Lafayette Square

Locale and Topography

Lafayette Square, on the north edge of the old St. Louis Commons, was predestined to become one of the city's finest residential areas due to it's high elevation and its location surrounding the city's first public park. The park was set aside by the city for public use soon after the sale of the Commons was authorized in 1836, during Mayor Darby's administration. It was not immediately developed as a park, but was called the Parade Ground because of its use for drilling by the Home Guard of Colonel Thornton Grimeley.

The area around the park soon became the object of real estate activity with sales initially taking place on the north and south sides of the park. The north side was particularly desirable because of the broad vistas across Mill Creek valley toward the river. A sharp ridge line along Hickory Street divided the valley from the high plateau to the south, where a gradual down slope was evident in the other directions.

Early History

Probably the first house built in the area was that of William M. Page who built his country home in 1838 on land purchased from John and Patrick Dillon. The Dillons were the original purchasers of a large tract north of the park when the first sales were made. Among initial buyers on the south side of the park were some German immigrants who later returned to thelr homeland for economic or patriotic reasons. Court decisions determining ownership of the defaulted parcels enabled Archibald Gamble, Charles Cibson, and David Nicholson, among others, to accuire the south frontage. Beginning about 1850, they built large mansions on well landscaped estates facing the park. Generally, however, real estate activity in the park's vicinity remained dormant until the late 1850's.

Some improvement work began in the park after passage of an ordinance in 1851. Sales of land occurred on the park's west side after 1856 but that area did not begin to build up until 1880. After 1858 development began on the east side of the park along Mississippi Avenue through efforts of Stephen D. Barlow and Socrates Newrnan. Barlow was the developer of Kennett Place, but most of the houses facing the park were built after 1875. Activity on the north side of the park began after the Civil War, when Benton Place was platted by Montgomery Blair in 1866. It was designed by Julius Pitzman and remains one of the earliest private streets in the nation. It was unique in that property lines extended across the roadway to the center of an oval shaped parkway. Property owners thereby controlled traffic and care of the parkway for recreation.

Lafayette Square reached the zenith of its development as an exclusive residential district by 1890, but suffered some irreversible loss from the tornado of May 27, 1896. Considerable reconstruction took place and the area retained some of its former glory until after World War I. The city's first zoning ordinance in 1918 classified the property on the park's perimeter as residential. When the zoning law was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in 1923, commercial interests began to impinge on the park's surroundings. This speeded the exodus of most of the remaining families from the Victorian town houses of the area and many were converted into rooming houses during the Depression, despite the protection of later zoning restrictions.

Recent Conditions

Since the late 1960's, a restoration movement has begun in the area with many young couples buying the old houses and renovating them in a manner similar to their original appearance. Some of the structures are being divided into apartments although many are reverting to single family use. This movement has been aided by local and national publicity, strong neighborhood organizations and city cooperation in planning. The restoration effort is not only active in houses facing the park, but has spread considerably into adjacent streets west to Jefferson Avenue and northeast to LaSalle and Eighteenth streets, including the well-known Harris Row. Lafayette Square was declared to be a city historic district in 1972.


The majority of the houses in the Lafayette Square area were built before 1900, some dating back to before the Civil War. The period of greatest construction activity for the Second Empire style Victorian town houses were the two decades beginning in 1865. They were usually built with two full stories topped by a third floor mansard roof with dormer windows. Typical design features were arched doorways and windows, bay windows and ornate cornices. The facades were built of limestone or sandstone with brick walls on the sides and in the rear. The largest examples were built in Benton Place or on Park Avenue north of the park. Elsewhere in the area, they were somewhat smaller although still considered large by present standards. Some of the later ones, built during the 1880's, were a full three stories in height in the Italianate style.

After 1890, the prevailing architectural mode turned to houses displaying a Germanic influence, built completely of red brick, featuring wide arches, turrets, classical columned porches and iron balconies. In a few cases the original Victorian houses have been replaced by early twentieth century residences and apartment houses.

Several early houses in the area north of the park were designed by architect John H. Maurice, including the one at 21 Benton Place for General John S. Cavender. Maurice was also the designer of the Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church.

Probably the best known St. Louis architect of the mid-nineteenth century was George Ingham Barnett, who was quite active in the Lafayette area. He designed homes at 2107 and 2115 Park Avenue, the Blair-Huse mansion at 2043 Park Avenue and the Desloge house at 6 Benton Place.

During the 1890's, Theodore C. Link, architect of Union Station, designed houses at 2031 Park Avenue and 1701 Nicholson Place, as well as the Lafayette Park Methodist Church. The house at 2323 Lafayette Avenue was the work of architect Otto J. Wilhelmi, who was well known for his many fine designs in Compton Heights.

Lafayette Park

Whlle the present site of Lafayette Park was set aside for public use in 1836, it took many years before the city grew out to it and it cou!d become a reality. It was dedicated as Lafayette Square in 1851 and was renamed Lafayette Park in 1854. The dedication ordinance provided for a board of improvements which included three residents of the vic nity of the park, also providing tnat improvement funds were to be raised by private citizens. By early 1852 money was available to build a wood fence around the park and to plant trees and shrubs. During the years up to the Civil War, a slx acre parade ground was developed and an ornamental pond was created amid extensive landscaping.

The War caused a cessation of activity in the park's development until 1865, but soon thereafter a permanent park superintendent was appointed and the park was gradually turned into the city's finest recreation ground. In 1868, the park was embellished by a statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton by sculptress Harriet Hosmer. Its unveiling was witnessed by a crowd of nearly 40,000 persons. A year later, through the efforts of Charles Gibson, a bronze copy of Houdon's statue of George Washington was dedicated in the park. After construction of a band stand, weekly concerts were given during the summer months, benches were purchased and the police station was erected at the park's southeast corner. The iron fence around the park with decorative entrance gates was completed in 1869 with bond issue funds.

In 1870 the pond was enlarged, a fountain was added and boating became a popular park pastime. A large ornamental music pavilion, about forty feet high, was erected in 1876. During this period Lafayette Park, through expert gardening and maintenance, attained perfection in its landscaping and ornamentation.

The park suffered almost complete devastation in the 1896 tornado, which uprooted most of its large trees and destroyed the band stand and pavilions. Although restored in the following years, the park never again reached its former glory. It was only through vigorous efforts that the ornamental iron fence around the park was saved from the World War II scrap metal drive. The renewal efforts that are now being undertaken on the houses near the park have had a beneficial effect upon it. The old police station has been reopened as a museum and a generally improved appearance is evident in the park.


The Lafayette Park Baptist Church was originally the Park Avenue Baptist Church, which was founded in 1868 on Park Avenue near Twelfth Street. Due to an increase in membership it was decided to seek larger quarters in 1888 and a site was purchased at the southeast corner of Lafayette and Mississippi Avenues. The present name was adopted a year later when the new church was occupied. The church was badly damaged in the 1896 tornado and services were temporarily held in the Y.M.C.A. Hall at 1800 South 18th Street. By late 1896 the church was rebuilt at the same site, at the rear of the lot facing Lafayette Avenue. In 1923 an annex was added with the entrance on Mississippi Avenue. Three years later the church was again enlarged to accommodate its increased membership. In 1933 the church had 1300 members with 1400 pupils enrolled in its Sunday School.

A church known as Wesley Chapel founded in 1843 formed the beginning of the present Lafayette Park Methodist Church. It was located on Paul Street north of Hickory Street and moved in 1848 to the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Chouteau Avenue. The church was destroyed by a storm while under construction but was rebuilt and dedicated in 1850. Ihis building was replaced by a larger building in 1873, at which time the name was changed to Chouteau Avenue Methodist Church, South. The congregation moved again in 1888 to Lafayette and Missouri Avenues and adopted the church's present name. The church was unroofed and badly damaged by the tornado in 1896 and services were temporarily held in the Y.M.C.A. and later in the rebuilt chapel. The present stone church, fronting on Lafayette Avenue, was completed in 1900 after designs by architect Theodore C. Link.

Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church was founded in 1878 as a colony of the Walnut Street Church. A site was purchased at the southwest corner of Missouri Avenue and Albion Place facing Lafayette Park on the west. The church building, designed by John H. Maurice, was occupied early in 1884. Many of the church's members came from the old Chouteau Avenue Church which had disbanded in 1875. As in the case of its sister churches in this area, the Presbyterian church was unroofed and damaged by the 1896 tornado. Through fund raising efforts by its minister, Dr. Samuel C. Palmer, the building was rebuilt in its original modified Gothic design in cut stone. The Tyler Place Church was formed as a colony of the church in 1896. Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church occupied the building until 1946 when it merged with the Tyler Place Church. The church is now occupied by the Glad Tidings Temple of the Assembly of God. An offshoot from the Unitarian Church of the Messiah was formed in 1868 as the Church of the Unity. A corner lot at Park and Armstrong Avenues was purchased for $12,500 and a stone Gothic chapel was dedicated there in 1870. The Church of the Unity remained at this location until 1926 when the building was sold to a Lithuanian Catholic parish. The Unitarians occupied their new church at 5015 Waterman Avenue in 1917.

The first Protestant Episcopal Church in South St. Louis was organized in 1841 on the upper floor of a fire engine house on Second near Plum Street. A brick church was built on leased ground at Fifth and Spruce streets. This was replaced by another brick structure at the southeast corner of Sixth and Spruce in 1853. This property was sold to an Italian Catholic congregation in 1871. The Episcopalian Church, known as St. John's, began the erection of a new structure at the northeast corner of Hickory and Dolman streets in 1870. A deeper foundation was required when it was found to be above an abandoned quarry. The church, designed by architect F. W. Raeder, was completed in 1872 and was consecrated in 1889. The brick and stone edifice with its tall spire dominated the neighborhood until it was wrecked in the 1896 tornado. Only the altar and the chancel furniture were spared. However, the church was rebuilt and continued to serve the congregation until 1903 when the present St. John's Church on Arsenal Street west of Grand was occupied. The old building on Dolman Street is now occupied by a Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church.


While there is no public school located within the Lafayette Square area at present, it is served by portions of four elementary school districts: Sigel, Clinton, Hodgen, and Chouteau. It is within the McKinley High School district. Originally, the major part of the area was covered by the district of the old Peabody School at the southwest corner of Carroll Street and Second Carondelet Avenue (now 18th Street). This school was erected in 1872 at a cost of $43,422. It was a three story brick structure of twelve rooms. The top floor was occupied by Branch High School No. 3 in 1875. At that time, the high school had 160 students and the grade school had an enrollment of 480. The old school was razed about 1940 when the new Clinton School was built. The portion of' the area north of Park Avenue was served by the old Clinton School, which is still in use as an office of special education. It is located at Grattan and Hickory Streets and was built in 1868 at a cost of $44,000. It then had twelve rooms and a capacity of 700 pupils.


Residentially, in addition to the large town houses surrounding the park and those located on nearby former private streets, the northeastern quadrant of the area is dominated by Victorian multiple dwellings. North of Park Avenue and west of Benton Place red brick row houses and smaller single family homes reflect the social status of its original inhabitants. South of the park streets such as Nicholson and Waverly Places has been truncated due to the right-of-way of Interstate Highway 44, with the loss of several Victorian houses. A group of apartment houses of 1920 vintage was built at Lafayette Avenue and Waverly Place, on the site of the Charles Gibson mansion. West of the park are Whittemore and Albion Places, developed in the 1880's.


The earliest commercial activity in the Lafayette Square area was located along Chouteau Avenue and on Park Avenue east of Mississippi. The 1875 Compton and Dry atlas shows the Lafayette Park Hotel on the southeast corner of Park and Mississippi Avenues. The largest commercial enterprise in the vicinity then was Joseph Schnaider's Summer Garden on Mississippi Avenue near Hickory Street. Outdoor theatrical performances were presented there while patrons imbibed beer from Schnaider's nearby brewery. Commercial uses were excluded from the vicinity of Lafayette Park until the mid 1920's, when zoning relaxation brought isolated uses on Lafayette Avenue. Park Avenue has experienced a commercial decline in recent years despite efforts to establish it as a center for antique shops. The principal commercial area now is along Jefferson Avenue, north as far as Chouteau Avenue, where some deterioration is also evident.


Industrial uses were established along the northern fringe of the area adjacent to Mill Creek Valley as early as 1860. Schnaider's Brewery at Mississippi and Chouteau Avenues was the principal industry in this section in the 1870's. The Phoenix Brewery at 18th and Lafayette was somewhat removed from the industrial center of the time. More recently, the major industry was the large shoe factory at Hickory and Mississippi, now used for other industries. After entrenchment along Chouteau Avenue, industrial uses gradually moved southward along Jefferson Avenue to Lafayette absorbing old residential and commercial structures. Warehousing and wholesaling uses are now prominent along Chouteau Avenue with an admixture of trucking activity.


Horse car lines were built out to Lafayette Park soon after it began to be developed before the Civil War. Service began on the People's Railway in 1859, on a line which began at Fourth and Morgan Streets and ran out Chouteau Avenue to Second Carondelet Avenue to Park Avenue and terminated at Park and Mississippi avenues. After the war, this company put its Compton Hill line in operation, running south on Mississippi from Park to Lafayette and thence west to Grand Avenue.

The Lindell Railway's Blue Line ran west on Chouteau Avenue from 18th Street to Ewing Avenue beginning in 1864. It originated in the downtown area. A Lafayette Park branch of the Gravois Railway began operating in 1873. It reached its terminus at Lafayette and Mississippi Avenues via a circuitous route over Park, Twelfth, Carroll and 14th streets. These lines were electrified during the 1890's and are now served by motor buses.


An institution that had a long identification with the Lafayette Square area was the Union Club, which was a family organization of South Slde residents. Its club building, on the southeast corner of Lafayette and Jefferson avenues, was originally erected in 1892 and destroyed in the 1896 tornado. It was rebuilt as an even larger structure that served as a neighborhood landmark until 1955. The club disbanded in 1913 but the building was used for various social functions for many years. Construction of the St. Louis (German) House across Lafayette Avenue in 1928 hastened the demise of the Union Club since both were used for similar purposes.


The population declined greatly between 1960 and 1970 due to demolition for I-44 and a decrease in rooming houses. The present trend is toward restoration of the area's old houses by newer residents.


Foresight of the civic fathers in 1836 is responsible for the 120 foot wide streets which surround Lafayette Park on all sides. Adjacent streets were built with an adequate 60 foot width providing easy access for the light traffic of the nineteenth century. However, as in other urban locations, present day traffic has overwhelmed the area. Lafayette and Park avenues became the major east-west thoroughfares, but the completion of Interstate 44 has materially reduced their traffic volume. It is hoped that the ultimate construction of the long-awaited North-South Distributor Highway will lessen the present volume on 18th Street and Mississippi Avenue.