Lafayette Square Neighborhood Overview
Information concerning the neighborhood history, characteristics, institutions and organizations, planning and development.
Lafayette Square is bounded on the north by Chouteau Avenue, on the south by Interstate 44, on the east by Dolman Street and on the west by South Jefferson Avenue. It is just south of downtown and within walking distance of Soulard market.
Shortly after the sale of the St. Louis Commons was authorized in 1836, an area on the north edge of the common field, was set aside to become the site of the city’s first public park. 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. Some early homes and mansions were constructed in the area, such as the country home of William Page, built in 1838; but for the most part, real estate activity in the park’s vicinity remained dormant until the late 1850’s.
The park was dedicated as Lafayette Square in 1851 and renamed Lafayette Park in 1854. With the dedication ordinance, funds were raised to build a wood fence around the park and to plant trees and shrubs. During the years leading up to the Civil War, the city created a six-acre military parade ground and an ornamental pond amid extensive landscaping. The War halted development of the park until 1865, but shortly thereafter, a permanent park superintendent was appointed and the park was gradually turned into the city’s finest recreation ground. Through the work of landscaper, Maximillian Kern, the park was redesigned according to new ideas about park landscaping. With the changes and improvements made in the years that followed, the park came to include a large lake, a rocky grotto, an iron fence surrounding the park with decorative entrance gates, a bandstand and pavilions, lush foliage and scores of trees. The park became a popular recreation area complete with boating and musical performances.
Residential development of areas around the park had begun in years before the Civil War, but gained substantial momentum in the decades that followed it. On the north side of the park, Benton Place was platted by Montgomery Blair in 1866. Designed by Julius Pitzman, it remains one of the earliest private streets in the nation. The east and west sides of the park began to build up in the 1870’s and 1880’s. As the neighborhood grew, it became home to some of St. Louis’s most prominent citizens, including several majors, congressmen, cabinet members, a Supreme Court Justice and the president of the American Bar Association.
By 1890, Lafayette Square had reached the zenith of its development as an exclusive residential district, but on May 27, 1896, suffered significantly from an unexpected event, a tornado that ripped through the near south side of the city. Lafayette Park sustained irreversible damage. Most of the trees were uprooted and all of the ornamental structures destroyed. Considerable reconstruction took place in the residential area and the neighborhood 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 as 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. Beginning during the Depression, many of these large old homes were converted into rooming houses. The neighborhood began a slow steady decline over the following decades, including the destruction of homes along the south with the construction of Interstate 44 years later.
Nevertheless, beginning in the late 1960’s, this changed as a restoration movement took root in the area. Many young couples moved into the neighborhood, buying old houses and renovating them in a manner similar to their original appearance. Local and national publicity, strong neighborhood organizations and city cooperation in planning aided this movement. In 1972, Lafayette Square was declared a historic district by the city. These restoration efforts have continued dramatically transforming the neighborhood back into one of the most stunning in the city. These efforts have not been limited to residences in the area, but have also included improvements made to Lafayette Park.
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