- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Inside a 19th-century train station being retooled into Forest Park’s first visitors center, Lee Anna Good paused until a circular saw’s shrill screech finally quieted.

“Ahhh, the sound of progress,” she said smiling, casting the din as a snippet of an ambitious and pricey bid to update the sprawling park — this city’s cultural nexus, home to several museums and a zoo.

Forest Park draws 12 million visitors a year, and locals are quick to point out that its 1,370 acres make it hundreds of acres larger than New York’s famed Central Park. Now, nearly a century since the veritable public playground played host to the 1904 World’s Fair, a $90 million makeover that began six years ago is nearly complete.

Once forced underground, the River des Peres is again fish-filled, visible and vibrant, linking with many of the park’s ponds and lagoons. Sewer lines have been ripped up and replaced. There’s a new boathouse, miles of reworked roads and exercise paths, 27 revamped golf holes and a new clubhouse.

The visitor-and-education center — twice rebuilt over the decades after fires — will have showers and hundreds of lockers rentable by the month, as well as an eatery, information desk, teaching area, and plenty of leasable space for weddings, reunions and other events.

For rent are backpacks with binoculars and guidebooks about birds and trees, including about 7,500 newly planted ones. A state Department of Conservation office will issue hunting and fishing licenses.

The park’s centerpiece — the lake area known as the Grand Basin, in front of the art museum — has been restored and adorned with new fountains.

And the World’s Fair Pavilion has been updated, as has the 66-year-old Art Deco floral conservatory known as the Jewel Box, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and among the park’s most-celebrated features.

The thinking: If you rebuild it, they will come.

“The usage is going to increase; it already has,” said Jim Mann, president and executive director of Forest Park Forever, a 17-year-old nonprofit group that has billed the project as “renewing the soul of our region,” a restoring of high gloss to a weathered gem.

“We looked at the park as a whole and said, ‘This is our chance. This is our moment in time,’” Miss Good, the group’s vice president, said of the revitalization funded equally by city and private interests. “The intention was never to have every road replaced and everything fixed.”

There are just plenty of visible nips and tucks of a place that was showing its age, having been dedicated June 24, 1876 — the same day Lt. Col. George Custer was massing his troops at Montana’s Little Big Horn before they were wiped out by warriors led by Crazy Horse.

In 1995, the city adopted a master plan that called for fixing all that had decayed, all the while looking to retain the park’s green space and historic character. Work began in earnest in March 1997, with expectations that the improvements would be done in time for the centennial celebration next year of the 1904 fair.

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