Editor’s Note: We asked Linda Weiner to reflect on her time beautifying the Square after a recent comment she made that the neighborhood has never looked better. We couldn’t agree more!
When I walk around Lafayette Square and Lafayette Park today, I am totally blown away by what we as a neighborhood have achieved in bringing back the beauty of Lafayette Square from urban blight.
I fell in love with Lafayette Square’s architecture the moment my eyes met the painted ladies on Mississippi. I was on my way to a restaurant (Ronanies?), now Square One, and that fountain and courtyard was intoxication. Is that a word? This was 1978 and I don’t have to tell you what the greater balance of the neighborhood looked like at that time. Limestone facades with no rear for instance. Years later when house hunting, my husband and I were drawn back again and again to Lafayette Square. In 1990, we finally moved into 1801 Hickory, one of the many restorations in the neighborhood aided by the legendary Bob Cassilly.
Having just become aware of the joys of gardening at my condo patio in the CWE with 9’ of planting space, surrounding the parking lot, I had yearned for more garden space, and 1801 Hickory had a corner lot! Kismet.
At that time Washington University was knocking down buildings they had purchased and vacated, many with old perennial gardens that were being torn asunder by the heavy equipment. Let’s just say I rescued a few and brought them to the most ugly place in the Square at that time, the corner of Chouteau and 18th Street. There I met my first gardener friend, Rick Thompson of LaSalle Street who had already begun the beautification of the rusty, rope-fenced, long-ago-abandoned service station, infested with weeds popping through the pavement that had once been, till nature took it back. This scene was across from what had been a package liquor store (just say “industrial decay, not pretty”). As I gardened there, I became aware that several other neighbors had also “adopted” this site, most notably, Theresa Johnson and George Diehl. What an amazing place this was! That neighbors joined in collectively or solo to beautify the neighborhood as well as their homes! This was a neighborhood!
I was next introduced to the Grand Dame of restorationists and gardeners, Ruth Kamphoefner, highly skilled in managing urban decay and neglect, mostly in Lafayette Park. Ruth had planted the area around the Washington statue with hardy hibiscus and tall red basil which were nearly impossible to kill, even in semi drought. Ruth welcomed me with tips on gardening and some “pass along plants” such as daylily and iris which are also quite difficult to kill. She was a welcoming teacher. She wanted me to succeed!
I could say more about the many other people and locations we tackled together as neighbors, but I think you get my point. Whether it’s a call to the rock garden by Vicki Houghton, a call to the Park Avenue Plaza or business district, the Lafayette median, the Albion circle, the mini park at 18th & Mississippi-, the Ellipse at Chouteau and Dolman/18th , the planters all around the neighborhood, the entrances to Lafayette Park- same thing is happening as back in the day! Neighbors are adopting and pitching in together to continue to raise our spirits and everyone’s who walks by, by surrounding ourselves with the beauty of nature.