Walnut Park East Neighborhood Overview
Information concerning the neighborhood history, characteristics, institutions and organizations, planning and development.
Walnut Park East is one of several neighborhoods in northwest St. Louis. It is bounded by West Florissant Avenue (Calvary Cemetery) to the northeast, Emerson Avenue to the southeast, Interstate Highway 70 (I-70) to the southwest and west, and Riverview Boulevard to the northwest.
The Walnut Park East neighborhood occupies the central position in the cluster of northwest St. Louis communities found by it and the Mark Twain neighborhood, to the southeast, and Walnut Park West, to the northwest. It was developed as a working-class residential community over the first half of this century. Until the late 1890s it comprised farms interspersed with wooded patches along local creeks. With the coming of streetcars along West Florissant and the newly extended Bernays Avenue (Union Boulevard) to the west, as well as a large rail and industrial corridor to the south, St. Louis’s then-burgeoning population had a new place to live. It filled in steadily in a process that was not completed until the 1950s. As late as 1954, a small truck farm operated in the 5800 block of Woodland Avenue east of Riverview Boulevard.
People of German stock spearheaded the early settlement but soon were joined by others with diverse European roots. Until the mid 1960s, the community was white and basically lower-middle class, with a large proportion of Roman Catholics. Particular churches often had specific ethnic roots. The now defunct Nativity parish was founded Christmas 1904. Later-arriving Polish Catholics petitioned for their own parish, St. Adalbert’s, in 1913. Recently, four new homes were built in the 5700 block of Woodland on what was once the site of that church.
From the beginning, there was comparatively little commercial land use in Walnut Park East and practically no industrial development. The single greatest concentration of storefronts, between Robin and Wren along West Florissant, originally related to a nearby trolley turnaround. A larger number of stores lined up along Lilian, with most of them clustered from Emerson northwest to Thrush. Walnut Park East’s Riverview Boulevard frontage never did develop the integrity of commercial land use that could have been expected for a major thoroughfare. In any case, small grocery stores, taverns, confectioneries, and the like dotted other local intersections.
As the neighborhood developed so did its institutions. In addition to Catholic and Protestant churches, there was a small Jewish synagogue, long-abandoned before its 1960 demolition to build the former Northwest High School. The area’s first permanent religious structure was not a church but a Catholic orphanage. St. Mary’s Home for Girls was a large copper-domed facility constructed in 1900 on five acres of ground. After extended periods as an orphanage and then as a special school, it assumed its current role as the San Francisco Christian Assembly Multi-Plex Center at 5341 Emerson.
The Walnut Park Elementary School (5814 Thekla) and Cyrus P. Walbridge Elementary School (5000 Davison) replaced older or portable public schools in 1909 and 1922, respectively. The local fire house at 5437 Partridge also dates to 1922. Two now-defunct Catholic elementary schools opened during this same period. Nativity School’s 1922 structure remains today, vacant and vandalized, at 5827 Harney. St. Adalbert’s parochial school operated in a 1927 building (and 1960 addition), still standing at 5701 Amelia. One parochial elementary school and related church from a somewhat later time continue to serve the community. St. Matthew Lutheran Church, with a history stretching back to the earliest days of Walnut Park, built its "new" church (5402 Wren) and first school (5403 Wren) in 1950.
The lack of local parks and high schools was an ongoing source of community concern for many years. Laboure High School was an all-girls facility when it opened at 5421 Thekla in 1948. It became a coeducational institution during the mid 1950s but resumed its all-female status before it closed in 1979. Since then, it has functioned as the highly regarded Cardinal Ritter Preparatory High School, a coeducational institution, that is expected to relocate to a new midtown St. Louis campus in 2001.
Dwight Davis Park is the only park located in Walnut Park East. It was undeveloped except for ballfields until 1962. For several years in the 1970s and 1980s, the Walnut Park Community Center, a municipal facility, operated in some converted buildings and on some cleared parcels at Wren and Lilian. It was subsequently closed and the site largely abandoned except for a "Head Start" center.
Northwest High School began classes in February 1964 at 5140 Riverview after 25 years of discussion and controversy. It was expanded in 1968 but, during the 1970s and 1980s, its student body declined in numbers. It closed in 1992 but reopened as the Northwest Accelerated Middle School in 1993.
By the mid 1960s, Walnut Park East began a population transition from white to black that was largely complete by the mid 1970s. This transition followed, and was related to, the construction and operation of I-70, which opened in 1961. By this time, however, Walnut Park East was basically developed. The last major local institution to be constructed was the "new" Walnut Park Branch Library at 5760 West Florissant. This facility is now closed for a major renovation.