Whether for classes, athletics, student groups or community events, Washington University students find plenty to enjoy in Forest Park. (Click the “i” in the upper-left corner for captions.)
Ask any Washington University in St. Louis student their favorite part of the city, and Forest Park will come up more than a few times. Students engage regularly with the historic urban park — touted as one of the “great civic treasures of St. Louis” — and most everyone has a favorite spot to unwind somewhere within its grounds. Students flock to the park for classes, athletics, student groups and community-wide events such as LouFest, Balloon Glow and Fair St. Louis.
Forest Park was established in 1876 and is the sixth-most visited urban park in the United States. With an area of 1,371 acres, it is almost 50 percent larger than New York City’s Central Park. Washington University and Forest Park have a long-standing partnership that dates back to before the 1904 World’s Fair, which the two entities hosted together.
Today, the park is home to some of the region’s richest cultural and civic institutions, including The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM); the St. Louis Science Center; the Missouri History Museum; the Municipal Theater Association of St. Louis (The Muny); and the St. Louis Zoo. Thanks to taxpayers in the City of St. Louis and in St. Louis County, admission to all of these venues is free, making it easy for students to explore what the park has to offer.
Washington University students love the attractions, but also relish the beauty of the park and its expansive nature. Here, students share some of their favorite memories:
- Nicole Bell, a 2015 graduate who studied comparative literature and marketing, remembers a paddleboating experience. “Once, I took my friend who was visiting to Forest Park to paddleboat on the lake, and it started pouring mid-boating session,” she said, “We got soaked, but we owned it.”
- Junior Simon Olson, who studies economics and mathematics, first visited SLAM for class, but keeps coming back for the impressive collections. He cites many of the works of Max Beckmann, a former faculty member in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, as his favorites.
- Patricia Witt, a junior studying communication design, also frequents SLAM. “They bring in some cool artists — especially new ones,” she said. “Nick Cave once had a show there. His stuff is freaky and fun to watch.”
- When asked about her favorite Forest Park pastime, Molly Banta, a senior studying international affairs and computer science, runs in the park regularly as a member of the cross country team. “There is nothing quite like being in a massive pack, tired, but excited, running down that first long stretch toward the Visitor Center,” she said. “At the right time of year, we literally watch the sun rise as we run toward it, the horizon always slightly out of reach.”
- Abby Alonso, a senior anthropology major, prefers rollerblading on the bike paths. “You always get great looks from people passing by,” she said. “Especially fellow students.”
As part of an architecture undergraduate studio, students in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts each year design and build experimental, handmade kites and fly them along the windy slopes of Art Hill. Many classes offered through other schools visit the park and SLAM as well.
While some students come to the park for class trips, others choose to independently study the diverse landscape.
Alexandra Mei, a 2015 graduate of the Sam Fox School and co-founder of the Washington University Design for America studio, channeled her passion for landscape and urbanism in a project where she tracked pedestrian usage and pathways across Art Hill.
Weekend trips to the St. Louis Zoo are commonplace. Visiting the annual Penguin Parade, when temperatures are below 50 degrees and the penguins waddle in procession to the entrance of the zoo, is fast becoming tradition for many a freshman floor. The sprawling zoo is the second largest and is ranked among the Top 10 zoos in the country by Fodor’s.
Students also utilize the park’s vast and winding trails for exercise, whether they run, golf, blade, boat or bike the grounds. Club running, cross country and track regularly hold practices in Forest Park. The university men’s and women’s tennis teams also have sponsored a clinic for Special Olympics athletes at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center.
A part of the community
Every year, Forest Park hosts a wide range of entertainment events, such as Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and LouFest. SLAM also hosts an Art Hill Film Series on Fridays in the summer. Fair St. Louis, centered around Art Hill, has been held in the park the past two years, featuring timeless musical acts such as Kool & the Gang and Blondie.
Junior class president Reid Petty, who studies marketing and film, was lucky enough to be in St. Louis this summer to experience Fair St. Louis. “Seeing Blondie in Forest Park this year was amazing,” he said. “Not only was I able to see one of my favorite artists of the 1980s, but I was able to be a part of the larger St. Louis community.
“Sitting on Art Hill, surrounded by so many people, all brought together by music was an incredible experience and a testament to the community that binds the city of St. Louis,” Petty said.
Each September, students flock to Art Hill for LouFest, an annual two-day music festival founded by Brian S. Cohen, a 1990 Washington University graduate. The festival brings top musical acts from across the country to St. Louis for an unforgettable musical experience.
Brian Benton, a senior studying American culture studies and art history, explained the appeal of LouFest.
“It’s a lot smaller than Lollapalooza or Coachella, so you can see acts up close,” Benton said. “Because it’s so close to campus, lots of students go.
“Beyond the big events you hear about, there are all kinds of random small things that happen in Forest Park, like pillow fights, movies and concerts. I’m constantly checking Do314.com or the Riverfront Times for stuff going on.”
Another highlight is the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race, which many freshmen visit as a floor.
Katy Przybylski, a junior studying English and secondary education, said the Balloon Glow, held on the night before the race, is like nothing she’s ever seen.
“It’s a surreal experience walking through the park and being surrounded by these massive structures that are lighting up at different times,” Przybylski said. “The only thing I could compare it to is an up-close fireworks show. My parents love it so much they have already booked their tickets to come this year.”
In the coming year, Forest Park will become even more accessible to students with the construction of the Loop Trolley, which will begin at the western edge of the Delmar Loop. The trolley will have 10 stations connecting the university to the Missouri History Museum.
Forest Park holds a special place in the hearts of many Washington University students, alumni, faculty and staff, and will almost certainly continue to be an important part of life at the university for generations to come.
Charlotte Gordon is a student intern in the Office of Public Affairs.