You may have never heard of Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, but you’ve probably seen the view.
The 33-acre park on the East St. Louis riverfront is a hotspot for photographers because it’s one of the few places you can get a decent shot of the Gateway Arch. You can’t capture the entire 630-foot monument from close up, and buildings block your way if you try from a distance in St. Louis.
People from all over the world pose on the park’s overlook platform for vacation photos. Locals use it for wedding, engagement, reunion, fashion and marketing photos.
“Typically, there’s almost always someone on the platform,” said Bryan Werner, executive director of Metro East Park and Recreation District, which owns Martin Memorial. “It’s the place where all the postcard shots of the Gateway Arch are taken.”
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The park also is frequented by movie producers and TV cameramen who need footage of the St. Louis skyline, he said.
Last week, still photographer Robert Davis, of Winchester, Kentucky, hit the platform twice in 24 hours while visiting his friend, Jerry Fryer, in Fairview Heights.
“I was here last night at sunset, but I wanted to get the morning light,” said Davis, 77, a retired dairy-farm maintenance man, carrying a tripod and a camera with a high-powered zoom lens. “If you shoot at sunset, the light is behind the buildings so they’re dark.”
Other repeat visitors that day were Jason Stilp, 41, and David Horvath, 25. They had stopped by the park two weeks earlier while driving from New York to Colorado and liked it so much they returned on their way home.
Stilp, a media producer, brought his glittery, brightly colored skateboard and rode it down a series of zigzagging concrete ramps that lead to the 40-foot-high platform.
“I don’t really have time to go to the actual monument,” he said. “So I Googled ‘good viewing place for the Arch,’ and this came up.”
Geyser shoots 630 feet
Martin Memorial’s busiest season is Fourth of July, when thousands show up to watch fireworks over the Mississippi River. In the past year, it has hosted events ranging from a dune-buggy convention to preparedness training by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Visitors get a bonus if they arrive at noon, May through September. That’s when, weather permitting, a geyser erupts from the middle of a giant circular pool. It shoots water up to 630 feet in the air for 10 minutes, matching the height of the Arch if it’s not too windy.
The Gateway Geyser used to erupt three times a day, but officials reduced it recently.
“We’re trying to cut costs, and we want to make sure the equipment lasts as long as possible,” Werner said, noting the geyser has been in operation since 1995.
The park didn’t open until 2009, but it’s roots go back to the 1940s, when architects entered a design competition for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (now Gateway Arch National Park) in St. Louis. Attorney and civic leader Malcolm Martin was an early supporter who helped raise money.
All the designs included property on the Mississippi’s east side, roughly mirroring the Arch grounds. Eero Saarinen won the competition, but his monument didn’t get built until the 1960s, and the Illinois component wasn’t funded.
Undeterred, Martin established the Gateway Center of Metropolitan St. Louis Foundation and donated his own money to buy 40 acres of East St. Louis riverfront property.
“He thought he could convince the National Park Service to accept the land and expand to the Illinois side,” said Tom Schlafly, 69, of St. Louis, the foundation’s secretary-treasurer.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the idea of an Illinois expansion gained enough steam for Congress to allocate money to start buying land in East St. Louis, said Frank Mares, Gateway Arch deputy superintendent. That law led to environmental surveys and discussions with property owners.
But the situation got complicated when some of the 100 acres being considered was sold to Casino Queen developers, Mares said. Then the Gateway Center foundation raised $4 million and installed the pool, geyser and four smaller fountains on its property.
“It was just no longer feasible (for the National Park Service) to work within the boundary that had been authorized,” Mares said.
Project still in limbo
The most recently adopted Gateway Arch management plan includes an Illinois component, but officials are looking at a different 100-acre boundary that would exclude the Martin Memorial geyser, Casino Queen and Cargill grain elevator north of the park.
The National Park Service can’t move forward on an east-side project before completing its current $380 million renovation of the Arch grounds, museum and Old St. Louis County Courthouse, Mares said, and when it does move forward, a geyser is unlikely to be part of an expansion.
“We wouldn’t consider it an environmentally-friendly feature in terms of water usage or electric-power usage,” he said. “It’s just not sustainable. It’s just not something we would ever do.”
Martin died in 2004, so he didn’t see his dream become a reality. But he left $5 million to the Gateway Center foundation to keep it alive, and he put his trust in board members such as Schlafly, an attorney who once practiced law with him.
In 2005, foundation board members wanted to get the East St. Louis property into public hands to help protect it, so they gave it to Metro East Park and Recreation District, which voters had formed five years earlier to coordinate park and trail projects in Madison and St. Clair counties.
Since that time, the foundation has spent $15 million to develop and maintain Martin Memorial, installing a parking lot and sidewalks and building the overlook platform and restrooms. It also pays for operational costs.
“Most work is done through a contractor, but we do have a person there on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Werner said. “At night, the person could be considered a security guard. During the day, they meet and greet visitors and assist with any special events, like small weddings.”
While the Arch’s metro-east phase has been in limbo for more than 50 years, the foundation board isn’t giving up.
This summer, Schlafly wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a letter to the editor, calling on members of the Illinois congressional delegation to urge the National Park Service to accept the foundation’s “generous offer” of donated land so that Saarinen’s vision can finally be implemented.
“I figure I owe it to Malcolm to do what I can to make this happen,” said Schlafly, who also is founder of St. Louis Brewery.
Romance and exercise
Shaun Bounds knew that his girlfriend, Angela Butler, wanted him to propose in a special place, somewhere scenic and romantic. He decided on Martin Memorial because of its great view of the Arch and Mississippi River.
On Jan. 4, the couple walked out to the overlook platform and began posing for photos. At one point, Butler, a restaurant server, turned around to find Bounds on one knee, holding an engagement ring in his hand. He asked her to marry him. She said “yes” and gave him an emotional hug.
“I was nervous,” said Bounds, 39, of St. Louis, a custom car audio-system installer. “I was real nervous. It took me a while to get up the courage to ask her.”
Bounds later discovered that the park has a 24-hour webcam, allowing visitors to say “hello” to family and friends by having them watch live footage on the Martin Memorial web page. He persuaded an employee to find the clip of him popping the question to Butler.
Today, the video is on the park’s Facebook page.
“(Angela) still looks at it and cries,” Bounds said. “I’ve got it saved on my phone, and she’s got it saved on her phone.”
Not all of the park’s visitors are photographers. Kimberly Sunlly, 34, of East St. Louis, walks or jogs on the grounds almost every morning, after she gets off work at FexEx in Sauget.
The ramps leading up to the platform are particularly helpful for working up a sweat. Sunlly, a mother of two, gives them credit for helping her lose 33 pounds.
“It’s a real nice place,” she said. “They have bathrooms and water fountains, and if you need to charge your cellphone, they have plugs on the light poles.”
The Gateway Geyser is billed as the tallest water fountain in the United States. It’s run by three 800-horsepower pumps, blasting 7,500 gallons of water per minute straight up at a rate of 250 feet per second. The four smaller fountains symbolize the Mississippi, Missouri, Meramec and Illinois rivers.
Martin Memorial is at 185 W. Trendley Ave., just south of downtown East St. Louis. Hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The park occasionally gets trespassers after hours, but it has few problems with crime or trash, according to Werner and security manager Marcus Atkins.
“It’s a best-kept secret,” Atkins said. “A lot of people who live in this area don’t even realize it’s back here.”