1940 – William Swekosky’s Second Act

 

 Late last summer the Archives posted an essay entitled “Trouble In Paradise: Swekosky – The Early Years” https://lafayettesquare.org/1921-swekosky-in-his-early-years-trouble-in-paradise/

In brief review, an amorous young dentist from Preston Place in Lafayette Square got himself in deep water with the ladies. We left him in 1923, bankrupt, alone, and difficult to track.

Forward seventeen years to September 1940. There appears a profile of Swekosky, who somehow had renamed from William E. to William G. He is happily remarried, and living on  Jules Street in McKinley Heights. The article from the Post Dispatch is titled, “History Of Old Homes Is Hobby Of St Louisan.” It credits him with twenty years of study into historic houses, that originated from earlier employment in the title department of a Clayton bank. 

His father dissuaded him from a career as a title examiner, and put him through dental school at St Louis University. On the side, William began reading books on stock investing, and “majored in Insull stocks”. 

Samuel Insull was like the Kenneth Lay (Enron Corp) of his day. He was president of Commonwealth Edison in 1907. Insull built a utilities empire across 39 states with stock issued and sold on his vigorous and hyperbolic promotion. He even made the cover of Time magazine which wrote admiring essays in 1926 and 1929. When the market crashed in 1929, he turned over the companies to his creditors and fled the country. Extradited, he faced trial three times for fraud and embezzlement. He became symbolic of the corporate corruption that led to the Great Depression, and an outcry for reform helped pass the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Administration.

For his part, Swekosky had learned to buy and sell Insull stocks in various enterprises to his advantage. Built on air, a company like Peoples Gas Light and Coke, hovering around bankruptcy, would be bought by Insull for $20.00/share, and less than a decade later, be valued at $400.00/share, largely on the strength of Insull’s Midas touch. Swekosky acquired the financial freedom he needed to “spend my spare time on my houses”. 

Swekosky was a contemporary of John Albury Bryan in Landmarks Association, with both referred to as “walking histories of St Louis”. The distinction between them was that Bryan was professionally interested in architecture, whereas Swekosky dug into the people and stories associated with significant buildings. 

The Post Dispatch had, by 1940, received a large number of letters from Swekosky, habitually handwritten in green ink, informing the paper of the pending demolition of some St Louis landmark. He kept a filing system only he could navigate, and took hundreds of photographs to document the properties. Taking a reporter for a drive, he would effortlessly spiel about individual homes and businesses, giving a full account of occupancy over the years. 

He spent nearly every weekend at the Missouri Historical Society and City Recorder’s Office, searching documents and directories, and footnoting the backs of his pictures with further findings. 

Swekosky’s dental office at southwest corner of Gravois and Jefferson, where Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken stands today (what would Swekosky make of that?!)

His collection was housed in an office on South 12th Street. These locations, along with his unassuming home on Jules Street in McKinley Heights made it easy for Swekosky to focus considerable energies on cataloging the South Side and Lafayette Square. 

A feature in Everyday Magazine in 1942 was titled “Old Mansions Are His Hobby”. The article gives examples of Swekosky’s rambling train of thought in discussing an old house photo:

“Here’s Dr. Franz J. Arzt home, built on the northeast corner of 12th and Lami in 1877. Marble front, interior trim of mahogany and walnut, tiled entrance hall with six giant mirrors, three-story  tower, mansard room with wrought iron trim, large imported art glass window in the east wall”. 

Warming to the task, Swekosky shifts gears into the stuff he loved – the occupants and their backgrounds:

“Dr. Arzt kept parrots and grew orange and lemon trees in a glass house and had the first goldfish in St Louis. Mrs Caroline O’Fallon was another goldfish fancier. She lived on Pine near Leffingwell and spent her leisure time on her roof during warm weather. She had a large copper-lined fish pool on the roof.” His typed notes from the house add even more: “Dr. Arzt built a cave under and around the glass house with real stalactytes and stalagmites. Lami Street was a popular coasting place in winter, as it was very steep, and the sight of Dr. Arzt’s oranges and lemons growing in the winter was a pleasant sight. “

Feurbacher Home on Sidney Street

Although he does goes on, it’s interesting to back check his comments. In fact, its a great way to learn new things about old St Louis places. There’s a beautiful home at 1126 Sidney Street today, that Swekosky discusses in 1942: 

“First house in St Louis to be decorated with stone lions. Home of brewery baron Max Feurbacher, whose opera garden was patterned from one in Heidelberg. Occupied by the family for 47 years, that’s unusual”.

 Note: I’ve never seen a photo of William G. Swekosky smiling, which seems unusual, or might not inspire much confidence in his dentistry. Perhaps it was because he was covering up the fact that he was really the noted reincarnation of notorious William E. Swekosky… 

Swekosky With Parrot

There are dozens of newspaper articles from the 1930s up to 1964, that  report what Swekosky submitted nearly verbatim. It is, indeed, encyclopedic, and often peopled with folks as interesting as the houses themselves. Here’s an article from 1955, concerning the razing of a housing tract developed by Lafayette Square co-founder Sir Charles Gibson. A tidy summary with a lot of interesting side channels. History is full of rabbit holes, and Swekosky seemed like a born rabbit, developing a map as he went.

A good number of Swekosky’s authoritative and often exhaustive notes on houses can be accessed through the excellent search tool on Missouri Historical Society’s website. You can give it a spin at 

https://mohistory.org/collections?text=Swekosky&images=0

This seemingly constant stream of information was often stored on the backs of photos Swekosky took of local buildings. Here is front and back of the Dietrich Waldecker house, now home to McLaughlin Funeral Home on the corner of Lafayette and Missouri Avenues in Lafayette Square:

This is not to say that Swekosky was never wrong. He issued opinions easily, and over time, it becomes difficult to sort out what is real and what might be him conjecturing. Infuriated over the destruction of once exclusive Vandeventer Place for development of the Cochran VA Hospital, he took to the paper in protest, maybe going a little too far out in his projections. This, from the St Louis Star Times in 1948:

  Around 1950, the City of St Louis, during a City Hall housecleaning, decided to offload hundreds of photos, mostly shot for the Streets Department by Charles Clement Holt. Very rare and comprehensive images from the first three decades of the 1900s, they were sold at auction. There were three 13 foot high stacks of negatives, most of them on glass. The poorly kept collection was scooped up by Swekosky, who lent it in the early 1960’s to a friend and amateur photographer, Dick Lemen, of Moline. Lemen cleaned, printed and enlarged the

Dick Lemen

images, producing over 1300 superb photos. Some were sold to magazines and newspapers. He bought the collection outright from Swekosky. An interesting fellow in his own right, Lemen worked as a river deckhand, warehouseman, historian and served as a technical advisor on steamboats during the filming of “The Adventures Of Mark Twain”.

In the 1980’s, Dick Lemen donated this collection to the St Louis Mercantile Library. It is the backbone of the remaining photographic record of St Louis in the early 20th Century. 

In 1962, a feature on Swekosky called “ Old Houses Are Like Old Wine”, profiled Swekosky and his long amateur career. By then, William G. referred to himself as “the pallbearer of old houses”. At a breathless pace, he could still bury a reporter in detail. “Why was the skeleton in the  back yard? Oh, an undertaker used to live there years ago. The bones were probably those of a  drunk or deadbeat who’d ordered a funeral and never paid for it.” “A millionaire lived so ragged that the poor people felt sorry for him and let him share their food. When he finally starved to death, his heirs found $1,500,000 in a safe deposit box”. “Another family with a fine house on Waverly Place centered its menus around soup bones. They saved enough money to marry off their daughter to a European nobleman who bled the family fortune”. 

Swekosky Still At It In 1962

When Swekosky, a man of some means himself while living in a small bungalow, was asked to consider the hundreds of structures he admired and pick one for himself, he hesitated; “looking like a bewildered sultan trying to make a choice from an extra-large harem. Well, what I’d really like to do is buy a lot of those beautiful houses and live five years in each one.”

Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack while getting out of his car on Jules Street two years later. Swekosky was taken to City Hospital and died there on New Years Eve, 1963, about 500 feet from where he was born. His funeral was at St John Nepomuk and burial at Calvary Cemetery. He was 69 years old. 

Judging by the pair of obituaries, and subsequent Swekosky revivals, William G. successfully outlived the reputation of William E., as seen in the earlier essay. No mention is made of any of his adventures in dating and marriage. It causes me to wonder whether his reinvention was deliberate, or just a process of his maturation. Whatever, he really did become a guiding light for St Louis preservationists and historians. Not bad for a dentist from Bohemian Hill (now an off ramp for I-55). 

 The remainder of Swekosky’s voluminous collection of photographs and manuscript histories was donated by his sister to the Sisters of Notre Dame College in Lemay. The Sisters worked for years to archive and match his writings to the corresponding photos. They also published their findings in a weekly column that ran in the St Louis Globe Democrat. In 2001, the School Sisters of Notre Dame donated the collection to the Missouri History Museum. 

Writing for the Post Dispatch in 1976, Florence Shinkle called Swekosky “a dentist by profession, a photographer by choice, and a romantic by nature. He worked in a cramped office, slept in a brick bungalow, but lived grandly, exuberantly in the past”.  A still later tribute in 2001 credited him thusly: “When the demolition of a valuable piece of property was imminent, he notified the newspapers, providing them with pictures and documentation. His factual alarms were often peppered with delicious bits of gossip”.

A long life is ensured for buildings within a registered historic district. Sometimes I wonder if we in Lafayette Square realize how fortunate we are that young bohemians in the 1970’s fought long technical battles for that designation so that others could move here and marvel at how it all was saved. The shift in thought and policy leading to the realization that not all progress in St Louis is good traces back to folks like Bryan, Lemen, and Swekosky.

Finally, for a nice sampling of Swekosky photos of old St Louis, please have a look at:

https://www.flickr.com/search/?text=swekosky&view_all=1

Much of Dick Lemen’s collection was donated to the Mercantile Library, which displays them here:

https://dl.mospace.umsystem.edu/umsl/islandora/object/umsl%3A12422

Thanks To Research Sources, Including:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Samuel-Insull bio. 

https://scripophily.net/inutininc2.html for stock certificate and description of company

http://www.urbanreviewstl.com/2013/07/john-cochran-veterans-hospital-wants-to-expand-south-into-grand-center-raze-historic-palladium-music-hall/

stlouiscitytalk.com

St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis Globe Democrat, and St Louis Star Times

St Louis Historical Society Library And Research Center

Mercantile Library Collection – UMSL Digital Library

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