A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I:  Historic Contexts

11 - Architecture

Previous Page         Next Page

The built environment both shapes a community and reflects its past. Buildings and plans from different times merge on St. Louis streets to form a continuum of the past - a sort of bricks-and-mortar text. This context suggests the relationship between the buildings themselves and the past they represent.

French Colonists

Laclede and Chouteau planned St. Louis to be a linear village like Montreal, with three streets running north and south and rectangular blocks 300 X 240 feet. Most of the buildings were on or near the corners, leaving the centers for storage, gardens, and the like. The first buildings were poteaux en terre-vertical logs coming from the ground, equal distances part. Colonists filled the gaps between the logs with mortar, stones, or a mixture of mud with grass or straw.

The most distinctive features of the buildings in this French hamlet were the hipped roofs and porches spanning the entire perimeter of the building to provide shade in summer and protect the whitewashed plaster wall from rain. Visitors often wrote of the sparkling white buildings against the Missouri landscape.

St. Louis grew quickly, especially after it came under American control in 1803. New arrivals from other parts of the United States and Europe brought building styles and ideas with them. A more American architecture replaced the French in St. Louis within three decades.

Spreading Out

Early St. Louis was a compact but growing community. Narrow streets became crowded with animals, wagons, and people. Auguste Chouteau and Judge J. B. C. Lucas established the first subdivision in St. Louis in 1816. Extending from 4th to 7th streets between St. Charles and Spruce, this new development became a stylish residential area. Some of the buildings were brick, as was most of the new construction in town. The first brickyard in the village opened in 1813.

Others followed in coming decades. First buildings in the Soulard addition south of downtown appeared in the 1830s. Benjamin O'Fallon, William Christy, and Thomas Biddle opened new developments in the 1840s on the near north side. Escaping urban ills of pollution and overcrowding were as much an impetus for people moving west as was the push for more space. Those moving to the outskirts tended to be the more affluent, leaving the older, crowded town for recent arrivals and those of lesser means.

Public transportation allowed middle class St. Louisans to enjoy a suburban lifestyle as well. Earliest communities sprouted where streetcars connected them to the core city. Towns such as Bremen and Carondelet became part of the city of St. Louis once convenient modes of travel took residents to the core city daily. While the boundaries set by the 1876 Charter seemed distant at the time, streetcar lines and, later, asphalt highways would carry people even farther from the core city to find more idyllic living space.18

Private Streets

Part of this expansion of wealthier St. Louisans involved neighborhood control. One way to keep urban ills out was to create a private street. The first ones dated to the 1850s with Lucas Place, west of town. The Campbell House is the only remaining testament to the grand homes in Lucas Place. Benton Place in Lafayette Square followed, commissioned by Frank Blair. Benton Place was the first private street designed by Julius Pitzmann, who designed many of the city's private streets in his long career.

Other private streets followed. Vandeventer Place ran west from Grand between Enright and Bell, starting in the 1870. The only remnant of it is the entrance gates, since relocated to Forest Park near the Jewel Box. Portland Place followed in the early twentieth century, with some of the grandest homes by prominent architects in St. Louis.

Commerce Shifting West

The first business buildings lined the levee and 1st Street. After 1803, the area saw more large stone warehouses to accommodate the burgeoning river-based trade. Manuel Lisa built one at Main and Chestnut in 1818, for example, that remained into the 1930s. It was dismantled when the city cleared the levee area with the parts stored in the basement of the Old Courthouse; plans of reconstructing it never materialized.

Building material was one visible change in the architecture before the Civil War. A new public market opened in 1812 at Market and Main, was perhaps the first brick building in town, but wasn't alone long. Brick became more prominent in the teens, since the growing town had stripped away all the timber within a ten-mile radius by 1812. The first brickyard in St. Louis opened a year later. During the 1840s and 1850s, the appearance of downtown changed even more radically. Commercial buildings dominated the skyline, since churches moved to residential areas. The Planters Hotel opened in 1841 at Chestnut at Pine. Designed by Henry Spence, its capacity of 300 guests made it one of the largest hotels in the United States.

Fire changed the city in a flash. When the steamer White Cloud caught fire in May, 1849, wind carried sparks to other boats on the wharf and to wooden buildings in town. A large swath of residences south of Walnut burned to the ground, but new construction in the area was commercial, expanding the downtown even farther. The riverfront had been a crowded area badly needing some improvements. The 1849 fire provided the impetus for them. Portions of 1st Street were widened to sixty feet, and 2nd Street was paved. The city extended the wharf, and passed a new fire code requiring less flammable roofs and cornices. A westward shift started in the1840s, but became pronounced in the fifties. The mercantile district moved up from the river to 5th. Large retail stores opened in this district of St. Louis in the decade, centered around Washington and 4th. Verandah Row housed retailers when it opened in 1854, as did William Clark's commercial row two years later. William Barr opened a dry goods store that ran the block between 3rd and 4th.

Merchant's Exchange, completed in 1857 on 3rd between Chestnut and Pine, linked the old and new districts. The Exchange split between north and south during the Civil War, but increased grain trade overcame politics in 1873. The two rejoined to construct a new Merchants Exchange on the same location, a Francis Lee and Thomas Annan design completed in 1875.

When the City Grew Taller

The appearance of the central business district changed radically again during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Architects established a local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1890, giving them even more opportunity to exchange ideas on style. A more cosmopolitan architecture in St. Louis evolved, especially during these decades of great commercial growth.

Major construction in the 1880s centered on three areas. The first was a financial and retail districted around 4th, 5th, and 6th streets. Laclede Bank and Boatmen's Bank stood along 4th by the early nineties. The Security Building, completed in 1892, remains. The only bank still located in the old financial district on 4th is Boatmen's, now in a modern edifice across from the Old Courthouse.

The second area of growth was the corridor of commercial buildings bound by 5th Chestnut, and 12th, and Pine. Most notable in the area was the Wainwright Building, completed in 1891. It was the first realization of Louis Sullivan's new ideas on the rise of an indigenous American architecture. Sullivan's Union Trust opened two years later, considered at the time to be the city's first "skyscraper."

The third area of growth was the wholesale and warehouse district along Washington, west of 6th Street. The large warehouses and garment factories along Washington opened around the turn of the century, responding to the growth in making or shipping clothing for the burgeoning mail-order business headed by Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney, and Sears & Roebuck. The Stix, Baer, & Fuller department store anchored the district when it opened in 1905 on Washington between 6th and 7th streets.

Three years after, Hargadine & McKittrick completed a new building to house its Barr Company, taking the entire block bound by 6th and 7th, Locust and Olive. Builders planned on the department store using the first eight floors and railroads renting the remaining dozen for offices in the new "Railway Exchange Building." When completed at twenty stories high, it was the tallest building in St. Louis. Hargardine & McKittrick sold it three years later due to construction costs running high and rental income below projections.19

When St. Louis Centre opened in 1985, Famous Barr and the old Stix Building (by this time Dillard's) became the new anchors. A modern shopping mall spanning the blocks between 6th and 7th, Locust and Washington, its four stories of shops and restaurants connect Famous-Barr in the Railway Exchange Building and Dillard's, now in the old Stix, Baer, & Fuller building.

Downtown experienced another vertical surge in the 1970s and 1980s. After the City of St. Louis declared the central business district a "blighted" area in 1971, businesses erected new buildings there. Missouri Law 353 permitted cities to give 25-year tax abatements for construction in blighted areas. No fewer than fifteen major structures appeared as a result of this urban renewal legislation.20 The old "skyscrapers" such as Union Trust and the Railway Exchange, were dwarfed.

Railroad Architecture

Until the late 1950s, railroading was the largest industry in the United States. Routing trains in and out of a major trading center such as St. Louis left an indelible imprint on the city, including its architecture. The Eads Bridge, completed by Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company in 1874 under specifications and supervision of James Buchanan Eads, was the first major railroad structure in St. Louis. Tunnels beneath downtown connected the bridge with rail yards in Mill Creek the following year. That same year, 1875, St. Louis opened its Union Depot, a passenger station outmoded almost as soon as it opened. A new one at 18th and Market, designed by Theodore Link, replaced it in 1894.21

Today, the Eads Bridge and the Terminal Railroad Association tunnels are used for different purposes. Metrolink, the region's light-rail system, carries passengers through tunnels and arches that are more than a century old.

View from the Front Seat

Perhaps no other innovation has had more of an impact on the built environment in the twentieth century than the automobile. Signs and buildings were larger and bolder, having to be "read" at 35 miles per hour. Structures became part of a constantly and rapidly moving vision, what historian Chester Liebs calls "the panorama through the windshield." Streetcars started the trend. Businesses had to lure riders with shorter visual messages than possible with pedestrians. Business districts sprang along streetcar lines in the early twentieth century on major roads such as Jefferson, Grand, and Gravois, and on smaller ones such as 39th Street and Cherokee.

The auto built on this impact. For one thing, cars required new kinds of businesses and, therefore, new kinds of buildings. By necessity, these structures came to be a sort of advertisement themselves as a type of programmatic architecture-we know what business goes on there by a glance. Auto dealerships, for example, have large picture windows running floor to ceiling so drivers can see shiny new cars in the showroom. Service stations have pumps in front, and always sit on corners. Earlier ones always had garage doors for maintenance areas and "auto laundries." More recent additions to the auto landscape offer large canopies over the pumps and distinctive food stores. Restaurants use architecture as they would a sign or logo. We all know a McDonald's, for example, by its architecture alone, as St. Louisans recognize Ted Drewes.

Buildings evolved to support increased distance travel by car too. Cabin camps, roadside motels, and "motor lodges," came to dot the roadside. Since US 66 passed through St. Louis, remnants of these hostels remain along Gravois and Watson.

Public Art

Some 40,000 people gathered at Lafayette Park on May 28, 1868, for the dedication of its new statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As Missouri Senator from 1820 to 1850, Benton tirelessly espoused the idea of a manifest destiny with St. Louis at its center. The new statue was a major work by one of the era's leading female sculptors, Harriet Hosmer.

Other parks came to include statuary as well. Henry Shaw purchased works by Frederick von Miller of playwright William Shakespeare and scientific explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1878, and navigator Christopher Columbus eight years later. Wellington Gardner's 1885 likeness of Frank Blair stands in Forest Park at Lindell and Kingshighway. Ulysses Grant in front of City Hall, by St. Louis's first professional sculptor Robert Bringhurst, dates to 1888. Robert Cauer's 1913 memorial to turnverein founder Friedrich John and George Zolnay's Confederate memorial stand in Forest Park.

Controversy arising from public art is not a recent phenomenon. A group of German-Americans commissioned "The Naked Truth," nude by William Wandschneider, in 1914 to commemorate three prominent German newspaper editors in St. Louis: Carl Danzer, Emil Preetorius, and Carl Schurz. The unclothed woman in Reservoir Park upset the sensibilities of St. Louis Edwardians. Carl Miller's work in Aloe Plaza, across the street from Union Station, caused similar problems. Titled "The Marriage of the Waters" in 1941, its use of male and female nudes in the wedding suggested something more illicit than St. Louisans wished. Miller changed the name to "The Meeting of the Waters." Most recently, Richard Serra's iodizing steel work, "The Wall," in the Civil Courts Plaza has caused controversy as abstract contemporary art.

Religious Architecture

One of the first actions Bishop Rosati took when he took charge of the new diocese of St. Louis was to erect a church building. When it opened in 1834, the church-now known as the Old Cathedral-became a dominant feature of the skyline. It was not the first church building in the town, though. The Presbyterians were already worshipping in their church, completed in 1824. Others came as well, however none but the Catholic church were still downtown by the 1840s.

The Protestant denominations tended to be west of 3rd-still outside the downtown-in residential areas by the forties. Second Presbyterian Church moved to 5th and Walnut in 1840, for example. St. Vincent de Paul in Soulard (designed by recent arrival George I. Barnett), and the Church of St. Francis Xavier opened new buildings in 1843. St. Mary if Victories at 3rd and Mullanphy opened as the first Catholic church serving an all-German congregation, reflecting the changing ethnic make-up of the city.

Notable Architects

The first generation of architects to create a new appearance for St. Louis were those who designed the buildings for the building boom of the 1840s and 1850s. George I. Barnett, arriving from England in 1839, worked until late in the nineteenth century. Among his best work from the period was the first Merchants Exchange (1857), the Barnum and Southern hotels, and several churches. Meriwether Lewis Clark designed the 1837 St. Louis Theater as a Greek Revival edifice, and Henry Spence created the huge Planters Hotel.

The next generation created Gilded Age St. Louis. Working after the Civil War, this group of architects had more contact with others in distant cities, and were part of the rising professionalization of architecture through the American Institute of Architects. Barnett was still active, creating the homes on Shaw Place, the Barr Building, and St. Louis Life Insurance Company. Thomas Walsh designed the ill-fated Lindell Hotel and the Mansard-roofed Municipal Courts Building. Francis Lee and Thomas Annan designed the impressive second Merchants Exchange. Henry Isaacs designed the Odd Fellows Hall and Pilgrim Congregational Church. In all, their best work merged to create a St. Louis that seemed modern to turn of the century visitors.

Several spanned centuries. Theodore Link designed his greatest work coming in 1894 with the design of Union Station. Isaac Taylor's career reached from the Post Office and Custom House (now the Old Post Office), completed in 1884,to the Jefferson Memorial Building in 1913. A young architect at the start of the century, William Ittner, fundamentally altered the design of schools for St. Louis Public Schools in the early decades, as well as commercial buildings such as the Continental Building near Grand in 1929.

Notable national figures designed buildings in St. Louis starting at the turn of the century too. H. H. Richardson's home for John Lionberger in 1886 popularized the Romanesque design in St. Louis. Daniel Burnham and John Root built the Watson-Farr House in 1882. Louis Sullivan designed Union Trust and the Wainwright Building. St. Louis Public Library hired Cass Gilbert to design its Central Library, opened in 1913.

Historic Preservation

All cities have preserved some of their treasures of the built environment great and small, and lost others. St. Louis is no exception. Turning points in historic preservation initially focused on large, dramatic projects. The DeMenil Mansion barely escaped demolition to make way for Interstate 55. The Old Post Office restoration was funded by federal dollars as part of a downtown redevelopment.

Historical neighborhoods contribute to the historical fabric of St. Louis too. Lafayette Square residents began restoring mid-nineteenth century homes in the early 1970s, making it a premiere historic district. Lafayette Square was the impetus for other neighborhood organizations and projects such as Soulard, Benton Park (the largest historic district in St. Louis), LaSalle Park (organized by Ralston Purina), and Shaw. Today, many neighborhood organizations consider their historical homes to be an asset. 

Previous Page         Next Page

Was this page helpful?      

Comments are helpful!
500 character limit

Feedback is anonymous.