1815 – Learning To See The Handwriting On The Wall

 

Back in 1983, Gar Allen and Larry Bennett bought what remained of a building at 1815 Lafayette Avenue. The three story shell dated from 1876 and was originally built by Christian Staehlin of the Phoenix Brewery.  That brewery was razed in the mid-1960’s while I-44 was under construction. The house itself had a large sub-basement, formerly a tunnel from the brewery, that Allen and Bennett would have turned into a wine cellar, but for the dampness.

1815 Lafayette Avenue had been a rooming house for 40 years prior to their purchase of it. Sinks and toilets were in almost every room and also a couple of hallways. The second and third floors had no walls, doors, electricity or plumbing. A decade later, Gar and Larry had not only turned the home around, but opened a bed and breakfast – Napoleon’s Retreat, a witty play on 1815, as that was the year Napoleon retreated from his invasion of Russia. 

I was walking the dog down the alley behind Lafayette Avenue the other day, and came upon the carriage house behind that home. I admired the construction, and the authentic look of layers of paint on old wood. 

But my eye was drawn to a small detail on the right crossbeam – there, carved into the wood is what looks like a reference to the year 1883. The house would have been seven years old, probably with a reasonable number of baths at that time. I then thought someone could have carved this into the beam as a fake, or a misdirect. 

In the enabled age of the internet, a little research seemed warranted. I volunteered for a time at the Missouri State Archives downtown, preserving circuit court records from the late 1830’s. What struck me about the numerals in the wood were their consistency with the way numerals were written by hand in 19th century America. 

A ballpoint pen lays down a uniform line, which is fairly easily steered around a page. A fountain pen leaves more ink wherever the pen tarries, and this causes the curves in letters and numerals to be thicker than where the point of the pen speeds up. Here are a couple examples in writing. From 1867: 

And from 1871: 

Notice how the curves on the 8’s fatten out. 

In this display, you can see how the calligraphy of numbers changed with the years. The 1850 to the left again reflects the times better than if someone had just carved 1883 as a lark, say, in 1950. 

 

Here’s a commercial font called Texas Hero, that mimics the style of the late 1830’s. You can see the same effect on the curves of the 8, and bottom of the 3 and 6.  Also note the “fishhook” on the 1, which is distinctive in both the font and the crossbeam numeral.

I even spotted the same representations on this old horse hitch in McKinley Heights. Struck me as compelling, and I might be alone in that, but at least a pretty solid argument could be made that Kilroy of 1883 was there, and left his or her mark with a knife in that wood; and followed the conventions of the time.  

 

One last item, in honor of Napoleon’s Retreat, still a well-regarded bed and breakfast in Lafayette Square. 

Here is a progression of signatures by Napoleon, from 1795 down the first column, to 1808 at the end of the second column.  1803, when he sold Lafayette Park and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to the U.S. is at the bottom left. Yikes. By 1808, Bonaparte is really feeling it, but of course… 

the handwriting was on the wall!

Thanks To Research Sources Including:

Gar Allen And Larry Bennett

Handwriting And Expression; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner And Co; London; 1892

St Louis Post Dispatch

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