Pop the champagne corks, St. Louis! The last of the sky bridge that linked Dillards Department Store (originally Stix, Baer and Fuller) and St.Louis Centre between 6th and 7th Streets has disappeared – allowing for the first time in twenty-five years, a clear view of sky and horizon at the eastern heights of Washington Avenue.
Once the central nervous system of one of the busiest garment districts in the U.S.(at the turn of the 20th century), Washington Avenue remains one of downtown St. Louis’ two major, east-west thorough-fares (Market Street being the other). But whereas Market Street retained its original 30 foot width for decades (as did the other cross streets in Colonial Saint Louis), Washington Avenue was from its inception the widest street in town.
In about 1818, Jeremiah Connor (who arrived in St. Louis in 1805 and served as Sheriff from 1806 – 1810) set aside a strip of land for a street, right down the center of his Common Fields property. He platted it 80 feet in width and a mile and a half long, retaining private ownership of 150 feet on either side of what he believed would become “a major artery for the city”. *
This showed great foresight. Located near the highest point on the second tier of bluffs that front the Mississippi River here, James Eads would select Washington Avenue as the place from which to stretch the first primarily steel bridge in the world -between Missouri and Illinois – not only because of the height of the bluff and the opening to a natural cave in its face (through which he would run a railroad tunnel today used by Metro Link) but because it was the widest street in St. Louis.
Today, some of the most vital landmarks downtown stand on what was Jeremiah Connor’s property bordering Washington Avenue – the Missouri Athletic Club, charming #555 Washington Ave., the Mercantile/today U.S. Bank Tower, Convention Center, the Merchandise Mart Building, the Lammert Building (home to the American Institute of Architects in St. Louis), the International Arts Building, its connecting City Museum and the Ely-Walker Lofts.
Connor donated the street he designed to the City of St. Louis with the proviso that it be named for President George Washington. To get a sense of the difference between Washington Avenue and the other streets of the era (its being almost three times as wide) simply walk from Washington Avenue over to Laclede’s Landing where the cobbled streets are their original Colonial width.
In time not only garment mills and warehouses but elegant dry goods and department stores, universities, fashionable shops, boutique hotels and skyscrapers would line Washington Avenue with its wide expanse of breathing room that allowed for commerce to flourish and architectural dreams to soar.
In 1829 St. Louis University, the oldest university west of the Mississippi, built its first campus at 9th & Washington on land bequeathed by Jeremiah Connor. Washington University, with its prep school for boys (Smith Academy) and its prep school for girls (Mary Institute) were later bounded by Lucas Place (today Locust Street) and Washington Avenue, 8 blocks west, near the western vista and the heights approaching 18th Street.
Thanks to demolition of the skywalk, you can stand today at 18th & Washington and see clear to the Eads Bridge with only the I70 overpass to mar the view. In between, along what local architects refer to as the Canyon of Washington Avenue, you will find one of the handsomest collections of early 20th century commercial structures in St. Louis. Marvelous buildings buzzing with new life – housing restaurants, night clubs, furnishings and fashions, tea room, art galleries, bowling alley and hotels.
The zipper design incorporated into the asphalt beginning at 18th Street and ending at 14th, commemorating thousands of St. Louisans who labored in the mills and warehouses of the garment district, points eastward, where the future of Washington Avenue is taking shape between 6th and 7th Streets and ultimately to where St. Louis begins at the Mississippi River. The way is once again open to possibilities.
* Streets of St. Louis, William B. Magnan, Right Press, Inc., Groton, CT. 1994.
© 2010 Maureen Kavanaugh
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