Locale and Topography
The Benton Park area is bounded by Jefferson Avenue, Interstate Highways 44 and 55 and by Cherokee Street on the south, with an offshoot south to Lemp Avenue and Broadway. The topography is characterized by a gradual eastward slope toward the Mississippi River, with the slope reaching level ground near Broadway.
Streets and Land Divisions
The street layout in the portion of the district south of Arsenal Street was determined by section lines in the St. Louis Commons, while the principal streets in the northern section follow property lines of the Petit Prairie Common Field. The area's early main north-south thoroughfares were Carondelet Avenue, now South Broadway, and Jefferson Avenue, whose width is due to the importance given it in the layout of the subdivision of the Commons.
While the sale of the Commons was authorized as early as 1836, active platting of subdivisions within the area did not begin until the early 1850's. One of the earliest of these was a city subdivision in 1854 of the section between Wyoming and Chippewa Streets from Wisconsin Avenue west to Grand Avenue, which was the west line of the Commons.
Ben ton Park
An early municipal use in the Benton Park area was that of the City Cemetery which occupied the site which later became Benton Park. A ten acre area was laid out there for cemetery purposes in 1840, but only one acre of it was fenced at that time. The cemetery continued to be used until 1865 when the bodies were removed to the Quarantine burial grounds on Arsenal Island.
Benton Park, originally known as the City Park, was created by ordinance on June 25, 1866. Its original area of 17 acres has been reduced to 14 1/3 acres by widenings of its perimeter streets. The park lake caused a problem in its initial years because the water tended to leak into the nearby English cave. This was later corrected by draining the lake and filling its crevices with concrete. The park was attractively landscaped and featured a rustic bridge.
Near the southern entrance to the park is a monument to Colonel Friedrich K. F. Hecker, who raised a regiment of local German-Americans during the Civil War, serving first under Fremont and later commanding his own brigade in the Union Army. The shaft, designed by architect Ernest C. Janssen, was dedicated in 1882.
Benton Park has been extensively relandscaped in recent years with funds from sale of city properties in the nearby Cherokee rehabilitation area. A large playground with modern equipment has been provided and a park shelter building has been erected overlooking the lake. In former years, boating was a popular summer pastime on the lake.
The Benton Park area began to build up soon after the Civil War and by 1875 it is shown to be a semi-urbanized district in the Compton and Dry atlas. At that time the area was notable for the many sink holes and underground caverns which honeycombed the vicinity. By the 1890's most of these had disappeared in the march of progress as the area was graded and filled for construction of dwellings.
In 1875, the area was characterized by small and medium sized single family dwellings similar to those found in the Soulard area. Rowhouses, however, were not as numerous as in the older area. These dwellings were built on solid ground between the sink holes and away from the rough topography near them. Most of the large houses in the area were in the eastern part near the Lemp Brewery.
The best known of these, now known as the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, is a beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture. It began as a smaller brick house built by a French fur trader, Henri Chatillon, in the 1840's. In 1856 it was acquired by Doctor Nicholas N. DeMenil, who enlarged it to its present size and added columned porticoes on its east and west sides. Its design was said to have been inspired by the Henri Chouteau mansion, which then stood on Clark Avenue near Twelfth Street. After nearly becoming a victim of highway construction for Inter state 55, the house has been beautifully restored and is now a showplace of South St. Louis.
The 1875 atlas also reveals a Civil War landmark that was still evident at that time. This was the old earthen walled Fort Number Three, which was built in a cruciform shape above the surrounding landscape. It was located to the north of the present intersection of Salena and Lynch Streets and was part of a defense system built by the Union Army around the perimeter of St. Louis.
The St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church at 1933 Sidney Street was originally planned to replace the older Church of the Assumption at Eighth and Sidney, which was interested in moving westward because of the changing industrial character of its vicinity. St. Agnes Church was dedicated on December 6, 1891, but did not replace the Assumption parish as Archbishop Kenrick changed his mind about abandoning the older church. The St. Agnes Church was renovated during the 1920's and is known for its encouragement of sports in its parochial school.
The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Michael the Archangel, on Ann Avenue at Gravois, was erected in 1927. Before the organization of the Russian parish in 1909 its members met jointly with the Greek Orthodox congregation. After its inception the Russian group met in store buildings until 1910 when it purchased a house at 1125 Hickory Street, which was used until the present structure was occupied.
Epiphany United Church of Christ at 2915 McNair Avenue was formed in 1964 through a merger of the Ebenezer and St. Andrew's congregations. The Ebenezer church, which was organized as an Evangelical congregation in 1888, has occupied the present building since it was erected in 1891. It became an Evangelical and Reformed church in 1934 when those denominations merged and when the Congregational churches joined in 1957 the combined denomination was designated as the United Church of Christ. The present site of Epiphany Church was occupied in 1875 by St. Paul's German Methodist Church which was organized in 1874 as a mission of the Eighth Street German Church.
St. Marcus Evangelical and Reformed Church at 2111 McNair Avenue was founded in 1843 and held its first service in the old Benton School on Sixth Street near Locust. In 1848, two church buildings were erected, one for St. Peter's Church in north St. Louis and the other for St.Marcus at Jackson and Soulard Streets, later Third Street and Lafayette Avenue. St. Marcus Church remained at that location until its move to the present location at McNair and Russell Avenues in 1914. A new gymnasium and educational building was added to the church in 1936.
St. Marcus Church has operated a cemetery from its earliest days, the first one being located on Carroll Street in the 1840's. A tract on Gravois Road at Kingshighway was acquired and the present old St.Marcus Cemetery was opened there in 1856. It eventually fell into clause because ofthe lack of perpetual care and the last burial occurred there in 1959. New St. Marcus Cemetery on Gravois west of the River Des Peres was incorporated in 1897.
Among other Protestant churches in the vicinity are Zion Baptist at 2100 Ann Avenue, New Hope Baptist at 2867 McNair and the Olive Branch Bible Presbyterian Church at 2201 Sidney Street.
The earliest public school built in the area was the Charless School which was erected in 1895 at 2226 Shenandoah Avenue after the design by A. H. Kirchner, who was also the architect for the Fremont School completed in 1897 at 2840 Wisconsin Avenue. Fremont was considerably enlarged in 1963 by the addition of a gymnasium and more classrooms. McKinley was the first high school on the South Side when it was opened in 1904 and was converted to an intermediate school after the opening of Roosevelt High School in 1925. It later reverted back to high school status. The school was originally designed by William B. Ittner and was enlarged in 1925 and 1963. The Franz Sigel School, also designed by Ittner, was built in 1906 at 2050 Allen Avenue.
Commercial activity was rather slow developing within the area. Stores were first located at street corners and by 1875 a grocery, drug store and a bakery had been established in the section north of the present Benton Park. By 1890, commercial uses began to line the principal streets which had horse car lines operating along them, such as Jefferson and Gravois Avenues. Later, after the area became densely built up, stores were located on less important streets as well as on the main thoroughfares.
Among the first industries in the Benton Park vicinity were brick yards, a ropewalk and breweries. The largest brewery in the City during the 1870's was William J. Lemp's Western Brewery at Cherokee and 13th Streets. It was founded in 1840 by Adam Lemp on Second Street near Elm. Upon the death of his father in 1862, William J. Lemp gained control and soon began rebuilding the brewery at the South Side location. A cave, later known as Cherokee Cave, influenced Lemp to choose this site, since it provided a natural cooling cellar for the brew. Lemp's continued to prosper and grow so that it eventually became one of two principal breweries in St. Louis and a major producer on a national scale. The brewery was closed by prohibition and never reopened. Its plant is now occupied by Interco, Inc., as a shoe warehouse.
Earliest public transit in this area was provided by the Gravois Railway Company, a horse car line which began operations in 1873. It ran from the downtown area southward reaching Russell Avenue and thence south and west on Twelfth, Sidney and Jefferson to Gravois Avenue. As in most parts of the City, this area was well served by electric trolley lines by the mid-nineties, these lines now being motorized with buses.
Present characteristics show the Benton Park area to be an old predominantly residential district consisting of two and four family dwellings with a few single family homes. This housing stock generally dates from the 1880's and 1890's. In recent years demolitions have far exceeded new construction. Except for corner stores scattered throughout the area, most commercial activity is along Jefferson Avenue south of Gravois. This business strip has deteriorated somewhat in recent years although some new drive-ins and service stations have been built.
The population is about 85% native white with a large German and Slavic group predominating in the remainder. The non-white population is only about 2%.
The principal neighborhood organizations in the area are the Pontiac Central Neighborhood Association, Neighborhood Pride, Benton Improvement and Beautification Association and Neighborhood Housing Services, a not-for-profit cooperative effort between neighborhood representatives and businesses.