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1903: The Lafayette Park Photo Collection

Looking west toward Missouri Ave. Presbyterian church to the left.

Today’s feature is a recently discovered group of about 45 images of Lafayette Park, taken sometime after the great tornado of 1896. Note the small trees reestablishing the park canopy. Although the cyclone took out nearly every old growth tree, some of the smaller ones bent rather than broke and so survived. The loss of canopy provided less obstructed views of the streets surrounding the park. Close inspection has its rewards.

Park Superintendent Leonard Hunt took these pictures sometime around 1903. This was perhaps  part of a submission for review by the landscaping judges at the 1904 World’s Fair. Each photo is a meticulously matched combination of two individual shots. As single images, they look like today’s panoramic photographs. This required some patience, and surely wasn’t a routine set of shots by the park supervisor. 

A few highlights from the collection

As the collection aged, the original images faded and blued somewhat over time. We resisted the urge to doctor them, in the interest of conserving their authenticity. Nevertheless, there are fascinating images of ponds, rock gardens, gravel walkways and iron fences. Missing elements today are clear then; the caretaker’s house and bandstand, children skating in the winter, and various strolling visitors in the summer. Photo 11 shows how the current rock garden area once contained a pond with a dramatic fountain. # 14 features one of the gaslights lining the walkways. # 22 is the horse watering cistern near the Park House. A giant planter covers it today. Photo 34 displays the northwest gates at Mississippi and Park Avenues. # 51 shows a man holding a goose; we don’t know why.  

Who was Leonard Hunt?

A little historical background: Leonard Hunt (1836-1913) served as Lafayette Park Superintendent for 33 years, from 1872 through 1905. He took on the unenviable task of rebuilding Lafayette Park after its destruction by the 1896 tornado. His dedication to this work led to an award for its landscaping at the 1904 fair. Coincidentally, the fair signaled the emergence of Forest Park as the newly preeminent jewel of the parks system. Hunt resigned when park oversight passed from the original Lafayette Park Board of Improvement to the St Louis City Park Department in 1905. 

William Clark Breckenridge (1862-1927), a well-known St. Louis area historian presented this collection of photographs to Hunt’s widow in 1924. They were later donated to the Missouri Historical Society on the UMSL campus, where the collection resides today. 

How to access

It’s easy to review these photos in the Lafayette Square Archives searchable digital database. Click on this link: https://www.archives-lafayettesquare.org,

You’ll see a map with various overlay possibilities. In the left hand Search window, just enter the word ‘series’. You’ll get three sets of about 15 images in scrollable form.  For an image in higher resolution jpeg, drop me a line at mike@lafayettesquarearchives.com and I’ll email you one. If you bookmark the database, you can come back anytime and browse our collection. It now contains over 1,800 photos and documents relating to Lafayette Park and Square. Just enter a year, an address, a name – whatever you can think of – there is a lot to explore here. 

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Mike Jones

A veteran of volunteer stints with the Missouri History Museum and Missouri State Archives. Constantly curious about what lies beneath the surfaces of Lafayette Square. Check out my Archives website at https://www.lafayettesquarearchives.com

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