Doing a hundred posts on Lafayette Square will require work, but the first one almost writes itself. We could go back to 1836, when the St Louis Commons was set aside as an area for the public to graze livestock. Or 1851, when the 30 acres of Lafayette Park were formalized. Maybe 1896, when the whole place was upended by a definitive cyclone, or 1923, when zoning laws changed to allow commercial development in this residential area
But this is supposed to be easy, and so It is. Let’s go with 1949.
John Albury Bryan is not only recognized as the “Dean, History and Preservation of Architecture in the Midwest”¹, but the founding father of the rebirth of Lafayette Square, this oddly and almost magically historical place you see today. He was the prophet, the cheerleader, and the driver behind the Square’s preservation.
Think about this… if you want a great view of Forest Park, you could move to about the 12th floor of a high-rise condo on Skinker. Bryan saw long ago that such a building would distort and ruin the scale of the neighborhood, and worked to prevent it, along with any development which might disrupt the harmony he saw in the entire neighborhood. He saw past immediate arguments for convenience or modernization, toward his inherent ideal of preservation.
Philip Cotton, a noted architectural historian and associate, wrote of Bryan;
(He was) “the pioneer preservationist in Lafayette Square, long before historic preservation became acceptable, much less fashionable”. ²
He had serious chops, which gave his opinions serious weight. He joined the St Louis Architecture Club and attended Columbia University School of Architecture way back in 1915. In 1928, he wrote Missouri’s Contribution To American Architecture, a reference still used today. Chair of the St Louis Historical Buildings Committee for many years, he was a working architect as well, designing several high-end homes. In 1936, he joined the National Park Service as Research Architect, and studied the buildings which would be torn down for the Jefferson Expansion Park (aka Gateway Arch). He helped restore the old courthouse, Campbell House, the Truman birthplace, and Tower Grove, the mansion of Henry Shaw.
Along the way, in 1949, John Albury Bryan moved to 21 Benton Place, and began selling others on the potential appeal of an area so badly neglected that it was referred to on city government maps as “Slum D”.
Below is an article he wrote in 1955 for Construction Record of St Louis:
In 1962, Bryan wrote and self-published Lafayette Square – The Most Significant Old Neighborhood In St Louis. At the conclusion of the second edition, in 1969, he noted:
His message did not go unheeded. “A handful of young couples, fired by their own imaginations and intrigued at the prospect of picking up a home for a thousand dollars, moved into the area. With passion and brawn they tore their houses apart and began the long, laborious task of putting them together again. Many of the structures were mere shells. Others bore scars inflicted by innumerable tenants. One new owner had to cart away tons of junk, including 13 stoves and as many refrigerators.”³.
Which really leads us into all the stories of the young pioneers who followed Bryan’s call. The stories are many and terrific – hope, chance, frustration, obstruction, perseverance, grief and joy. But it all really starts with Bryan.
(1) Pickens, B.L., Missouri Historic Preservation Conference; 1968
(2) Lafayette Square: St Louis; Philip Cotton, Jr; Reedy Press: 2007
(3) Victorian Sampler Magazine; Mary Hagar; Summer 1990