Iron Men Of Lafayette Square – The Christoper & Simpson Story

 

The Iron Mountain Area

 All iron on Earth was originally produced by large stars that existed before our Sun formed. Iron is the final product of the radioactive decay in a star, which fuses hydrogen atoms to form ever heavier elements. When the hydrogen fuel is exhausted and enough mass has accumulated in the core of the star, it can no longer support its own gravity, and explodes; or so I’m told. In the explosion of a supernova, huge chunks of iron can be thrown many light years into space. Such a huge chunk landed in eastern Missouri’s St Francois County and became Iron Mountain. 

Iron Mountain was the single largest deposit of iron known to exist in the late nineteenth century . By 1885, with the city’s river and rail connections, St Louis had become the center of cast and wrought iron production in the United States. It boasted of nine major architectural firms of which Christopher and Simpson Company was a standout.

There is an outstanding collection of locally produced structural cast iron at the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois. Larry Giles and company is responsible for the renovation and placement of an entire iron storefront in the new Gateway Arch museum. This is one of over 100 such storefronts in their collection, many of which are the product of Christopher and Simpson.  

Jacob Christopher

Jacob Arthur Christopher was an Alsatian French immigrant who settled in StL in the 1850s, taking a job as an iron foundry man. He served as superintendent with Pullis Brothers Iron Company Essay Here for twenty years. By the late 1870s, he owned an ornamental iron company called the Christopher Company. Several local storefronts from that era still have the original cast iron columns bearing the company name.

In 1888, he and his partner and brother-in-law William Simpson, bought the Edward Bredell estate, that stretched from Simpson Place to Geyer Ave, south of Lafayette Park. They hired the 

architectural firm of Grable and Weber to design their houses. Alfred Grable (active since 1849) and August Weber were responsible for the design of many mansions in St Louis, in addition to churches and commercial and civic structures. The firm is credited with the introduction of mill construction, which increased fire protection by the elimination of hollow spots in walls and floors supported directly by girders and brick walls. In the early 1890s, they devised a unique variant on an architectural style called Richardsonian Romanesque. The Christopher and Simpson homes in Lafayette Square are perhaps the best remaining examples of this style.

Simpson House

 

Christopher House

 

 

The brothers-in-law finished their homes in 1893, and the Christophers moved from their home at 2102 Lafayette Avenue. This home, built for Christopher in 1876, was a two story 12 room stone front house facing the park just west of Waverly Place. It was sold by Christoper to Henry Ruckert for $15,000 in 1893. 2102 Lafayette Avenue was rescued from a slowly failing rooming house status by long-time resident Kirby Greene in 1974. The Simpsons resided at 2006 Lafayette Avenue during construction, several doors away from the Christophers.

Christoper and Simpson were said by the Post-Dispatch to have paid $47,500 for the famed two story, 16 room Bredell Mansion, a local landmark built half a century earlier. For their part, the Simpsons, who had built 2012 Lafayette Avenue around 1875, razed the Bredell mansion, and took up residence directly across the street from Jacob and Harriet Christopher, along with Harriet’s sister Annie Simpson at the new address of 1703 Simpson Place. This street became the district’s last subdivision in 1902. William Simpson soon began building rental housing on the east side of the street, but only one house remained after the creation of I-44 truncated Simpson Place. 

William Simpson with Harriet and Annie

 

The two partners were aces at diversification, and did well by their efforts. A story from 1914 documents how two men who largely owned everything west of downtown St Louis in 1840, Colonel Chouteau and Judge Lucas, subdivided property there at about $25.00 per linear frontage foot. By 1914, the same land was selling for $4000.00 per foot. In late 1891, Christopher, Simpson, and another longtime Lafayette Square neighbor, Gustavus

Chemical Building Downtown St Louis

Schuchmann leased the property for 99 years. It became the site of the Chemical Building at Eighth and Olive Streets, and the the land beneath it sold for $500,000.00 in 1914 ($12.5 million today!)  William Simpson had 2012 Lafayette Avenue built in 1878, and John Maurice designed 1425, 1427 and 1431 Missouri Avenue for Jacob Christopher, who built them on spec in 1882.

While overseeing the iron work on the new Planters House in 1893, Christopher fell 25 feet into the cellar, was knocked unconscious and sustained a severe scalp wound. His combination of constitution and disposition had him back to work in short order. With other residents Simpson, Given Campbell (an early superintendent of Lafayette Park) and newspaper publisher Carl Daenzer suit was filed in 1891 against two local railroads to restrain them from releasing “smoke, cinders, dust, ashes, soot and gases” from their power plant at Geyer and Missouri Avenues. They were unsuccessful in this case, after a two year battle, but then joined another suit and continued slugging. In 1894, the Union Depot Railroad agreed to put abaters on their boilers within 30 days, or face a full $50.00 fine. (For more on smoke in Lafayette Square, see this essay Embracing a little fossil fuel output themselves, both men were early driving enthusiasts, and Jacob Christoper built a heated garage (still there today) to house his new Packard automobile.

The Christopher and Simpson foundry at the corner of 8th and Park Avenue was heavily damaged by the tornado of May, 1896, and quickly repaired. 

Wreckage of Christopher & Simpson Foundry; 1896

In April of 1908 Jacob Christopher died at age 81 from a heart attack at his home in Lafayette Park. He was active in business his whole life, and served as a volunteer fireman and Lafayette Park Commissioner for years. William Simpson, also president of the Ohio Society, died in January, less than a year later, at the age of 62 from the same approximate cause. Both mens’ funerals were held at Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church. In 1920, Jacob’s son Arthur moved his family to a beautiful summer home on Christopher Drive in St Louis County. It was later sold to the Archdiocese of St Louis, and is today known as the Jesuit White House Retreat Center. 

The Christopher and Simpson company thrived, as evidenced by the still widespread examples of their signature iron storefronts. World War I led to large government contracts and fast growth. In 1920, the firm moved from its original Park Avenue iron foundry (razed in 1952) as they completed a new steel plant in Maplewood, eventually capable of producing 40,000 tons per year. It was the largest mill west of Pittsburgh, and furnished the 6000 tons of steel needed for the Missouri State Capitol building. The enterprise was merged into the Decatur Bridge Company in 1922. Control of the company moved East. Without the durable friendship of their fathers, the families fell into suits and countersuits over money in the partnership, even leading Harriet to sue her son Arthur, and winning a judgement of nearly $50,000 in 1918. 

William Simpson with granddaughter in Lafayette Park

Both houses on Simpson Place, in addition to the earlier referenced garage survive today. It’s a tribute both to the endurance of their construction and of the neighborhood in general. I’ve always found it interesting that these two men, business partners and relatives by marriage would choose to build their homes facing each other, rather than Lafayette Park. The two houses are the only ones that decided against the obvious charms of a park view. This becomes something of a metaphor for the strong relationship between partners and families. Or maybe just keeping an eye on each other to make sure each got to the office at the same time. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

Next time you’re out wandering Park Avenue, or Lafayette Avenue, Soulard, or Old North, Carondelet, Lacledes Landing, or any old commercial part of St Louis, take a look at the old iron storefronts. It took a lot of strength to support all the brick above, and iron provided that. Christopher and Simpson supernova product is still all around you. 

Thanks to research sources, including:

Special thanks to Troy and Sarah Doles for access to photographs of the Simpson Family

Larry Giles and the National Building Arts Center; http://web.nationalbuildingarts.org

Lafayette Square Holiday house tour booklet, by Trace and Lynn Shaughnessy

Sale of Bredell Estate “A Vanishing Landmark” from St Louis Post-Dispatch; June 18 1890; Page 5

Lafayette Square Holiday house tour booklet, by Wayne and Julie Padberg-White

Also from the website for local web designers Studio 2108; (https://studio2108.com) originally in the St Louis Star; 1893. 

Sale notice of Bredell Estate from St Louis Post-Dispatch; November 15 1890; Page 3

William Simpson died on January 29 1909 and funeral held from Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church

Christoper Injured from St Louis Post-Dispatch May 7 1893, Page 30

Old Foundry Razed For Third Street Highway; St Louis Post Dispatch September 11 1952; Page 38

Suit against Scullin Line Power House; St Louis Post-Dispatch; October 10 1892; Page 5 and October 16 1893; Page 6

Chemical Building sale history; St Louis Post-Dispatch; January 15 1914; Page 1

Harriet Christopher sues her son; St Louis Post-Dispatch; June 9 1918; Page 25

Historical notes on Simpson Place from Mimi Stiritz’s memorable submission to the National Register Of Historic Places in 1985. 

Lafayette Square by John Albury Bryan; Landmarks Association; 1969

The various addresses for both Christopher and Simpson cross checked against Gould’s Directories of 1877, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1890, 1893 and 1894. 

Photo of Chemical Building from St Louis Magazine; courtesy of Restoration St Louis; April 15, 2019; 

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