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Garden estate opens after renovation

St. Louisans can gain insight into life and era of businessman

Tower Grove, businessman Henry Shaw's country home in the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, is being renovated and will reopen to public Oct. 29. Shaw originally opened the gardens to the public in 1859.
Tower Grove, businessman Henry Shaw's country home in the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, is being renovated and will reopen to public Oct. 29. Shaw originally opened the gardens to the public in 1859.
Tom Gannam, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — To an out-of-towner, the 79 acres of fountains, sculptures and eye-popping landscapes nestled in a south city neighborhood are known as the Missouri Botanical Garden.

But St. Louisans often refer to the botanical displays as "Shaw's Garden," a nod to businessman Henry Shaw, who built his country estate on the grounds and worked to open the gardens to the public in 1859.

Shaw's country home, known as Tower Grove House, is expected to reopen to visitors on Oct. 29 following a two-year, $1 million restoration.

The hope is that it will provide a new glimpse into Shaw's life, his era and his motivation for turning his gardens into a long-lasting gift to the public.

Visitors approaching Shaw's Italianate-style home pass a profusion of blooming flowers and reflecting pools with sculptures. The gardens have grown from a gentleman's estate to a botanical center — with a strong research component, a tropical rain forest conservatory and a Japanese garden among its offerings — ranked among the most prestigious anywhere.

Among other accolades, the garden received the 2004 "Garden of Excellence" award from Horticulture Magazine and the American Public Garden Association.

"Over the years, the Missouri Botanical Garden has become one of the leading botanical institutions in the world, rivaling the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the New York Botanical Garden in the breadth and strength of its worldwide reach," writes the garden's director, Peter Raven, in the foreword of a new book, "Henry Shaw's Victorian Landscapes," written by Carol Grove.

Raven writes that Shaw's influence in St. Louis continues to grow nearly 120 years after his death. In addition to the gardens, Shaw gave land to the city that became its Tower Grove Park.

Shaw even put a bequest in his will for a sermon to be preached annually on the goodness God has shown in the growth of flowers, fruits and vegetables. In that tradition, Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in the city holds an annual Flower Festival with a street fair, where a guest speaker still visits to preach during the two-day event. Flowers provided by the botanical gardens are used for decoration, Episcopal Diocese of Missouri spokesman Robert Brown said.

Amy Haake, the coordinator of programs at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said Shaw made his fortune early, allowing him to retire at 39 and focus on the gardens.

She said Shaw was born in 1800 in Sheffield, England, an area known for its iron and steel manufacturing.

In 1818, Shaw came with his father to Quebec, Canada, looking to sell knives and metal tools in the Americas.

When a shipment of goods couldn't be located in New Orleans, Shaw's father sent his son there to find them. Shaw got the saws, chisels and other goods, but couldn't sell them, so he booked passage on a steamship called the Maid of Orleans, traveling to the Mississippi River community known as St. Louis.

He opened a hardware store there, selling cutlery and tools to those passing through to points west. As his business prospered, he also began lending money and buying land in the region, Haake said.

"He amassed about $25,000, and thought that was more than one man should make in a year," she said. Shaw retired with a fortune of about $250,000. Haake said that would be equivalent to about $4 million today.

Shaw hired architect George I. Barnett to design his country home in 1849. At the time, it was built on property southwest of the city. Now that St. Louis is much larger, the garden sits well within the city limits.

With an observation tower on its front, and located near a grove of sassafras trees, the residence came to be called Tower Grove House, Haake said.

But Shaw didn't just want a country estate for himself. He wanted to open the grounds to the public.

Shaw, who liked plants and gardens as a young man, was impressed with the estates and parks he saw in his travels to Europe, such as the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Botanists and naturalists convinced him that his garden should have strong research and science facilities, and that aspect continues to this day.

But his plan to fund the Missouri Botanical Garden was threatened when a woman, Effie Carstang, sued Shaw for breach of promise. She said he promised to marry her, but then broke his word. Carstang initially won a judgment of $100,000 in 1859, but Shaw later won an appeal.

"Some people say that if he had lost the appeal, we wouldn't have the garden today," Haake said.

At Shaw's restored home, visitors will have a chance to see what his house looked like at the time of his death in 1889.

Shaw kept meticulous records — so good that they were donated to the Harvard School of Business for a period of time so students could see an example of how to keep thorough records, Haake said.

The records were also helpful in preparing the house for the public. His dining room table, for instance, will be covered with gardening magazines and maps to show how he used it as a work space. The east wing of the house is not original, so part of it will be used as gathering space to provide information for tour groups.

And should visitors want to pay their respects to Shaw or see what he looked like, they won't have to go far. He had two mausoleums built, the first of which he rejected as unsuitable because of its materials. The second one he commissioned was made of red granite and bears his likeness in a sculpture.

Shaw was laid to rest in his garden; in the sculpture, he holds a single rose.