Thursday evening, November 6, 2014 the Richmond Heights Historical Society, under the direction of their Vice President, Joellen Gamp McDonald, will host a speakers event commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Louis that highlights the work of six local historians. I am honored to be one of them.
Most of the presenters – Frederick Fausz, Andrew Weil, Elizabeth Terry and Esley Hamilton are professional historians – while Doug Houser and I are historians by avocation. But we are all of us storytellers and preservationists of one sort or another, from architecturally significant structures to first-hand accounts of individuals who have shaped the history of Greater St. Louis.
During 2013 I had the pleasure of conducting two, five-hour coach tours and three, half-day walking tours of the City of Richmond Heights, an inner-ring suburb of the City of St. Louis as part of their Centennial Celebration. These guided tours were the culmination of three years of research that had at its core Joellen Gamp McDonald’s and Ruth Nicholls Keenoy’s wonderful book, Images of America: Richmond Heights 1868-1940.
One of the most fascinating aspects of that research was interviewing scores of Richmond Heights residents and business owners from all walks of life and documenting their recollections of different eras. These included Arianna Aughey, who lives with her husband John and their children in the oldest house in Richmond Heights, a farmhouse built by Jean Baptiste Bruno in about 1890.
Jean Bruno and his wife Victorine Verrier came to the United States as children with French parents (well outside the Colonial period) and raised thirteen children of their own on a farm he purchased after returning to St. Louis County from the Gold Rush. The Bruno family prospered and became well-known for their extensive orchards. Their home stands on what was the last parcel of farmland in the City of Richmond Heights.
Legend has it that a young Lt. Robert E. Lee remarked upon the similarities between the topography of St. Louis and the topography of his native Richmond, Virginia when he was supervising a project on the Mississippi River with the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1830s suggesting the name Richmond Heights for a hilly area west of the city boundary.
In 1901 the John W. Ranken Realty Company was the first to advertise a subdivision they called Richmond Heights in the Globe Democrat Newspaper. There were certainly enough Virginia transplants in the St. Louis area (beginning with the great William Clark in 1806) for Lee’s suggestion to have spread and endured long enough to inspire the name of a subdivision, tho’ that’s unprovable and the connection may be happenstance.
The most distinctive 19th century landmark in what became Richmond Heights was the Edward and Lavinia Gay mansion pictured on page 15 of Richmond Heights: 1868-1940, an elegant Italianate Villa situated at the highest point of a hilly, forested estate. Begun in 1857 the Gay Villa wasn’t completed until just after the Civil War. As late as 1935 when that property was being developed into two luxurious subdivisions, Lake Forest and Hampton Park, “as many as 1200 trees were still standing on what had been the Gay Estate, 900 of which had trunks measuring a foot or more in diameter.”**
Today Richmond Heights’ century-plus trees and Deer Creek (which runs through Hampton Park) are the only surviving remnants of the community’s 19th century roots. The Grove Mansion at 1108 Hillside Drive exemplifies the demeanor of the homes built on the former Gay Estate during the 20th century. The Mediterranean-style Grove Mansion, designed by Louis LaBeaume in 1911 for Edwin Wiley Grove, Jr., heir to his father’s chemicals fortune, is one of the most stunning homes in St. Louis County.
But the split-level Modernist home designed by Harris Armstrong for Dr. and Mrs. Henry J. Hampton holds a greater historical significance as the boyhood of Henry Hampton Jr., who documented the civil rights struggle for African-Americans in his Pulitzer-Prize Winning, Eyes on the Prize.
I would like to thank very specially Joellen Gamp McDonald, archivist and Vice-President of the Richmond Heights Historical Society for inviting me to construct and guide the walking tours and coach tours celebrating the centennial of the city’s founding and for her invaluable assistance in creating those tours. It was an honor and a privilege to work with Joellen and the many, many wonderful residents and business people who shared with me their memories of the City of Richmond Heights!