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Back to the Grandeur of 1904

Two Fountain Restoration
Hark Back to the St. Louis World's Fair

By Leslie McGuire, regional editor

The newly connected canals and water systems in Forest Park were developed to bring back the River Des Peres, moved a century ago to make way for the St. Louis World's Fair. Unfortunately, over the intervening years, this once beautiful site deteriorated badly. Rebuilding the watersystems radically improved the water quality by connecting the various isolated and stagnant ponds.

If there was ever a time and place for celebrating the exquisite promise of America, the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri was it. The fair drew more than 20 million visitors from around the country and the world. Originally called the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, it was held in Forest Park, one of St. Louis' most venerable and treasured resources. In honor of the centennial of that fair, the park and its remarkable water features are being refurbished and revitalized. In 1904, the park's man-made waterways-the Grand Basin and the surrounding canals-were one of the great constructed aquascapes ever built. At the end of the l904 World's Fair, everything was torn down with the exception of the St. Louis Museum of Art overlooking the Grand Basin.

In 1916, Cass Gilbert was asked to prepare a Beaux Arts plan for refurbishing the park, however, over the intervening years it had deteriorated. The Forest Park master plan, headed by the landscape architecture firm HOK, is restoring the park as well as its fabulous waterways and fountains. "Our obligation was to return the park to what it once was," explained Jim Fetterman of HOK. "The Grand Basin is almost exactly where it was for the World's Fair, and we have been very faithful to the Cass Gilbert plan."

When the project was initiated, the Grand Basin was essentially a swamp filled with weeds, and the canals and ponds were mud puddles. Now refurbished, the fountains will provide aeration that addresses a wide range of future water quality problems including algae buildup, aquatic weeds, bottom sludge, foul odors and insect infestation.

Officially opened to the public in 1876, Forest Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. At 1,370 acres, it is approximately 500 acres larger than Central Park in New York. Today, Forest Park attracts more than 12 million visitors a year and is home to the region's major cultural institutions: the Saint Louis Zoo, the Art Museum, the History Museum, the Science Center and the Muny, the largest outdoor theater in the world.

Celebrating the Greatest Real Estate Deal in History

The 1904 World's Fair celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. That event is considered only second in importance to the Declaration of Independence, since it brought into American ownership all the land lying between the Mississippi River and the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Described as the greatest real estate deal in history, it was negotiated with Napoleon by James Monroe. When the deal was concluded 828,000 square miles were added to the United States, nearly doubling in size. The cost was $15 million. As General Horatio Gates said to President Thomas Jefferson, "Let the land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a song."

Then and Now

No centennial was ever so magnificently planned and celebrated. Originally 1,370 acres of a low-lying wilderness of trees, swamps and thickets, Forest Park was transformed completely through the vision of three men: David R. Francis, Isaac Taylor and chief landscape architect George Kessler. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company hired 10,000 workers using horses, survey teams, blasting equipment and freight trains. They had to sculpt the land and move thousands of cubic yards of earth to reposition the River Des Peres, which threatened to flood the fair grounds. In addition to building the Grand Basin and surrounding canals, they constructed new sewer lines and an underground channel to move polluted water that eventually became part of the city's infrastructure and sewer system.

The St. Louis Museum of Art is the only building remaining from the 1904 World's Fair. Directly in front of it stood the Festival Palace, and along either side were the many exhibition palaces. The expanse of grass sloping down to the revitalized Grand Basin was the site of all the buildings in the fair. Photos courtesy of HOK Planning Group

The main palaces of the exposition were: Machinery, Liberal Arts, Varied Industries Electricity, Mines and Metallurgy, Manufacture, Education, Social Economy, Anthropology, Festival Hall and the Art palaces. At night, many of them were bathed in electric light to celebrate Edison's crowning achievement. As David R. Francis said on opening day, "So thoroughly does it represent the world's civilizations, that if all man's other works were by some unspeakable catastrophe blotted out, the records here established by the assembled nations would afford all necessary standards for the rebuilding of our civilization."

In addition to restoring the fountains and canals, boat landings have been added to further enhance the usability of the Grand Basin. Photo courtesy of HYDRO DRAMATICS

A staggering 7 million board feet of lumber was required to build the Palace of Varied Industries alone. The facades of the palaces, along with their sculptures, were constructed of a material called "staff," a mixture of lime plaster and cement containing glycerin and dextrose. Staff could be poured into molds, and sculpted or sawed into artistic designs that replicated some of the finest sculptures and monuments of the times. However, they were not meant to last, and were bulldozed a year later.

Fabulous Fountains

The original fountains were masterpieces of design. Modeled after those depicted in archival 1904 World's Fair photographs, the eight recreated fountains are the work of the St. Louis-based fountain-consulting firm, Hydro Dramatics. Extensive research was done to find the original designs and engineering plans. The Grand Basin, however, was weed clogged and sludge filled. "When we started work building the bridges," explains Jim Stonecipher of Egyptian Concrete Co., "we could barely see our equipment because the weeds were 15-feet high."

In 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or the St. Louis World's Fair (as it came to be known) drew more than 20 million visitors from around the country and the world.

The Cascades, situated in front of the Festival Hall that was in front of the St. Louis Museum of Art, pumped an amazing 45 thousand gallons of water per minute into the Grand Basin.

Other factors taken into consideration were the requirements for bringing the Grand Basin back to its original balanced, healthy state. "In addition to the eye-catching aesthetics of the spray patterns, the fountains also serve as a natural, environmentally safe and highly effective water-quality management tool," says Mike Perkowski, fountain consultant, Hydro Dramatics. "At full thrust, the system conveys a turnover of approximately 6,400 gallons per minute. These oxygen-filled droplets return to the surface, releasing the oxygen and creating additional wave action. The added bonus is greatly improved health and clarity for this once tepid and stagnant lake."

The balustrades are restorations based on Cass Gilbert's designs done in 1916.

Both large architectural fountains each feature center jets that propel water up to 50 feet high. Spouts from six additional fountains climb to 30 feet. Artistic spray rings with multiple nozzles surround each fountain.

Once the canals were refurbished, three gracefully arching bridges were constructed, designed by CON/SPAN Bridge Systems. The balustrades are faithful restorations of the original Cass Gilbert designs and are made of cast stone. The new bridges are not reconstructions, but reflect Gilbert's artistic vision. A total precast modular system from Egyptian Concrete Co. was selected that could be modified to accommodate design goals while carrying traffic and handling the expected water flow.

A Gem of a Fountain in the Jewel Box

Crystal clear water is also flowing once again in the historic Jewel Box in Forest Park. The Jewel Box, a popular attraction for generations in St. Louis, was built on a 17-acre site and designed by St. Louis city engineer William C. E. Becker in 1936. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places because of its unconventional cantilevered glass walls, it was considered an outstanding example of greenhouse design. Surrounded by rose gardens, plus lily ponds, statuary and monuments, the structure was designed to admit the greatest amount of light, resist hail damage, and reduce maintenance costs. A tremendous hail storm in 1938 broke more than one thousand panes of glass in the other green houses, but ture it its design, the Jewel Box remained undamaged.

Today's refurbished fountains are lit at night reminding us of how Edison's spectacular lighting display must have looked in 1904. Photo courtesy of hydro dramatics

The Jewel Box's recently completed interior fountain is located in a shallow rectangular reflecting pool surrounded by a wide, attractive stone walkway. In keeping with the new interior design making the space more functional, the fountain features graceful arcs of water that span the width of the reflecting pool. The shallow pool can be drained of its water and the fountain turned off to accommodate seating for events.

"Our biggest challenge was to create a fountain and the equipment to maintain it in a space only one-and-one-half-inches deep," says Kerry Friedman. "Also, there are splash and noise factors when you work with water. We know that water always takes the path of least resistance. When water hits a surface of water, it creates a distinctly different effect that it does when it hits a hard surface such as concrete. To make the fountain look simple and elegant took a whole lot of engineering."

In building The Jewel Box fountains, there were many variables that had to be addressed including considerable adjustments to the nozzles and on-site testing to ensure that the arcs of water would gracefully span the pool. Fidelity to the design this Art Deco greenhouse had to be maintained while creating a pleasing visual effect.

In keeping with the Art Deco design, electronic fountain equipment such as remote water level sensors was installed in nearby planting beds. Decorative grates on the bottom of the pool disguise mechanical fittings. The overall design complements the simple and elegant grandeur of the 66-year-old historic Art Deco landmark, and with water flowing again for the first time in 30 years, the Jewel Box will be a St. Louis jewel for years to come.

Because the reflecting pool is so shallow, the water nozzles had to be positioned on the inner rim of the shallow pool (rather than in the bottom) with arcs of water directed inward. The pump and filtration equipment is in a room on the floor below.

Forest Park once again offers visitors looking across the Grand Basin toward the St. Louis Art Museum a glimpse of what the area looked like long ago. Landscaping and finishing touches are still in progress, but a distinctly classical look is already apparent in the newly completed fountains that now grace the Grand Basin and the elegant Jewel Box.


The Grand Basin fountain team members

include HOK, Hydro Dramatics, CH2M Hill, BSI Constructors, Frank C. Mitchell Co. and Guarantee Electric. The Jewel Box team members include BSI Constructors as the general contractor, and Merlo Plumbing, who handled the installation of the fountain equipment along with Conti Electric. The bridge team members include CON/SPAN Bridge Systems and Egyptian Concrete Co.

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December 10, 2019, 7:14 pm PDT

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