would put to use designing Tower Grove Park. His plans for the park adhered strongly to the concepts put forth by the Gardenesque style. Though the park originally opened to the public in 1872, a great deal of Henry Shaw’s vision remains intact to this day. A trip to Tower Grove Park provides a window to the past that allows visitors to see a little piece of St. Louis as it was over a century ago, and to experience a taste of the culture of the time.
Figure 3: A view of the modern day Tower Grove Park’s specimen trees and historic Old Playground Pavilion