Locale and Topography
Tucked away in the extreme northwest corner of St. Louis is the Walnut Park area, which is bounded on the north by Bellefontaine and Calvary Cemeteries, on the west by the City Limits and on the south and east by the Mark Twain Expressway. Its land generally rises toward the west in a gradual incline with principal drainage being across the rolling topography of the cemeteries toward the river.
Land Divisions and Early Roads
Original land divisions of the area, now covering Walnut Park and the adjacent large cemeteries, were American surveys confirming Spanish land grants. U.S. Survey #1895 included the land now bounded by Florissant, Thrush, Bircher and Shreve Avenues, the balance of the area to its east as far as the Mark Twain Expressway was a part of Survey #458. West of #1895, reaching beyond the City Limits, was Survey #1913, while eastwardly, Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries comprised portions of several other surveys. Survey #1895, which was originally owned by the St. Cyr family, was later broadly subdivided into seven tracts each of about 800 feet in width and of varying lengths across the survey from the present Florissant Avenue to Bircher.
By 1856, their owners, eastward from the west end, were James Clemens, Jr., Charles Chambers, Octavia Boyce, Mrs. Mary Harney, Richard Graham, Bryan Mullanphy and Mrs. Ann Biddle's estate. East of Survey #1895, was the farm of Henry M. Shreve, while to the west were tracts owned by Pope and Jacobs, Mary J. Switzer, William H. Jennings and the McLaran family.
Access to the present Walnut Park area from St. Louis was at first obtained by use of Bellefontaine Road (now North Broadway) and thence by way of Calvary Avenue, which was irregularly connected to a county road, that is now part of Union Boulevard. In the period after the Civil War, additional routes were developed, the principal ones being a road toward Florissant, now West Florissant Avenue, and also Bircher Road. Pitzman's 1878 map of St. Louis shows several north-south streets penetrating into the Walnut Park area, these are Kingshighway, Goodfellow, Semple Avenue, Bellefontaine Avenue (now Geraldine) and the present Euclid Avenue, then called Snead.
By the 1850's, most of the area was under cultivation or used as pasture for dairy farms. One of the largest farms was that of Charles E. Bircher, who had established his homestead on the present Small Arms Plant site in 1849. A typical farm in Walnut Park was one owned by a family named Wipperman during the 1880's. It covered about eighty acres near the present intersection of Davison Avenue and West Florissant. This farm had a pasture, truck garden, pond, orchards and acreage planted in alfalfa, corn and beans. Its well furnished a welcome place of refreshment for travelers to nearby Calvary Cemetery. Subdivisions
Platting of these farms into residential subdivisions began with the Walnut Park and Jennings Heights developments in 1888. The former was bounded by Tracy Road (now Riverview), West Florissant, Thrush and Theodore Avenues. Jennings Heights fronted on Mimika Avenue, between Emma and Lalite Avenues, and extended westward beyond the City Limits. A few more were platted during the nineties, including Harney Heights in 1891, Elmwood Park in 1892, and North St. Louis Heights in 1893. Harney Heights, on the Harney family tract, was bounded generally by Ruskin, Bircher and Florissant Avenues and by a line west of Union Boulevard. By 1910, West Harney Heights and its additions were developed within the tract west of Harney Heights, extending to Emerson Avenue.
The decade after 1900 was the one in which most of the area's subdividing was accomplished. Some of the larger ones were West Walnut Park, between Riverview and Mimika; Acme Heights, west of Goodfellow and north of Emma; Bircher's Subdivision, bounded by Riverview, Theodore, Thrush and Bircher, and the two tracts between Emerson and Thrush Avenues, extending from Florissant to Bircher. Within the latter areas were Florissant Avenue Hills, Westfield, Union Avenue Heights and the Strodtman Heights additions. The 1900-10 decade also saw the platting of most of the blocks between Kingshighway and Euclid, south of West Florissant Avenue. Durant Park was platted in 1920 in the area bounded by Kingshighway, Bircher, Ruskin and Thekla. In the section west of Riverview, the balance of the vacant area was developed between 1910 and the middle 1920's, beginning with Coshocton Heights in 1911, followed by the Finch subdivisions on Florissant Avenue in 1920, North Pointe in 1921, and Lilian Terrace and Electra Park in 1926. The last subdivision in the area was Norwich Place in 1950.
A long-felt need for public park space in Walnut Park was realized in 1939 when David Hickey Park was opened along the south side of Bircher between Thrush and Goodfellow on land donated to the City for park purposes by the Bircher estate. It had tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a wading pool and playground equipment, as well as winding pathways and benches for passive recreation. Unfortunately, the park did not benefit its neighborhood for very long, as its site was soon preempted for construction of the St. Louis Ordinance (Small Arms) plant in early 1940. New park acreage, about one quarter the size of the lost Hickey Park, was later acquired, but was not landscaped until 1962, when it was named in honor of the late park commissioner, Dwight F. Davis. Streets A good record of the heritage of an urban area may be found in the names of its streets, as is the case in Walnut Park. An example of this is Genevieve Avenue, named for the wife of George W. Strodtman, real estate man and subdivider, Also, Garesche Avenue, named for one of the partners in the Jennings Heights development and Harney Avenue named for General William S. Harney of Civil War fame, who had extensive land holdings in the area. Children of the Jennings and other families of the vicinity are memorialized in streets such as Lilian, Theodore, Lucille, Emma, Thekla, Laura and Amelia. The developers of the original Walnut Park subdivision were partial to birds as may be seen by such names as Thrush, Wren, Plover, Robin, Oriole and Partridge. Authors and poets are remembered in Ruskin, Emerson and Alcott Avenues, while Beacon Avenue is named for a Masonic lodge. Acme and Durant are within subdivisions which bore the names of Acme Heights and Durant Park.
David F. Goodfellow and Charles S. Semple were owners of large farm tracts near Walnut Park, while Bircher was the road to the estate of Doctor Rudolph Bircher. Another doctor was honored by Bernays Avenue, the former name for the northern end of Union Boulevard. Florissant, meaning "flowering" in French, was so named because it was the main road from St. Louis to that old county town. Walnut Park is said to have received its name because of the groves of walnut trees which grew profusely on the nineteenth century farms in the vicinity.
Earliest of the Roman Catholic parishes in Walnut Park is that of the Nativity of Our Lord, which was founded late in 1904, as the result of petitioning by the Catholic residents. Its first services were held in the chapel of St. Mary's Orphans Home in December, 1904. A combination church and school was dedicated on October 22, 1905, at 5513 Oriole Avenue. The church was extensively remodeled in 1955. Portable classrooms were built near the church in 1921, and the present school building at 5827 Harney Avenue was opened in 1922 with a new addition in 1948. In 1931, the convent was erected. The original large Nativity parish was later broken up to create the new parishes of St. Adalbert, St. Philip Neri and the Corpus Christi parish in Jennings. A Polish Catholic church was established in 1913 and named for St. Adalbert, the patron saint of Poland. At first the congregation worshipped in the chapel of St. Mary's Orphanage. Its first church was dedicated in 1915 at 5710 Woodland Avenue, while the present church was completed in 1956. Polish services were only recently discontinued. St. Adalbert parish opened its parochial school at 5701 Amelia Avenue in 1927, and a new addition was placed in use about 1960.
The church of St. Philip Neri was organized on June 26, 1919 by Rev. Thomas Kennedy. Cornerstone laying ceremonies for a combination church and school occurred on November 7, 1920. The structure was completed in September 1921, at which time the parochial school was opened. The parochial school at 5036 Thekla Avenue was later used as a branch of the Mark Twain School. The church is now located at 5046 Thekla Avenue and the convent is at 5079 Queens Avenue.
The first religious denomination to organize in Walnut Park was a Lutheran congregation in August 1901. It met in the homes of members until a church was completed at Harney and Gilmore. This building was used until 1950, when the church, named for St. Matthew, moved to a new structure at 5402 Wren Avenue. Its first elementary school was opened in 1950 at 5403 Wren, across from the church.
Difficulties in reaching church on Sunday led several German women in the Walnut Park area, then known as "the Stix" to begin a movement to organize a German Evangelical church there in 1906. A house-to-house canvass brought together an interested group and in May, 1906, the Ladies' Aid Society was organized. It soon developed into a congregation and first services were held in a barn, belonging to Edward Heuer on Wren Avenue. Shortly thereafter, a small frame church was built at Plover and Thekla Avenue. Growth of the congregation was slow in the first decade because all services were conducted in German. English was introduced in 1917, broadening the church's field. Despite an enlargement, the original church became inadequate by the 1920's. Named as Salvator Evangelical, a combination church and Sunday school was built adjacent to the old church in 1925. The present church, now known as the Salvator United Church of Christ, was built on the site of the original one at 5618-22 Thekla, in 1951. At that time, the older adjoining building was remodeled into a meeting hall and offices.
A German Presbyterian church was founded in 1901 at 5451 Robin Avenue, but was disbanded during the depression of the 1930's. Two Baptist churches have been in the area for many years, these are the Walnut Park Baptist; church, at 4952 Emerson and the West Florissant Baptist church, at Florissant and Mimika, to which an addition was built in 1955. Other churches in the Walnut Park area are the Mount Beulah M.B. Church at 5209 Lilian, the Rose Hill M.B. congregation at 6102 Emma and the Bethel Temple Church of Christ at 5075 Davison Avenue.
Before the turn of the century, the children of Walnut Park had to walk to Baden to attend school. Walnut Park School was opened in 1900, at Robin and Thekla Avenues, in a small frame structure. Rapid growth of the community made larger and more modern educational facilities necessary, with the result that the present Walnut Park School at 5814 Thekla was opened in September, 1909. It had 18 classrooms, two gymnasiums, an auditorium and a block square site which provided ample playground space. The school was designed by architect William B. Ittner at a cost of $161,188. Also designed by Ittner, was the Mark Twain (originally Harney Heights) School at 5316 Ruskin Avenue. This school was opened in 1912 and cost approximately $200,000.
Portable elementary classroom units were built at Davison and Bircher in 1921, and were replaced in 1923 by the new Cyrus P. Walbridge School at 5000 Davison Avenue. This school was named for a former mayor of St. Louis and was designed by R.M. Milligan, with a construction cost of more than $300,000. It occupied the site of one of the last remaining apple orchards in Walnut Park. The Peter Herzog School at 5831 Pamplin Avenue in North Pointe is named for a man who served in the public school system for half a century. Its building was completed in 1936 after designs by Ernest T. Friton.
A movement for a public high school in the northwestern part of St. Louis was begun before World War II. At that time, students of the Walnut Park area were required to attend Beaumont High School, necessitating a long trip daily between home and school. By the late 1950's, Beaumont became somewhat overcrowded, causing a revival of the Northwest High School movement. In 1959, a $4,500,000 bond issue for the school was defeated as was another one for $2,500,000 in 1961.
A six acre site for the school was acquired by the Board of Education through condemnation in 1960. It was located in the 5100 block of Riverview Boulevard, adjoining Davis Park. Finally, in 1962, a bond issue of $2,000,000 was approved for the construction of the high school, requiring revision of previously prepared plans. The building was completed in 1964 at a final cost of $3.6 million, had a capacity of about 1,200 and lacked a swimming pool and sufficient gymnasium and auditorium space. A twelve-room addition, increasing its capacity to 1,600 was constructed in 1968.
Earliest secondary school in the area was Laboure High School at 5421 Thekla Avenue, which was opened as an all girls' school in 1942, continuing as such until 1952 when it became coeducational. Laboure reverted to its present all girls' status in 1965. It shares a five acre campus with St. Mary's Special School for Retarded Children, which opened in 1953, in the former St. Mary's Orphan Home. The orphanage was built in 1900 on a tract acquired two years previously from the Wipperman estate. Its $70,000 cost was contributed by an anonymous donor and its copper-domed bell tower soon became a neighborhood landmark. It was closed in 1952, to be reopened as the special school. Recent additions have included an auditorium, a natatorium and a gymnasium.
Adjoining the Walnut Park area on the north are the City's two largest cemeteries, Bellefontaine and Calvary. They were established to provide outlying burial grounds to replace older ones near Jefferson Avenue, which lay in the path of the expanding city. Oldest of the two is Bellefontaine, which was founded in 1849 on 138 acres of the old Hempstead farm. Soon after its founding, an epidemic of cholera struck St. Louis to such an extent that fatalities numbered about ten percent of the population. An average of about thirty persons a day were interred at the new cemetery. After the epidemic, James E. Yeatman of the cemetery board, chose a young Brooklyn landscape architect to design the grounds. Almerin Hotchkiss remained as cemetery superintendent until his death 46 years later, when he was succeeded by his son for another twenty years. Bellefontaine's fine collection of trees is said to be due to the vigilance of the senior Hotchkiss, as are the winding roads and park-like beauty of the grounds. The roster of names of prominent St. Louisans buried there reads like a Who's Who list of the St. Louis citizenry. In later years, Bellefontaine was enlarged to reach its present area of more than 300 acres.
To the west, is Calvary Cemetery, the City's largest, which covers over 400 acres. It was established in 1858, under the direction of Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick. In the early 1850's, the cemetery's western portion was the Old Orchard Farm of James B. Clay, son of the famed Kentucky statesman. The old mansion on the site was later the archbishop's summer home. It was not razed until about 1950. Among notables buried in Calvary Cemetery are Auguste Chouteau, co-founder of St. Louis; General William Tecumseh Sherman, of Civil War fame; and members of the Lucas, Mullanphy and DeMenil families. A more recent grave there is that of Doctor Thomas A. Dooley, the founder of Medico, who was interred in 1961. Calvary is one of ten Archdiocesan Catholic cemeteries in the vicinity of St. Louis.
Originally located at 5778 West Florissant Avenue in 1917, the Walnut Park branch library now occupies a $200,000 structure at the southeast corner of Gilmore and West Florissant. This building was erected in 1971, after a citizen's committee had objected to several alternate sites.
Another long awaited facility was the Walnut Park Community Center at 4981 Thrush Avenue, which was begun in 1973. After a long delay, work was resumed and the center was opened in the fall of 1978. A day-care center, in an adjoining building, was placed in operation in March, 1979. The buildings and an out door recreation area are maintained by the City. Existence of the center is attributed to the Walnut Park Church and Community organization.
Residential, Commercial, and Industrial
Walnut Park's residential build-up began in the 1890's with an influx of German Protestant families moving from the vicinity of Hyde Park. They moved from flats in the old section to single family dwellings in Walnut Park. A major portion of the area is residential, primarily single family homes built between 1900 and 1930. After 1900, Catholic groups of Croatians, Poles, Italians and Irish settled in the area, attracted by jobs in nearby industries.
In 1910, average sized lots (30 by 140 feet in size) could be had for $100 each and many of the houses built thereon were do-it-yourself projects. These were of frame construction; brick came into general use in the 1920's when two story houses with central heating became commonplace. About one-third of all housing in the area was built in that boom decade.
By this time, the population became predominantly Catholic with an increasing number of foreign born settling in the community. The depression caused unemployment and slowed down the housing construction; some development taking place in the section between Saloma and Bircher, west of Wren Avenue; World War II and the Small Arms Plant brought relative prosperity to Walnut Park in a period of sustained employment continuing into the 1960's.
The first blacks to move into the area arrived about 1963. Their influx was gradual but steady, and by late 1970, they represented at least one-half of the area population, with an even higher percentage at present.
Multiple dwelling units are widely scattered, with the exception of the section east of Union Boulevard, where four family flats prevail. In 1970, as previously, the incidence of homeownership in Walnut Park was rather high and neighborhoods had neat homes on tree-shaded streets.
Commercial activity in the early years saw a dominance of local business in the form of combination general stores and saloons, principally at intersections. Beginning about 1905, three major and two minor shopping districts emerged. These were on Lilian from Emerson to Thrush; on the south side of Florissant from Union to the streetcar loop at Robin and along Union north of Prange. Lesser activity located at Prange and Davison and along Thekla between Oriole and Robin. Later a sparse commercial strip developed along Riverview Boulevard. Eventual decline of local business in the area can be attributed to the changing age and economic patterns in the population and the increased mobility created by auto ownership and the consequent rise of regional shopping centers such as Northland and River Roads.
An industrial district is located in the eastern sector of the area, along the Terminal Railroad belt line. Among the plants located there are the Pillsbury Flour Mills (formerly Stanard-Tilton), Combustion Engineering Company, Alton Box Board Company and Barry-Wehmiller Machinery Company. Adjoining Walnut Park to the south, across Bircher, was the large industrial area which developed along the Terminal line early in this century. It included large industries such as the Chevrolet plant and the Pullman Company and was later augmented by the huge St. Louis Ordinance complex. This industrial area provided employment for Walnut Park residents and as it expanded, attracted newcomers to the area because of its proximity and employment opportunities. For many years, the Quality Dairy Company on West Florissant Avenue was an important economic force in the area. It was formed as a consolidation of several smaller neighborhood dairies about 1900. During the nineteenth century, much of the rural land in the area was occupied by dairy farms.
Shortly after the turn of the century, water mains and electric lines reached Walnut Park and by 1904, competition was rife between the Bell and Kinloch companies in providing telephone service. Laclede Gas began service to the area in 1905 for both domestic use and street illumination. Electric street lights were installed in 1929.
Railroads and Transit
Industrial development in the northwestern portion of St. Louis is primarily due to the St. Louis Terminal Railroad (now Terminal Railroad Association), which began to acquire right-of-way through the area in 1892. After the laying of track was completed in 1900, availability of rail access along with the vast area of vacant land attracted many new industries. This belt line connects the railroads along the river in the Hall Street section with lines in St. Louis County.
Public transit reached the Walnut Park area in 1893, when the Bellefontaine branch of the Union Depot Railroad Company was extended out Florissant Avenue from Grand to Calvary Avenue. This new electric line was intended to serve visitors to the cemeteries. About that time, the St. Louis and Suburban Railway placed in service an extension running north on Union from Forest Park to Florissant Avenue. The Florissant Avenue Electric Railway Company then built a line west on Florissant from Calvary Avenue to Robin Avenue. After the transit consolidation of 1899 and the merger of the Suburban line with the consolidated United Railways in 1907, these lines came under control of that company. The Florissant Avenue line was added to the Bellefontaine line, looping at Robin Avenue.
About 1911, a locally owned trolley line began operations on Florissant Avenue westward from the loop at Robin Avenue to Jennings Station Road and later ran a branch on Helen Avenue from Florissant to Lilian. It was called the "Dinky" because of the small size of its cars. Lack of business forced the line into bankruptcy in 1925. Soon after that the St. Louis Bus Company, operated by the United Railways, began a bus line from the loop to Jennings and also south on Helen Avenue and Jennings Station Road to Natural Bridge. In 1924, the Peoples Motorbus Company inaugurated its Walnut Park line providing direct service downtown. It looped at Riverview and Thekla and ran eastwardly through the area to Kingshighway and thence eastward on Florissant Avenue. This company was absorbed later by the United Railways. By 1947, streetcar lines in the area were converted to bus operation by the St. Louis Public Service Company.
Through traffic in the area uses West Florissant, Union, Kingshighway, Riverview and the Mark Twain Expressway (Interstate 70). The route for I-70 was chosen in the early 1950's, with final surveying beginning in 1955. Demolition for its right-of-way took about 200 houses and five businesses from Walnut Park. Some houses were removed to other sites after being sold at auction. Clearance for the highway began in 1956 and construction started two years later; Mark Twain Expressway was opened in June 1961, and soon found its traffic volume design capacity exceeded. It provides a convenient link for Walnut Park with both downtown and Lambert Airport.
Fire and Police
Before 1909, fire apparatus answering calls in the Walnut Park area had to come from Baden and negotiate the steep hill on Calvary Avenue before reaching the scene. Firehouse #22 was opened at 5214 West Florissant in August 1909. It was motorized in 1920, and served until 1922, when House #35 (now #27) was opened at 5425 Partridge. At that time, they were still hampered by many unpaved streets. Police patrols at first came from the old mounted district headquarters in Forest Park and later from the Baden substation, opened in 1899. They were augmented by many private watchmen. The Ruskin Avenue (Sixth District) police station at Ruskin and West Florissant Avenues was completed in 1930.
Scharf, J.T. - "History of St. Louis City and County. - 1883
City Plan Commission - "St. Louis Development Program" - 1973
Usery, Jess M., Jr. - "Walnut Park - The Story of a Neighborhood" - 1970
Compton, Richard J. and Dry, Camille N. - "Pictorial St. Louis" - 1875
Stevens, Walter B. - "St. Louis - The Fourth City" - 1909
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department - Annual Report - 1974
St. Louis Board of Aldermen - "Rapid Transit Report" - 1926
St. Louis Globe-Democrat - "Walnut Park - Changing Neighborhood from White to Black" - by Andrew Wilson - March 30, 1972