Nothing remains of Colonial St. Louis on Washington Avenue except a high limestone bluff with an opening to a natural cave that’s been there from time immemorial. I haven’t found any references to its usage in Colonial times but one hundred and ten years after the founding of St. Louis, James Eads ran a railroad tunnel through it that’s still in use.
When you cross the Mississippi River from Illinois to St. Louis you enter this cave from Eads’ Bridge and you exit it at Busch Stadium – some eight city blocks west and south of where you entered – having traveled but one segment of The Lou’s labyrinthine underground; the only one in fact that’s still accessible to the public.
What local architects refer to as the canyon of Washington Avenue would be unrecognizable to Jeremiah Connor of County Roscommon, Ireland who laid out the widest street in St. Louis in about 1819, right down the center of his Common Field property, and then deeded it to the community on condition that it be named for President George Washington.*
An auctioneer by trade, the first sheriff of St. Louis and later its treasurer, Connor** had the foresight to retain ownership of one hundred and fifty feet of land on either side of the road that ran from Fourth Street twenty-one blocks to the west, today Jefferson Avenue.
He envisioned businesses springing up all along this thoroughfare and over the centuries, the prosperity of downtown St. Louis (or not) could pretty much be read in the street scape of Washington Avenue. So many of the city’s historic and architectural landmarks would be erected on what had been Jeremiah Connor’s property – James Eads’ triple arched bridge, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassebaum’s Convention Center (shown above), Isaac Taylor’s monumental warehouse for L & M and the south end of Bob Cassilly’s City Museum to name a few.
Both St. Louis University and Washington University spent their early years on Washington Avenue, some eight blocks apart, on opposite sides of what had become a fashionable boulevard. They were bordered by elegant townhouses, churches, hotels and shops that gave way to department stores, garment factories, and warehouses – like those of Liggett & Myers between 9th and 10th Streets, Jacob Goldman at 12th & Washington and Ely Walker between 15th and 16th Streets – all three of which have been renovated as residential buildings with shops at street level.
By the turn of the 20th century Washington Avenue had become the central nervous system of one the nation’s busiest garment districts. Today the American Institute of Architects Office and the Landmarks Association of St. Louis are handsomely housed at street level within the Lammert Building, designed by Eames & Young for Hargadine-McKittrick, the oldest dry-goods company in St. Louis and Commerce Realty Company.*** Washington Avenue would enter the 21st century with more distinctive turn of the 20th century landmarks intact than any other street downtown.****
From the poetic, 19th century lines of 555 Washington Avenue to the streamed lines and notched corners of the Mercantile Tower, from Gyo Obata’s elegant salutes to Louis Sullivan’s designs for the Wainwright Building (those rounded windows and leafy, terra-cotta, relief designs on Convention Center) to Theodore Link’s lotus columns on the International Shoe Company Building, Washington Avenue reflects the evolution of commercial architecture in St. Louis from the gilded to the modern age.
As the Washington Avenue Street Project draws to a close with the re-invention of St. Louis Centre and near-completion of the Laurel Project revision of the grand, old Stix, Baer and Fuller Department Store, a key portion of the downtown revitalization puzzle has fallen into place. Washington Avenue has resurfaced as a city street with tremendous energy and geographic potential, limited only by the vision of the dreamers and shapers of the St. Louis prairie. Dream on!
References: *Streets of St. Louis, William B. Magnan, Right Press, Inc., Groton, CT, 1994; **http://stlouis.missouri.org/neighborhoods/history/cbd/text7.htm; ***St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts, Carolyn Hewes Toft with Lynn Josse, Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc., 2002; ****A Guide to the Architecture of St. Louis, George McCue and Frank Peters, University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Illustration Credit: “Perspective Drawing of The Eads Bridge at St. Louis” by Camille Dry, from Pictorial St. Louis 1875 – in the public domain at wikipedia.com.
Photos: Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.