The St Louis Mayor From Lafayette Square – Henry W. Kiel

Mayor Kiel in 1923  from Missouri History Museum Collection

Casting a look back a hundred years in St Louis history, it requires little effort to find a subject with deep roots in Lafayette Square, whose tale is well worth retelling. Here’s the story of the 32nd mayor of St Louis, Henry W. Kiel. 

The St Louis Post-Dispatch conducted a survey of its readers in 2000 to determine the most influential St Louisans of the 20th century, by decade. Many would come as no surprise, like Adolphus Busch in the 1900s, his grandson August A. Busch Jr in the 1960s, Charles Lindbergh in the 1920s, or Stan Musial in the 1940s. What might be off your radar is the choice of Henry Kiel in the 1910s. 

Henry W. Kiel was born a native St Louisan in 1871. When his father died, Henry became president of Kiel and Daues Bricklaying and Contracting Company. It was a boom time for the city, and his firm, which later became the Boaz-Kiel Construction Company worked steadily as the city expanded. His construction firm built the Municipal Auditorium, schools including McKinley and Soldan, the Ambassador, Missouri and Loew’s State theaters, the Coronado Hotel and the old Post Dispatch building. As the firm grew, Kiel aligned it with the  Contracting and Supply Company, a mutual group of contractors. John Schmoll, who was head of this consortium also happened to be Chairman of the St Louis Republican Central Committee. Though competitors in the brick trade, Schmoll and Kiel collaborated in organizational matters, and in 1907 Schmoll began ushering Kiel into local politics. This was made easy for Schmoll, as Kiel never seemed to meet a stranger, nor make an enemy. 

Twenty-five year old Henry Kiel and his family lived on St. Vincent Avenue, across Jefferson Avenue from Lafayette Square. His daughter Henrietta recalled years later that on the day of the big tornado in 1896 she and her father had taken a streetcar ride downtown, and were returning early due to the ominous weather. As they walked up to the house, she saw her mother about to light the gaslight in the living room, and Henry yelled, “Don’t, Mama!” This deeply impressed her as their house was one of the few in the path of the tornado that remained standing after the storm.

Various historical reviews have simplified Kiel as a politically inexperienced bricklayer, who upended a corrupt civic government. That description requires a second look. The city was in pretty good shape following the Worlds Fair administration of Rolla Wells and the relatively uneventful four years of Mayor Frederick Kreismann. The major issues in the election of 1913 centered on completion of a free bridge across the Mississippi River, determining the status of railway grade crossings on roadways, imposition of a street railway mill tax, and the approval of additional streetcars on lines to provide a seat for every passenger and eliminate “strap hanging.” For all the subsequent issues St Louis has faced, it seemed like a mostly contented, if fast growing period.  

For his part, Henry Kiel was ambitious and focused on Republican politics since at least 1907, when elected Republican committeeman for his ward. He was named an election judge at the age of 25.  In 1910, he became Chairman of the St Louis Republican Central Committee, entrusted with doling out money to party candidates for public office. In 1911, Mayor Kreismann and Chairman Kiel, both Republicans, fought contentiously over a new city charter, with Kiel against it. Arguments were heard by Frederick W. Lehmann, US Solicitor General and a Lafayette Park area neighbor of Kiel. Henry Kiel maintained that the proposed charter would give too much power to the mayors office. As a result of enactment, the current committeemen would either have to resign or else give up their jobs. They would also be deprived of patronage. It prohibited the assessment of city workers for contributions to their political organizations. 

The charter proposition failed, but in 1912, another party donnybrook broke out over the Rankin Tract bill among Mayor Kreismann and other Republican leaders. This dealt with the ever intractable relationship between city and railroads. On this occasion, Kreismann cleaned house, effectively removing his most powerful challengers, Jeptha Howe and Otto Stifel. This left Kiel as essentially the last man standing. Shortly after that, he was nominated for sheriff, and lost to Joseph F. Dickmann. A scant six months later, he ran for the higher position of mayor against his own party’s incumbent, Mayor Kreismann. Kiel was victorious, and much to his own surprise, he then defeated Dr John Simon in the general election. In fact, Kiel had caught a train to Texas to escape the pressure of being around for the election returns, and had to quickly turn back to St Louis upon hearing that he had won. The oath of office was administered by Kiel’s neighbor and judge of the circuit court, Leo Rassieur. On taking his oath, Kiel became mayor of what was then the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of about 700,000. This was a city at its peak, with approximately twice the population it had thirty years earlier, and about twice what it has today.

A month after the election, Kiel announced that he would immediately commence surprise trips to city institutions. He would perform a visit at the start of each day and travel by common streetcar. He promised to inspect “not only the parts of city institutions where visitors are admitted, but the remotest sections of the big buildings – the maniacal wards in the Sanitarium, the negro wards of the City Hospital and the dungeon and rock pile at the Workhouse.” He vowed to “pave the way for legislation authorizing improvements” where deficiencies were found. City offices were on notice that the mayors office was going to be run actively under his administration. 

The man St Louis had elected to lead it was a driven and gregarious social animal. He loved to sing, and in 1908 was part of a four man glee club called Howe’s Howlers, assembled to sing at rallies for William Howard Taft. Galas, premieres, opening games, ceremonies, fundraisers, speeches, dedications – he made them all. He relished driving with movie stars to theater openings or with former President Roosevelt to Lambert’s Airfield for a look at a new airplane. He was all for proclamations as well; he issued one, for example, that May 30 of each year be the day that men put away “the felts of winter and greet the summer with straw hats.” 

Chopping Down The City Christmas Tree; Dittmer MO: 1920

He was made a chief of the Winnebago Indian tribe. The name conferred on him was “Chee-Oo-Ga” translated as “Wigwam Builder”. He received a Distinguished Service Cross from the Salvation Army, becoming only the sixth American to receive the honor. In those days of actual rather than virtual social connectedness, he belonged to the Odd Fellows, Moose Lodge, Knights of Pythias, Royal Arcanum and was a thirty-second degree Mason. Whether stumping for good roads or Buddy Poppies to raise money for injured vets of WWI, appearing with Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey for the Boys Club, attending the inauguration of a new bowling alley in Wellston, or speechifying on the importance of aviation for commerce, Kiel rarely missed the opportunity to appear or vociferously serve as municipal booster #1.

Henry Kiel dressed well, if a bit stiffly. He liked to wear a derby hat and dark clothing. When receiving visitors, he would characteristically throw his right leg over the arm of his chair and nibble on an unlit cigar he would pull “from the apparently bottomless box in his desk”.

In contrast to the lively jolly mayor, his wife, Irene Kiel was quiet and reserved. She and Henry had known each other since they were three years old, and with the exception of a two year period from age 14 to 16 when he moved briefly to South St Louis, were never separated. When he returned, physically taller and more handsome at 16, her feelings toward him had changed. She said to him, “I don’t know whether you are my husband, or my sweetheart, or my brother, you just belong to me.” He had claimed he would someday marry her since they were small children, and she found this incredible, given his popularity and her shy demeanor. 

  

Irene Kiel in 1913; Post-Dispatch photo

 

 

 

In addition to performing official duties and making charitable appearances with her husband, Mrs Kiel was content to be a homemaker and mother to their four children, and downplayed any personal interest in the women’s suffrage movement. The one time she appeared in the news was unfortunate.  In 1918, Irene Kiel

was thrown from a United Railways streetcar while alighting at Park and Missouri Avenues. Claiming concussion, and citing injuries to her back, knees and elbows, causing her to be confined to bed for several months, she sued for $50,000. The case was settled four years later for $330.00. If Henry Kiel was concerned about public opinion regarding Irene’s accident, it went unremarked upon. He seemed content to let the matter play itself out through the courts. It was ironic, given the herculean efforts he later made to bring United Railways and the Public Service Commission to financial stability. The 1921 election was St Louis’ first with women voting in a municipal contest. Irene Kiel’s husband won handily. 

 

In 1913, Kiel signed legislation providing for a zoological board, granting it authority over 70 acres in Forest Park. In what must be considered an unlikely form of tribute, a popular monkey in the Zoo was renamed Henry Kiel, and thereafter known as mayor of the zoo animals. For years the talented chimp tickled crowds with his ability to walk a tightrope and to eat with utensils.

Henry Kiel in Center; 1926 Globe-Democrat photo

Leo Rassieur lived at 2335 Whittemore Place in Lafayette Square, just behind his neighbor, Henry Kiel. A Union war veteran and influential German lawyer, Rassieur assumed the leading  role in a populist movement to break up the bridge monopoly that owned both spans across the Mississippi, the fee-based

Leo Rassieur

Merchants and Eads Bridges. In 1906, voters by an 8 to 1 margin approved a $3.5 million bond issue for a free train and vehicle bridge. Rassieur campaigned vigorously for the bridge, now known as the MacArthur Bridge, just south of the Poplar Street Bridge. He was opposed by then mayor Rolla Wells, but the Assembly (known today as Board of Aldermen) overrode the mayor and in 1909 began construction of piers for the bridge. The project ran out of money before completion, and actually may have later cost Mayor Kreismann his job. Having finally secured the necessary funds, Henry W. Kiel presided over the opening of the vehicle deck level in 1917. Getting the span built after sitting incomplete for eight years was an accomplishment worth crowing about, but history wasn’t kind to the bridge. Regular railroad use didn’t begin until 1940. It was renamed the MacArthur Bridge in 1942, and when the Poplar Street Bridge opened in 1967, few motorists used the MacArthur at all. The street deck finally closed in 1981.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917.  Henry Kiel joined the National Council for Defense and the Food Conservation Committee, in addition to actively promoting Liberty Bonds, the Red Cross and other drives. Opening a theater or a baseball game, his presence was nearly taken for granted. He wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to dedicate a new theater, especially when his company specialized in building them. He even accompanied the St Louis delegation of the Advertising Club to London and Paris. 

Back home, the national prohibition on alcohol lasted from 1920 till 1933. It was, needless to say, never popular among the heavily Germanic working population of St Louis. Henry Kiel was shrewd enough to tap into this resentment without advocating for rebellion. In 1926 a couple years after he had left office, he addressed a Republican audience thus:

“It is four years since Reed (Democratic US Senator, running for re-election) came here and bunooed us. We thought he was going to get us beer. He didn’t do it. Now it would be better to leave a matter like this to Senator Williams. Some say he’s dry and some say he’s wet. He is as wet as I am. And you know how wet I am.” 

The Globe-Democrat, in a page one story, reported that the “crowd responded with a loud burst of cheers.” Kiel had an intuitive feel for the mood of the common voter, and an uncanny skill for tapping into it. 

Kiel was a master of a self-deprecating form of humor. “Like Jack Benny, only better” as one reporter put it. One of the testimonials at his funeral noted that the only target of a Henry W. Kiel joke was Henry W. Kiel. The rare tact accompanying Kiel’s power must have been a factor in his almost universal likability.

Indeed there was a disarming friendliness about him. When Kiel was running against Mayor Kreismann in 1913, he was having lunch at Faust’s one day with Max Starkloff, who he had recently defeated in the Republican mayoral race. Looking across the room, they spotted Kreismann dining with former Secretary of Labor ( and yet another Lafayette Square neighbor) Charles Nagel. Mayor Kreismann had recently referred to Kiel as an unfit candidate and threatened to leave the party if Kiel won the nomination. Starkloff walked over and whispered in the Mayor’s ear that Henry W. Kiel would like to have a word with him. The Mayor assented, and a “minute later Henry W. Kiel was shaking hands with Kreismann and calling him ‘Fred’. The Mayor was calling Kiel ‘Henry’ and each was slapping the other on the shoulder.” This was page one news in the Post-Dispatch on March 19, 1913, and ended with the Mayor explaining that the meeting was merely personal, and had no political significance.

Max Starkloff was a physician in South St Louis when named city health commissioner in 1895. He went on to hold that post for three decades, serving under six mayors. During his first year, in attempting to get through Lafayette Square to City Hospital during the Great Tornado of 1896, his arm was broken by flying debris. He supervised medical triage efforts for hours before getting the fracture set. Starkloff ran for mayor in 1913, but lost in the primaries to Henry Kiel, who promptly reappointed the doctor to his former post. In late 1918, the two closely coordinated to stave off the worst of the Spanish Flu. Over 600,000 died in the US of the pandemic, but only 1,703 in St Louis, lowest of all major American cities. Starkloff recommended, and Kiel enforced a policy of “social distancing” by the closing of schools, churches and theaters and banning of dances, banquets, receptions, sporting events. The two coincidentally died in the same year, 1942.

Winning his first term as mayor in 1913, Kiel had beaten a Democratic candidate, physician John Simon. Kiel would ask at his rallies, ’Who would you prefer for mayor, a doctor, or a builder?” When running for his third term eight years later, Dr. Simon gave $100.00 to Kiel’s campaign, stating; 

“Henry Kiel has been a good Mayor. His administration has been singularly free of scandal. There have been no bad blunders. He has not been a Mayor for one set of class of people. He has been kind, approachable and attentive to the wants of the masses. The bank president and the laborer have been received by him with equal courtesy. Race, religion, political prestige and social standing have not influenced or affected him…If Henry Kiel left the office of Mayor tomorrow he would leave it personally much poorer in purse than when he went in, although he has given eight of the best years of his life to public service.”

At the time of his death in 1942, Henry Kiel’s estate was valued at $94,000, which would be about $1.3 million in today’s dollars. This seems reasonable for what one might expect of a preeminent builder of his day, but certainly no indictment for having made out while in office. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote; “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be.” Kiel seemed to be exactly what he appeared to be, even with the passage of years and an accumulation of power. That remains admirable indeed. 

Marking the end of his third administration in April of 1925, Carlos Hurd of the Post-Dispatch wrote, “Henry W. Kiel, Mayor for twelve years will leave his office with remarkably few enemies and with a literal host of friends.” He proposed keeping Kiel on as “booster mayor for life” and installing a new person as “business-political mayor.’ One City Hall fellow called the mayor’s job 10 per cent executive and 90 per cent social. Kiel allied himself with the city’s businessmen first, and managed to get his huge bond issue passed, which financed a lot of progress. In fact, Kiel himself cited as his biggest achievement, securing passage of the $87 million bond issue in 1923.

Similar tax-generated bond issues had been voted on and rejected before. Henry Kiel had the  persistence and persuasion to get his giant one enacted. This wasn’t simple. The Mayor sent out speakers, spoke at every opportunity, and even rented out thirty billboards which asked questions of St Louis’ voters, causing them to think about benefits versus costs. Here are just two of the slogans made into giant ads:

Opportunities created by the war economy combined with the tyranny of Jim Crow laws in the South to create an exodus of blacks north. Union walkouts led to plenty of hungry new workers lining up to take their jobs. In 1917, such labor problems in East St Louis escalated to a riot that nearly became a massacre of the city’s black residents by angry whites. As thousands fled to St Louis and the local government in Illinois faltered, Louis Aloe, president of the Board of Aldermen opened the Municipal Lodging House on 12th Street to the refugees, approved the spending of city funds for food. The House lodged 700 and fed more than 7,500 over the next week. Aloe worked with Kiel to pass the $87 million bond issue. He is the namesake for Aloe Plaza across from Union Station. Louis Aloe’s widow Edith later donated the money for Milles’ Meeting of the Waters fountain. 

Homer G. Phllips

The huge bond issue provided for, among many things, the creation of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, originally called City Hospital Number Two, to provide medical care on a “separate but equal” basis to St. Louis’ black community. This was a truly tough period for race relations in the city, and Kiel was somehow able to manage the tension  while other Midwestern cities like Chicago and Omaha soon fell into street violence. Not that St Louis was uniquely enlightened – Homer G. Phillips was a dynamic and progressive black lawyer who advocated for desegregated housing and equal job opportunities. He filed suit against and organized resistance to a 1916 referendum banning the movement of blacks into white residential areas. City voters however approved the proposal, and St Louis became the first city in the US with mandated residential segregation. The US Supreme Court struck down that law two years later, but a less official red-lining of neighborhoods along racial lines persisted for decades. Phillips never lived to see his hospital, as he was shot down in 1931 while waiting for a streetcar. The murder case was never solved. Eventually, the hospital opened, with space for nearly 700 patients, a nursing school, and a program for developing medical residents. 

During Kiel’s twelve years as mayor, a new city charter was adopted, a zoning law enacted, the Municipal Bridge built, and the zoo established. He also oversaw construction of a new water filtration plant. In his third term he used the $87 million bond issue to widen Olive and Market Streets, begin the Civil Courts Building and Municipal Auditorium, install new city lighting, and bury the rather septic River Des Peres through Forest Park, converting it to a sanitary sewer system. He also oversaw the building of Soldiers Memorial and Aloe Plaza across from Union Station. Not a bad return on investment.

 

Burying The River Des Peres in 1929; Post-Dispatch Photo

Kiel recalled that his biggest disappointment (“no less than a calamity”) was the inability to pass legislation for a parkway to unite Market and Chestnut Streets from 12th (Tucker) to Grand Avenue. Opponents of the bond issue for it in 1915 characterized automobiles as only benefitting the rich, and that, combined with the idea of taxes for all to subsidize it was enough to defeat the measure at the polls. Kiel lamented that what they could have accomplished with $10 million in 1915 would have cost $30 million a decade later, so the opportunity was lost.

He did try. In an attempt to convince voters, he set up a squad of automobiles with amplifiers. The driver, with a drummer and speaker would go to assigned neighborhoods, set off red flares, and endeavor to sway the crowd. Literature was then distributed from the cars. Parkway sermons were arranged with 24 churches of various denominations. The idea was to encourage the congregations, regardless of preference, to show up and vote on the proposal. There was also an essay contest sponsored by the Mayor’s office. Prizes were presented by the Mayor at a mid-June mass meeting in Lafayette Park.

The sorry condition of city transportation vexed him through his twelve years, as the demands placed on roadways increased with ever wider adoption of the car, and streetcar and rail lines also required expansion. He wanted subways or elevated rail lines like Chicago, but the financial problems of the Public Service Commission and United Railways Company made it difficult to maintain existing services, let alone accomplish much reinvention

When later asked what he might do with $5 million, he replied that he would give it to local charities to relieve some of the “misery, squalor and want” that he had witnessed over his dozen years as mayor. “They say a community hasn’t a soul. Well, that’s not true, and it isn’t true of St Louis. Our institutions for the sick and poor and insane, our municipal lodging house, those are the means by which a city may exhibit his soul”. 

Kiel was the face and longtime President of the Municipal Theater Company. Regarded as  father of the Muny Opera from its start in 1919, he saved it from closure due to lack of support in its first year. He and friends went from door to door selling tickets to downtown merchants to keep the Opera afloat. The Muny was Kiel’s pet project, close to his heart and to his dreams of public performance. He served as president of the organization for its first 22 years.  

Muny Opera in 1943; Postcard

Henry Kiel loved the stage, the actors and the opportunity to share those passions with the people of St Louis. He created what is today the largest free outdoor musical theater in the US. Kiel also had a summer home in Eureka, MO, to which he loved escaping, often accompanied by members of the cast or crew of his beloved theater. 

Kiel Third From Left With Family and Muny Cast Members

 

Following Mayor Henry Kiel around provides a window into the fads of his time. In 1914 St Louis built the nation’s first, largest, fastest, etc. motordrome. It featured a steeply banked wooden track in a quarter mile oval, and racers would hit speeds up to 100 mph on the “wall of death,” without the benefit of brakes. The local motordrome was at Grand and Meramec, and seated 15,000 fans. Yes, it was dangerous. Its signature event was the Mayor Kiel Sweepstakes. 

 

St Louis Motordrome in 1914

Mayor Kiel was a fixture at Federals, Browns and Cardinals baseball games. He threw out the first pitch each season until his arm bothered him too much, and then he became the catcher for the ceremonial pitch. He was built like a catcher, and took a good natured ribbing from the press along the way.   

Post-DIspatch; 1919. “Commie” refers to Charles Comiskey, owner of White Sox.

 

Kiel First Pitch; 1926; Post-Dispatch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a TV commercial from my kid days in 1966 – one of those odd details that somehow sticks with one for decades, tying up an otherwise useful neuron. It featured Mickey Mantle, shilling for Lifebuoy soap, and I recall thinking that this might just have been the edge I needed in life. Here’s the commercial:

 

A full four decades earlier, Mayor Kiel had also endorsed the same soap. A sitting mayor in a soap commercial? Maybe it was just a matter of promoting public health – at least they didn’t have him going around “packing a .38.”

Kiel for Lifebuoy; 1924

Henry Kiel 1925 Post-
Dispatch Drawing

Kiel had visibly aged when, at 54 years old, he left office in 1925. Always a hearty eater, he was by then on a diet. During his time as mayor, he had received Presidents Wilson and Harding, former Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, General Pershing, Marshal Foch, Georges Clemenceau, and the King of Belgium. 

Henry W. Kiel was the 32nd St. Louis mayor, and the first to serve three multi-year terms of office. When he chose not to run for a fourth term, he was named Chairman of the Republican State Committee. Kiel ran for US Senate, but was soundly defeated by Bennett “Champ” Clark in the Democratic wave that ushered in Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. This by no means  implied retirement, however. Kiel returned to his contracting business, and became trustee for several hotels in receivership. He served on the Board of Police Commissioners, and also assumed the lead in reorganizing the city’s streetcar and bus system. Appointed trustee of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Kiel unified the city’s street railway and bus lines, and brought the failing PSC out of receivership. He had, against the odds, steered the city’s transportation system back to health. Henry Kiel was a director of the Pioneer Automobile Service Company, something like the AAA today. In the 1930s, he was general chairman of the United Charities campaigns, and continued to use his star power in public roles for betterment of the city.

He suffered a stroke in 1941, and, partially paralyzed, spent 18 months confined to home. 

Henry W. Kiel died of cerebral hemorrhage in his home at 1625 Missouri Avenue, across from Lafayette Park, on Nov 26 1942. He was 71, 

There were 300 honorary pallbearers accompanying his coffin during standing room only services at Scottish Rite Cathedral. One speaker said Kiel’s bequest to the city wasn’t money or bonds, but the gift of an example; “of friendliness, of kindness, of courage; an example of patriotism and an example of unselfishness and of service to others.” His last public appearance was by telephone to a banquet for the Muny in June 1941. Over telephone and speakers, he spoke and even sang a few bars to the 1000 diners at the Jefferson Hotel. Henry and Irene had just celebrated their 50th anniversary, and he was in a great mood.  

Former Mayor Bernard Dickmann called Kiel “one of my best friends and one of the greatest mayors St Louis ever had.” This came from a Democrat who became mayor after 24 uninterrupted years of Republicans in the chair. Archbishop Glennon said, “I admired his work as a Mayor and his character as a man.” Rabbi Isserman of Temple Israel added, “He was one of the most beloved figures in civic life. He had a deep sympathy for the underprivileged and had the confidence of men and women in all walks of life”. 

The Dickmanns have some intriguing intersections with Henry Kiel. Sheriff Joseph’s son Bernard served as mayor of St Louis from 1933-1941. He sold real estate for his father and became president of their company in 1923, before running for mayor. Although a Democrat, Bernard Dickmann was responsible for completing some of Republican Kiel’s favorite projects, like completion of the Municipal (later Kiel) Auditorium, Homer G. Phillips Hospital, Civil Courts Building, MacArthur Bridge, and the installation of new streetlights for the city. He served St. Louis very capably through the tough era of the Great Depression

As to the house at 1625 Missouri Avenue, which the Kiels occupied from 1911 through his death; ironically, the home was listed through Joseph F. Dickmann Real Estate Company. The elder Dickmann was the same man Kiel lost to in the 1912 contest for St Louis City Sheriff. A fortuitous loss for Kiel, maybe listing with Dickmann was a form of thanks for the favor. The home with its two story carriage house out back was sold in April of 1943 to Anna Ide, who converted the stone and brick three story home to a rooming house. A Post-Dispatch article said the nine room home faced “Lafayette Park in what was once a fashionable residential district.”  “Once” was fast becoming a dim memory for many, as an article as far back as 1913 spoke of the salon parlor in the front of the Kiel home as being “in high favor when the neighborhood about Lafayette Park was in its heyday a generation ago.”

Henry Kiel House, Now A Parking Lot on Left . Other Three Houses Remain.

The house was torn down to make space for a parking lot that served McLaughlin Funeral home next door. Kiel himself once testified in court as to the relative merits of living next to a funeral home, as opposed to a boarding house. He distinctly preferred the former. He stated, 

“if you look at it right, a funeral is just a reminder of what is going to happen to all of us, but the boarding house has no such excuse of inevitability.” He didn’t like the idea of an undertaker next door when the adjoining property moved from boarding house to funeral parlor, but got used to it. He admitted on cross-examination that most of his old neighbors had moved away since the undertaker moved in, and that those homes had become rooming houses. Expert witness doctors were also in agreement in this case that instead of raising the anxieties of a neighbor, funerals “might cheer such a person with the thought that this was not his funeral”, and indeed, he might be “exhilarated by the funerals of some individuals.” Incidentally, in the case mentioned, the circuit court found for the complainant, and an injunction was issued against the undertaker operating at that location. Regarding the testimony of Mayor Kiel, the court observed,“there was no accounting for personal tastes.” 

The house dated back to 1869, originally built for William Hamilton, owner of a wholesale meat packing firm. As if on cue, within a year of the Kiel home being turned into a rooming house, it was in the news for one of its residents having stabbed his estranged wife, who was living at 2008 Rutger Street, and then repeatedly slashing himself in the chest, heat and throat. They were both taken from the corner of Hickory and 18th Streets, and brought to City Hospital in serious condition.

By 1956 the “stately old mansion” was vacant, its owner confined to a hospital. It had fallen into serious disrepair and was damaged by vandals and ransacked by thieves. Gary Cooper of McLauglin Funeral Home told me it was torn down to create a parking lot the following year.

Kiel Dedicated Street Deck of Municipal Bridge 1918; Post-Dispatch Photo

Henry Kiel chose names like the Muny Opera, Municipal Bridge and Municipal Auditorium that reflected his love of the city and the ideal of inclusion in the term “municipal”. He never formally attached his own name to any of his projects, although in tribute, the designations Kiel Auditorium and Kiel Opera House, and the former Kiel Park were given by others and resulted from his long years of service to the community. The trend today is to rename buildings and parks after something current and commercial. That seems a shame as the original names were given for good reason, and often in honor of more noteworthy achievements than simply being able to afford the “naming rights” to something. 

Municipal Auditorium was renamed Kiel Auditorium in March 1943. A decade later, Anheuser Busch bought the Cardinals baseball team from Fred Saigh, and applied to change the name of Sportsman’s Park to Budweiser Park. Naming a ball park for a beer was deemed inappropriate by Major League Baseball and voted down. In a demonstration of how things change, Kiel Auditorium held that name for 49 years, and was then torn down and replaced by the Kiel Center, and renamed Savvis Center in 2000, Scottrade Center in 2006, and Enterprise Center in 2018. Public structures today are often big advertisements, and generally as evocative and inspirational as any other ad for a rental car or internet provider. Kiel’s beloved opera house fell to the same trend, being renamed after a coal company in 2010 and a brokerage firm in 2018. 

It’s vital that we not lose touch with the memory of leaders that could accommodate, forgive, accomplish, and even entertain. Henry W. Kiel certainly conformed with that type of leadership, and it’s regrettable that his name and story have faded from our collective consciousness.   

In a Globe-Democrat editorial from 1925, the paper bid farewell to the Mayor as he left office. It reads like something we would all love seeing in print about ourselves, without resorting to obituary:

“There is no doubt that the public personality of Henry Kiel, his social and public omnipresence, his insistent boosting of St Louis, his diplomacy in bringing conflicting interests into harmony, have been a mighty power. Henry Kiel has served the people of St Louis through a long and difficult period, and he goes out of office with the respect, friendship and good wishes of all.”

Many thanks to research sources, including:

The  results of the Post-Dispatch poll announcing the “Influential St Louisans Of The 20th Century” by John M. McGuire; Jan 2,2000; p.E1

Keil reminiscence of Great Tornado from Henrietta Kiel: Irrepressible at 83; Norma Tynes; PD; November 6,1977 p 233)

Notes on Kiel personal appearance from Post-Dispatch; April 20,1925; p 18).

The account of Irene Kiel’s accident on the streetcar is also from the Post-Dispatch. November 20,1921; p.27)

A good reference to Max Starkloff and the Great Influenza of 1918 is 1918 Flu Epidemic; Post-Dispatch; Tim O’Neil; PD Oct 5,2014; p.B003)

For more on the incredible saga of the Muny Theater in Forest Park, “America’s Oldest And Largest Outdoor Musical Theater”, there is a wonderful history online at https://muny.org/saga/

Henry Kiel is well-represented in this survey. Highly recommended, if only for the early photo of Cary Grant, once a member of the company. 

A good pocket bio of Leo Rassieur is at the Grand Army Of The Republic website, at http://suvcw.org/garcinc/lrassieur.htm

Kiel comments on prohibition from Globe-Democrat; October 30,1926; p.1

Tim O’Neil of the Post-Dispatch wrote up a terrific look back on the story of Homer G. Phillips and the hospital named for him. Phillips is another St Louisan well worth remembering. (Post Dispatch; November 2,2014; p.B004. 

As part of its St Louis At 250 features, the Post-Dispatch ran a feature on the Municipal (later MacArthur) Bridge. It offers brief sketches of both Leo Rassieur and Mayor Rolla Wells. The photo of Mayor Kiel dedicating the Free Bridge is from the same feature. Bridge Becomes Populist Symbol; Tim O’Neil; Sept 7,2014; p.B003)

The photo of St Louis Motordrome is from archivemoto.com, a history of motorcycle racing. Additional color from the always enlightening work of Cameron Collins at Distilled History in an episode from 2012 on the Motordrome. https://www.distilledhistory.com/motordrome/ Especially recommended for the photos, which are not otherwise accessible. 

Kiel Plans Inspection – Globe-Democrat May 30,1913 p.16

The entertaining article “What Would You Do With $5 Million” is from the Post-Dispatch of May 17,1925; p.106. There you can also see what Cardinal National League batting champ Rogers Hornsby would do with his. 

Photo of Homer G. Phillips from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/phillips-homer-g-1880-1931/

The photo of River Des Peres is from Post-Dispatch in 1929. 

The short history of building name changes is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enterprise_Center

A short treatment of Bernard Dickmann is from a summary of his personal papers at the State Historical Society of Missouri; https://shsmo.org/manuscripts/columbia/c3403.pdf)

References to the fate of the Lafayette Square neighborhood are from the Post-Dispatch; April 30,1943 p.3 and March 23,1913; p.1

Photo of Kiel House, built in 1868 for William Hamilton, from The Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress, sometime after 1933, but before destruction of the house in 1958.

The account of Henry Kiel’s testimony in the funeral home suit is from the Post-Dispatch of June 14,1924; p.3 and July 13,1924; p.17. 

The cautionary tale of letting your home become a rooming house is from the Post-Dispatch August 22,1943 p.5

The Globe-Democrat quote that closes the essay is from April 21,1925; p.16

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