From the beginning, St. Louis was not like other frontier towns. While many frontier settlements were farming communities or small trading posts, St. Louis began its existence as a wealthy port of trade. It quickly became the central hub of the fur trade, and as American settlement moved West, it gained its fame as the Gateway to the West, supplying the pioneers, explorers, miners, and fur traders. Though its population remained relatively small, the high volume of trade generated a great deal of wealth in that small population.
As St. Louis grew, it attracted more people, not all of the sort St. Louisans wanted as neighbors. A common pasture dating from the founding of the city by the French became a hideout for criminals. In 1835, Mayor John Fletcher Darby secured permission to begin selling that common land, to drive the criminals out. A local ordinance set part of the land aside as Lafayette Square Park, in honor of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de La Fayette.
While the wealthiest St. Louisans gained seclusion with palatial mansions and grounds, the growing upper middle class, seeking a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of the busy city, eagerly began purchasing plots around Lafayette Square Park. Development was delayed by a real estate panic, and initial residence was working class. Construction of homes for the wealthy was in full swing by the 1850s. Development continued through the 1870s, as Lafayette Square began to acquire its reputation as St. Louis’s most fashionable and exclusive neighborhood. Its residents were aided in their efforts to create a secluded refuge by ordinances preventing commercial activities or other sorts of “nuisance” within a certain distance from the park.
Lafayette Square was a uniquely American neighborhood, the first American neighborhood in this old French city. The American families that moved to St. Louis after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase brought new styles and new beliefs. Flight to Lafayette Square was driven by a wave of German immigration in the 1840s. It was accelerated by the twin tragedies of 1849: the fire that burned 15 city blocks, and the cholera epidemic. The greatest indicator of this neighborhood’s departure from the city’s colonial tradition was the profusion of churches, and not one of them Catholic. Lafayette Square was a reflection and a celebration of the growing middle class American national identity.
The district steadily acquired the trappings of cultural sophistication. Contributions from residents went to improvements in Lafayette Square Park, with impressive landscaping at one time employing over a dozen gardeners. A bandstand was erected in 1867, and concerts in the park attracted thousands of attendees. Lafayette Square was the place to see, and as important to St. Louis society, the place to “be seen.” The unveiling of a statue of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton in the park attracted tens of thousands. On June 27, 1870, the Daily Democrat wrote, “In looking about the city and noting its improvements, we have been struck with the great progress attained in the vicinity of Lafayette Park.” It noted the construction of “the finest residences in the city,” the beautiful park, and the ordinances that restricted “the erection of objectionable buildings or the carrying on of objectionable business,” all of which “should make this quarter the most desirable in the city for residence.”
Lafayette Square’s residents enjoyed a few decades of this golden age. Then, in 1896, at the height of its glory, the neighborhood was destroyed by a tornado. Referred to after as the Great Cyclone, it uprooted or damaged beyond repair all of the beautiful oaks and maples that distinguished Lafayette Square Park. It destroyed the bandstand, and every other structure in the park but the police station. Many of the beautiful homes were destroyed completely, while the others suffered varying degrees of damage. Many families stayed and rebuilt, as might be expected; but a surprising number simply left. Despite the efforts of the remaining residents, Lafayette Square would never again see a return to its glory days.
The Great Cyclone marked a turning point in the history of this neighborhood, though in some ways it was more a catalyst for a process that was already impending. Though it began its existence as an exclusive suburb, St. Louis had grown around Lafayette Square over the decades. It was no longer the refuge it once had been. This was exacerbated greatly early in the 20th century when the zoning restrictions that had always protected the neighborhood were declared unconstitutional. Gas stations, grocery stores, and other markers of modernity and mundanity soon encroached, transforming Lafayette Square into just another neighborhood in a growing city.
The transformation sparked by the Great Cyclone and accelerated by the lifting of zoning restrictions was completed by the Great Depression. Lafayette Square’s decline was precipitous. Rather than an expensive, upscale neighborhood, it became a place to find cheap housing. The former homes of the wealthy were transformed into cheap boarding houses. Lafayette Square became a slum, plagued by chronic alcoholism and crime. Even more tragic, from a historical and architectural viewpoint, was the chronic arson. The neighborhood was home to a large population of un- or underemployed, plagued by lack of opportunity and a general sense of hopelessness, who took out their frustration by wreaking destruction on their environment. Arsons became neighborhood events, with residents standing around chatting while firefighters attempted to save the structures. In the end, 55 structures were lost to such arsons. The structures that survived bore little resemblance to their original forms. Many were gutted shells. Lafayette Square’s transformation was complete, from a wealthy neighborhood noted for its inconvenient distance from the city, to an impoverished inner-city slum.
But Lafayette Square’s history was not forgotten, and its potential remained. In 1970, a small group of new residents formed the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee. The scale of their task was intimidating; very little remained of the neighborhood’s former glory. They not only restored their own homes, but tried to attract others with the means and the will to restore these structures, to a neighborhood synonymous with crime and with the worst effects of poverty and urban flight. Slowly but surely, new residents moved in; some homes were purchased for as little as $2,000, though the purchase price was the least of the expenses involved in restoring these structures. By the mid-1980s, Lafayette Square was transformed once again; never again the glittering suburb, and not yet the fashionable neighborhood of today, but no longer a slum.
The improbable resurrection of Lafayette Square is now complete. Surrounding Lafayette Square Park are the Painted Ladies, beautifully restored Victorian homes. More can be found down the side streets, and in historic Benton Place. Historic reproductions fill the gaps left by arson or decay. The park is clean, once again shaded by stately oaks and maples, and a destination for families. It is well known by local photographers; wedding parties are a ubiquitous sight on weekends. The park again hosts concerts and other events.
Today the Lafayette Square neighborhood sees the collision of the traditional with the modern, but rather than clashing, they meld beautifully into a truly unique place. Though still primarily residential, Park Avenue hosts locally owned shops, restaurants, and bars. It is once again a destination, perhaps again St. Louis’s most fashionable neighborhood, restored to its former splendor, but in many ways unrecognizable. Here you can find some of the most exciting culinary experiences available in St. Louis, or just stop and grab a beer. Lafayette Square is once again a hub for trends in St. Louis culture, a reflection and a motivator of St. Louis’s identity, and a must-see, must-experience destination.
Author: Jeff Cox