Preserving & Expanding Upon St. Louis Landmarks

Despite layers of ice and snow that made negotiating city streets and sidewalks challenging, a standing-room-only-crowd gathered Friday in the office of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis (http://www.landmarks-stl.org/wabmo/) for historian Robert Moore, Jr.’s fascinating presentation, “Before the Arch: A Look Back at the Historic St. Louis Riverfront.” The lecture was, as are many of Landmarks’ events, free and open to the public.

Organized in a Compton Heights residence in 1958 “by a  group of citizens alarmed over the seemingly endless destruction of the rich architectural fabric of the city”* Landmarks makes its home today in the beautiful, Renaissance-Revival-style Lammert Building at 911 Washington Avenue, which was designed by Eames & Young in 1897 and handsomely renovated by Mackey & Associates in 1986.

By 1959 almost the entire western fringe of the Mississppian capitol of Cahokia on this side of the river, every vestige of Colonial St. Louis downtown outside of a museum setting, the commercial heart of early 19th century St. Louis, and the Chestnut and Mill Creek Valley neighborhoods had been obliterated.

Huge architectural swaths of our historic and cultural consciousness as a community had been fragmented or completely lost. To be sure, parts of these areas were in decay and in need of care – instead they were razed.

If a city does not change and evolve it will die. History is filled with the evidence. Natural disasters, climate change, war, depletion of natural resources and migration are frequent causes. But so, too are expediency, politics, lack of vision and the inability of a given community to preserve its neighborhood from outside forces. Maintaining the delicate balance between progress and preservation is a complex endeavor. The Landmarks Association was born to guide this balance and address St. Louis’ diminishing historic landscape. Their mission now includes advocacy, funding, research, urban planning and education.

Thanks in great part to Charles Emil Peterson,  “the godfather of preservation,”** who advocated saving many of the remarkable, early to late 19th century buildings on the St. Louis riverfront and when that failed, made records of them,  the National Park Service has a priceless collection of photographs of an area that Bob Moore termed unique in the nation. (As was Colonial St. Louis once upon a time.) Chief among the remaining 19th century treasures was merchant Manuel Lisa’s fur warehouse dating to 1817 (later The Old Rock House) which you see here.

Bob Moore showed many of these photographs, describing the buildings’ locations, uses and the materials they were made of. Tragically not one of these remarkable 19th century structures between the Eads’ and Poplar Street Bridges except for the Basilica of St. Louis King of France (the Old Cathedral) survives.

Moore also took a section of Colonial St. Louis, Block 33 (today this would be directly below the Arch) and showed how it changed from 1764 to the present. Bob Moore is an expert on early St. Louis history as it pertains to the Jefferson Expansion Memorial and a published author of natural and cultural U.S. History. Any time you have the opportunity to go and hear him speak I highly recommend it, for he brings this history to life!

Like Charles E. Peterson and Robert Moore, Jr., Carolyn Hewes Toft, who steered the Landmarks Association for thirty-two years of its half-century existence, did not grow up here but recognized St. Louis landmarks and neighborhoods worth fighting for. The daughter of a geography professor, who’s lived all over the world and “likes prowling around a small town as much as a big city,”*** Toft has a keen sense of place, of places.

Under her direction, by the mid-1980s “St. Louis led the nation in the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits,”****thousands of St. Louis buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, neighborhoods including Benton Park, Lafayette Square, the Central West End and Hyde Park were designated as historic districts and Landmarks was instrumental in passage of Missouri’s Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits Law in 1997. The Landmarks Association also produced several publications during her tenure including one of St. Louis’ seminal architectural resources, that Carolyn wrote with the assistance of Lynn Josse, St. Louis: Landmarks & Historic Districts. The first copy of the book that I owned is literally in tatters from so much use. Carolyn, too, was in attendance for Bob Moore’s lecture Friday as the downtown riverfront from 1764 to the present appeared on screen at Architecture St. Louis, the learning and exhibition center that Toft conceived.

The Landmarks Association of St. Louis, which we have to thank for the rescue of such priceless structures as The Bissell Mansion, the Chatillon-DeMenil House, the Wainwright Building and the Old Post Office (seen here on a snowy day from the comfort of the Cafe Cioccolato) continues under the dynamic leadership of Executive Director, Jefferson Mansell and Assistant Director, Andrew Weil (who helped facilitate the Osage Nation’s purchase of Sugar Loaf Mound in 2009).

I visited the research library recently at the kind invitation of Preservation Specialist, Ruth Keenoy who had assisted me in the past by phone and email. Excellent resources and the generosity of staff, who took time from their own work periodically to offer suggestions as to where I might next search, made it a great place to study. The library is open to the public, by appointment, from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday thru Friday.

I’m happy to announce that I will be conducting my first walking tour for the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, of the Benton Park Neighborhood, in late April.

Referenecs: *Jefferson  G. Mansell in Landmarks 2009 Annual Report, ** “Charles E. Peterson, FAIA, Godfather of Historic Preservation,” AIArchitect(Aug. 24, 2004),***August 4, 2011 Interview with Carolyn Hewes Toft,****Andrew Weil – “About Landmarks Association of St. Louis”

Photo Credits: “Eads Bridge” by Camille Dry, Pictorial St. Louis 1876 – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; “The Old Rock House”, St. Louis, MO – courtesy of The Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc. All other photos: Landmarks Office, The Lammert Building, Robert Moore, Jr. at Architecture St. Louis, The Old Post Office (interior & exterior) and the Wainwright Building – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.

Special thanks to Carolyn Hewes Toft for taking time to talk with me!

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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