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Lafayette ParkFriday, 2.4.05: Lafayette Park

I've been thinning out my collection of St. Louis stereo views: the keepers vs. the ebay-bound. I swear my orphans must be having sex in their dark little boxes because every time I look, I seem to have more.

My favorites are the views of the Mississippi waterfront in the 1870s. The least interesting to me are the abundant views of Shaw's Garden and Lafayette Park. I have original prints by the St. Louis company Boehl & Koenig and then I have a bunch of pirated copy photos. (Pirating other people's photos was a lively gray market and the hotbed was in Rochester NY.)

I know a bit about Shaw's Garden, but nothing about Lafayette Park, so I decided to do a little research.

I'm familiar with Lafayette Square only because one of my cousins decided to do some urban homesteading there after the neighborhood was rediscovered in the 1960s. It is now a national historic district.

According to Thomas Keay:

Lafayette Park is the focal point of the Square, a last link to the little French settlement of 1764. It is an extension of the St. Louis Commons which was reserved for public use as pasture and farm land in the European tradition. It remains the only land within the city never under private ownership.

The 30 acre park was plotted in 1836, making it not only the oldest of city parks, but also the first park west of the Mississippi River...

[By] 1860 the population of St. Louis had increased 900% over the previous 20 years. During the prosperous post-Civil War years, Lafayette Square became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in St. Louis and its park became the most popular recreation spot in the city.

Individuals of both local and national reputation built imposing residences here. Among them were Montgomery Blair, appointed Postmaster General by Abraham Lincoln; David Nicholson, prominent wine and grocery merchant; Louis Brandeis, later U.S. Supreme Court Justice; D.C. Jaccard, noted jeweler; Charles Nagel, Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the Taft Administration; Mrs. Firmin Desloge, widow of the mining magnate; Joseph LaBarge and Horace Bixby, famed steamboat pilots; and three St. Louis mayors - John S. Thomas, James Britton and Henry W. Kiel.

But by the 1890's newer St. Louis neighborhoods developing to the West were enjoying increased popularity. The devastating cyclone of May, 1896 hastened the Square's decline. Destruction to the park and surrounding residences was so extensive that many entrenched families apparently decided to join the migration.

According to Hillary Wicai:

The park is slowly coming back to life; the old police station at its southeast corner has been reopened as a museum and more visitors are coming to view the park's treasured relics. Its most notable possessions include statues of Thomas Benton Hart and George Washington, along with Revolutionary War cannons from a British warship, which are considered some of the most interesting relics found in any city park west of the Mississippi.

So that's Lafayette Park. I guess I can understand better why there are so many photographs. During the 1870s and 1880s -- when all these views were taken -- it was the historically French heart of  fabulously wealthy St. Louis.



AOL City Guide

Lafayette Square.Org. An excerpt from "A Walk Around The Square" by THOMAS KEAY.