How His Garden Grew Peter Raven's 25 Years at the Missouri Botanical Garden

By Sue Ann Wood Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

How His Garden Grew Peter Raven's 25 Years at the Missouri Botanical Garden


Sue Ann Wood Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When Peter Hamilton Raven arrived in St. Louis in 1971 to become director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, it was still very much what most St. Louisans called it - Shaw's Garden.

Now, 25 years later, looking very different from the land Henry Shaw cultivated in the late 1800s, the garden could be called by another name - Raven's Realm.

Heralded as a "brilliant young botanist" when his appointment as garden director was announced, Raven, then 36, had been on the Stanford University faculty for nine years and had collaborated with well-known ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich on a book about evolution. "I had never thought that much about botanical gardens" as a career opportunity, Raven said, "but it seemed like a good time for a change." While he had been enjoying his career, Raven said, he felt the need for more variety, a way of meeting more people in different situations than was possible in the purely academic world. One attraction of the St. Louis offer was that the garden directorship carried with it a tenured professorship in biology at Washington University. In 1971, the garden had a reputation in the scientific community for its botanical research and a reputation in St. Louis as a pleasant place to visit, with one major attraction - the geodesic-domed Climatron, built in 1960. Shaw's home, Tower Grove House, and mausoleum were on the garden's grounds, and besides the Climatron, the only other big structure there was the Linnean House, built in 1882, then - and now - the oldest continually operating display greenhouse in the United States. Raven arrived to find under construction the John S. Lehmann Building, which would house the garden's world-famous collection of herb specimens, some dating back to Germany in the early 1700s. However, to his surprise, he found that most of the garden's 79 acres were largely undeveloped, looking more like a park than a botanical garden. "The only parts in cultivation were the 10 acres of Henry Shaw's original garden, the area of the Climatron and the construction site of the half-finished Lehmann Building," he said. What the energetic new director saw was a need for a master plan for development of the rest of the garden, with an eye to bringing many more visitors to the grounds. People tended to visit only the Climatron and then leave, he said. Looking back on those days, Raven recalled that the garden had about 80 employees and only three staff members doing scientific research. The annual budget in 1971 was less than $1.3 million, and the garden had 3,000 members, with about 300 working as volunteers. As a measure of Raven's impact in the succeeding years, the garden's budget now is $18 million; its employees number 350, with more than 55 Ph.D.-level scientists on the staff. It has 33,300 members and 800 volunteers. An even greater measure of the changes wrought during Raven's reign is to list all the new buildings and garden areas that have sprung up in the past 25 years. Here are just a few: The Japanese Garden, opened in 1977, covering 14 acres, including a 4.5-acre lake, now one of the garden's most popular attractions. The Ridgway Visitors Center, built in 1982, giving the garden a new entrance on Shaw Boulevard, holding a large gift shop, restaurant, classrooms and a 386-seat auditorium. The William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening, opened in 1991, provid ing helpful information for 2 million amateur gardeners within a 40-mile radius. Older structures have not been neglected. Shaw's home and mausoleum are carefully preserved and a favorite stopping area for garden visitors. The Climatron and Lehmann and Linnean buildings have been renovated. New flower gardens, plant ings and sculptures grace every vista as a visitor moves along the winding walkways. The master plan, drawn up by a nationally famous design firm in Pittsburgh, had suggested a lake in the extreme southwest corner of the grounds as a magnet to pull visitors into that area. …

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