Let’s start this blog post with a catastrophe!
On May 17, 1849, a fire broke out on the steamboat “The White Cloud” docked at the St. Louis levee. The city was crowded with residents and hopeful travelers on the way to the California goldfields. Steamboats were moored in tiers several deep at the levee and the fire spread rapidly to the dozens of riverboats moored alongside and up and down the landing. Before long it spread to the buildings and warehouses along the riverfront and then worked its way inland into the city. Within a few hours the fire had engulfed most of the central core of the city and fire fighters were blowing up businesses in the fire’s path to create a fire break. One of the firefighters was blown to bits in the attempt to save the city, the first recorded fireman’s death in service for the city and in the nation. After eleven hours there were over 400 buildings destroyed and over twenty steamboats burned at the docks. St. Louis was a substantial city in 1849 and was largely built of brick but there was a significant number of wood frame buildings, workshops, blacksmith shops, stables and barns that provided fuel for the flames. Loss of life was only three deaths, quite small considering the extent of the property destruction. A cholera epidemic was raging in the city at the same time which would claim about 6,000 lives. A reasonably good daguerreotype from that week in 1849 shows the extent of the damage. The view seems to be toward the river and the old church still stands, as it does today as the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France. The Gateway Arch would now probably be to the right of the steeple.
After the fire, the city fathers passed an ordinance that required all future buildings to be built of brick or stone and much of St. Louis, today, is almost entirely made of brick. The fact that there were brick and fire clay mines just west of the city worked in its favor as building materials were readily at hand and reasonably cheap. Even streets were paved with brick. So the city rebuilt and eventually became the fourth largest city in the nation around the turn of the century. The rise of the suburbs and commuter expressways brought massive population loss over the next eighty years but that is a different story. The old 19th century city, and its infrastructure, is still there in many respects.
There were other catastrophes that came and went. Tornadoes, yellow fever, smallpox, typhoid, cholera and other diseases took a heavy toll at times, just like in other cities. St. Louis buried its dead in a tract of land a short distance to the west. By the 1860s the city was growing in that direction and in 1866 a decision was made to exhume the burials and move them elsewhere and convert the cemetery into one of the first city parks. City Park, as it was known then, was constructed and landscaped (by Edward F. Krausnick) and was soon the focus of new residential construction. The park was renamed to Benton Park in honor of Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart Benton. It remains as a scenic and restorative refuge for city residents.
The homes built around Benton Park belonged to the city’s upper-mobile business and professional class. These were people who were “well off” but not the richest families in the city. That being said, the homes that exist there today are certainly impressive. The Park and neighborhood are located where Arsenal Street meets Jefferson Avenue. The area is underlain by a series of limestone caverns which were useful in the making of German-style lager beer prior to refrigeration. The gargantuan Anheuser-Busch brewery and the old Lemp brewery are only blocks away. Both were constructed of brick, of course.
I have visited the park a number of times as I have relatives about a block away. It is always an enjoyable stroll but on this last occasion, after watching a bicycle race (Gateway Cup) through the city’s streets, I took some pictures of the neighborhood. Like other parts of the city, the neighborhood has become popular with families interested in rehabbing and restoring the old 19th century homes.
St. Louis has a hot and humid summer climate and the brick walls and shady streets helped in a small way to mitigate the heat. It was once common for residents all over the city to sleep outdoors in the neighborhood parks on very warm nights and I imagine the same was true for Benton Park. The park gets a good deal of use and is popular with south St. Louis residents.
St. Louis has a number of similar old neighborhoods, Lafayette Square might be the most famous but Compton Heights, Soulard and Fox Park are other examples. The northern part of the city has suffered considerable deterioration and similar old neighborhoods have largely been demolished or have fallen victim to brick rustlers who pull down vacant structures for recycling of the old bricks for McMansion construction elsewhere.
These old brick neighborhoods were once given very little respect and many homes were chopped up for apartments. Some were sold at dirt cheap prices until they became fashionable again and were restored. Now you can pick up a house at Lafayette Square for $500,000 to $700,000. While Lafayette Square has something of a French Second Empire and Victorian style, Benton Park has a more Germanic feel with some Richardsonian Romanesque features.
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