Name: Lafayette Square
Designation: National Register of Historic Places
St. Louis during the early and mid-1800s was a booming city of commerce and industry. Fortunes had been made in the fur business and in outfitting the move westward. Steamboats plied the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and St. Louis was the acknowledged "Queen of the River" with as many as 170 boats on the levee at any one time.
As the City´s fortunes rose, so did demands for a style of gracious living. The result was subdivisions of immaculate mansions owned by the captains of industry. Names such as Lucas Place, Vandeventer Place, and Lafayette Square were synonymous with the elegant lifestyle of Victorian St. Louis.
Today, this heritage of early St. Louis has largely vanished under downtown office buildings and vacant lots. Only in Lafayette Square, the City´s first historic district, does it still remain.
Lafayette Square traces its origins to 1836 when Lafayette Park, the city´s first park, was set aside for public use. Although it functioned largely as a parade ground for the City´s Home Guard in its early years, by the 1850s the park area was increasingly being developed as a site for large mansions on well landscaped estates. Early landowners included Archibald Gamble, Charles Gibson, and David Nicholson.
During the 1860s and 1870s this development gradually expanded, with many of the Square´s fine residential streets being platted. One of the most unusual of these was Benton Place. Developed by Montgomery Blair in 1866, it was one of America´s first private streets. Its most unique feature are the property lines which are extended across the roadway to the center of the oval shaped parkway. Property owners thereby controlled traffic and the care of the parkway for recreation.
As Lafayette Square developed Lafayette Park was also improved. The 30-acre park received a wooden fence and plantings in 1852. Other improvements prior to the Civil War included a six-acre parade ground and an ornamental pond.
Following the end of the war in 1865, a park superintendent was hired and the park was lavishly landscaped. In 1868, sculptress Harriet Hosmer created its first statue: a bronze of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Its unveiling was witnessed by a crowd of 40,000 persons. One year later, through the efforts of Charles Gibson, another statue was added: a bronze copy of Houdon´s George Washington. Other improvements included a bandstand used for weekly performances, benches, a police station, a large ornamental music pavilion, and, finally, the park´s decorative iron fence and gates.
By 1890, Lafayette Square had reached its zenith. The Square, along with Vandeventer Place, was the City´s most exlusive residential neighborhood. A very destructive tornado on May 27, 1896, however, started what was to be a long decline. The tornado took many lives, as well as destroying property valued in the millions of dollars. Every tree in the park was toppled along with the bandstand. Only the park´s statues seemed to have escaped. Many of the area´s homes were partially or totally destroyed, along with the Union Club (the South Side´s leading social organization), and the park´s many handsome churches. Many of the Square´s residents concluded that the area would never recover from the blow and promptly left to take up residence in other parts of the city. Others went to work rebuilding their shattered properties, but while the buildings could be restored, the tall trees that had helped give the Square its stately elegance were gone for a generation.
A second blow came in 1923 when the State Supreme Court declared that the City´s zoning ordinance limiting Lafayette Square to residential development was unconstitutional. Following this decision, commercial interests began to impinge on the park and the remaining families began leaving. Gradually, the fine Victorian town houses were converted to rooming houses. This downward trend has only recently been reversed.
The Lafayette Square area,
site was made possible by: the City of St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency and