1955: Why Lafayette Square Should Be Restored

The first essay in this long series covered a man who argued long ago for the restoration of Lafayette Square. In 1969 the creation of the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee was a pivot point for active change here, in terms of stemming demolition, stabilizing properties and enticing others to share the vision of rebirth in this neighborhood. 

The driver of this approach preceded it by a full 15 years. John Albury Bryan moved to 21 Benton Place in 1949, and began a sustained advocacy for the Square that lasted until age and poor health forced a move in 1971. He would have been pleased to see where it all led. 

In 1955, Bryan laid out his argument for preserving the Square in a local trade journal, the Construction Record. It remains a great introduction to our unique architectural strength. 

The only version of this in the archives was missing content – yellowed paper fast falling apart. I was lucky to find a second one in some recently donated materials. Between the two, I could reconstruct the narrative, so transcribed it and rescued the images for this post. Hope you still share this esteemed architect’s appreciation for Lafayette Square. Bryan foresaw and argued for the potential that a lot of others missed. 

From the Construction Record

St Louis, MO July 5, 1955

Page 7

 

 St. Louis, like other cities that have been of metropolitan size for more than a century, has its area divided into neighborhoods where certain traditions linger – some in sharper outline than others. Several of these old sections, such as Lucas Place and Carr Place, have little or nothing left of the original buildings, but a considerable number of them still retain enough of the physical characteristics to keep the original pattern recognizable. Foremost among such sections is Lafayette Square and its adjacent Places. 

 Most of the old neighborhoods in St. Louis grew up around a park, church, or school. When any of these things are destroyed for some modern project, such as a highway, housing project, or large industrial institution, then something irreplaceable has been lost to the city, and more home owners have been driven to the County

Those homeowners who want to go on living in the older parts of the city are more of an asset to the municipality than shoppers from the County or office workers because it is the homeowners living east of the present city limits who pay most toward the upkeep of our libraries, museums, parks and public schools. 

Too often today those who are in charge of reshaping our cities are experts in engineering problems, but without any understanding of the artistic phases of city life. Relieving traffic congestion is necessary, but it alone should not be called “city planning.”

Not all of us want to live in superblock apartments behind expressionless glass walls, surrounded by a continuous flow of trucks and automobiles. 

Lafayette Park is the oldest public park west of the Mississippi, and embraces a little more than 30 acres, occupying one of the highest parts of the city. The iron fence with marble gateposts on all four sides was the subject of the first architectural competition held by the City of St. Louis following the close of the War Between the States. Francis Tunica, St. Louis architect, won the prize of $2,500 for the design, and the actual making and setting of the fence cost more than $50,000. This beautiful enclosure has been shamefully neglected by the Park Department for more than ten years. The four streets surrounding the Park, namely Lafayette, Missouri, Park and Mississippi, are 100 feet wide, with a row of trees along both sides. 

The east side of the Park had Kennett Place running east from Mississippi to Eighteenth Street (formerly called Second Carondelet Avenue). Like the other sides of the Square, this one has some vacant pieces of ground; some houses that should be torn down; and some that are too good to be torn down. The good ones could be left in the restoration program, and the new ones faced with either gray or dark red brick according to the proximity of the old gray stone fronts or later red brick fronts. In all cases new buildings should not be more than three stories high and have windows of large size. With ceilings not less than nine feet high, and cross ventilation provided for all rooms by means of doors, windows and open fireplaces, no air-conditioning would be needed because there is always good circulation of air in this open neighborhood, due to the park and the width of the surrounding streets. Not one foot of ground on this Square should be taken for playground purposes; and instances of commercial use as now exist, such as filling stations, confectioneries, and taverns, should be eliminated. Park Avenue is soon to be widened along the south side from Mississippi to Eighteenth, which will give better access to the Square from the east; and at the same time a cut-off should be made from Mississippi and Chouteau to the Twenty-first Street Viaduct. 

 

 

Space for playgrounds in this area can be found from the back line of the property along Mississippi running east to Eighteenth Street, and from the back line of the property on the north side of Kennett place to Park Avenue. No buildings of architectural  or historic interest would be destroyed in clearing those lots. The historic personages associated with Mississippi Avenue were Stephen Douglas Barlow, Captain James B. Eads, Captains Bixby and Sheble who built the double house at the northeast corner of Mississippi and Lafayette, and then diagonally across from that double house is the large have built by John Philip Meyer, first St. Louis member of a family that has been identified with local banking for nearly a century. Neither he nor his descendants can be blamed for the shocking color schemes which now adorn the exterior of this house. 

The west side of the Square was the last to be developed. Many of the larger homes along Missouri Avenue were built during the early 1880s, before steeples and gingerbread porches became the rage in residential design. At the southwest corner of Missouri and Albion Place stands a large stone church, designed in 1881 by John Maurice, architect who designed many of the large homes around the Square. This building housed the Lafayette Square Presbyterian Church until 1945. Albion Place runs from Missouri to Jefferson Avenue, as does Whittemore Place, one block south. At the southwest corner of Missouri and Lafayette stands and attractive stone church which has been there for nearly sixty years as the home of the Lafayette Park Methodist Church, which today numbers 1400 members and has recently purchased the old Taussig mansion just west of the church for future expansion. 

 

Midway on the north side of the Park and opening directly off Park Avenue, is the oldest private block in the city – Benton Place. Old deeds and newspaper accounts show that it was laid out in 1869 by Montgomery Blair. It has had many vicissitudes, but has come through all of them, and today is more attractive than it was thirty-five years ago when the smoke blight from the Mill Creek Valley killed most of the trees and shrubs, and begrimed the houses. Today the trees and shrubs are thriving; old houses have been painted in brighter colors than heretofore; and new heating plants in the houses help to keep the air clean. 

 

The oldest church on the Square is the small stone chapel at the northeast corner of Park and Armstrong, which was built in 1869 as the Church of the Unity, Unitarian. Since 1918, it has been the home of a small group of Lithuanian Catholics. Frederick Raeder, the architect of this church, was the first man appointed to head the School of Architecture at Washington University. That was in 1874. 

The south side of the Park has three Places facing it. The oldest and most attractive of the three is Waverly Place which has a grass plot down the center, as in Benton Place, and an historic old home stands at the south end of the driveway – the mansion of Archibald Gamble which was built a century ago when much of the ground on the south side of the Park belonged to Gamble, David Nicholson, and Edward Bredell. The old Nicholson home still stands near the entrance to Nicholson Place, but the Bredell home was torn down about 1892 when Simpson Place was laid out. 

With the good prices which rooms and apartments in this area have brought, even during the depression years of the 1930s, the rehabilitation of Lafayette Square should be attractive to private capital and not need a Federal loan, nor tax exemption from the City. 

– A Plea For The Restoration of Lafayette Square

  by John Albury Bryan with photos by Lawrence Bolles

 

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