A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I: Historic Contexts
5 - Community Planning
"To think of a city as anything other than a unit, an organism whose life and health depend upon the successful performance by each part of its necessary function," wrote city planner Harland Bartholomew in Problems of St. Louis in 1917, "is to do the city an injustice." And, as in most cities, St. Louis is a collection of diverse parts with distinct yet intertwined histories and developments. It has been marked by constant westward migration, distinct neighborhoods, and the imprints of past plans and planning theories. Experiments with city plans, incorporating small towns into the city, neighborhood development, and population patterns all contribute to the map of present-day St. Louis.
Creating the Crazy Quilt
St. Louis began as a village with only minimum planning. While its initial blocks near the river were platted by Auguste Chouteau in 1764, the area beyond the confines of the village harkened to traditional agricultural patterns. Earliest farmers laid out the common fields between present-day Grand and Kingshighway in long, narrow strips in the 1760s. The streets north of Arsenal were based on the old Prairie des Noyers, so are somewhat irregular. The city designed the area south of it on a grid in 1836 with Arsenal as one axis. These two designs converge at Grand, accounting for the change in direction in Arsenal and the skewed grid in some areas. Developers started dividing the prairie in 1805, but people only moved into pockets. James Russell, for example, purchased a large parcel just south of today's Tower Grove Park. He discovered a rich coal vein on his land by 1820, so miners' families moved into houses nearby. Still, his son Charles (who grew up to be one of the most noted western genre artists) knew a sparsely populated neighborhood growing up.
William Christy added to the cartographic mix in 1816 in his new "North St. Louis." Christy, as did later founders of Bremen in 1844, used the river as an axis from which to design the community. When these villages became part of St. Louis, skewed directions of streets created oddly shaped lots and unusual intersections. As the city grew and expanded its western boundaries, it extended its own grid pattern into new areas while also accommodating the plans of new communities it engulfed and swallowed. When the city set its boundaries separate from St. Louis County in 1876, it completed its final expansion.5 It had already annexed Bremen and Carondelet. It included Cheltenham, centered around the intersection of Hampton and Manchester, and Elleardsville (now The Ville) that year.
Like other industrial cities, St. Louis was something less than an organized, cohesive whole at the start of the new century. Older industrial metropoli such as St. Louis expanded to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and growing industry without any particular design or forethought. The resulting cities were crowded, dirty, smoky, unattractive places to live. Residents of most cities, as in St. Louis, responded in two ways. First, they fled to the outskirts for new living spaces. Second, starting at the turn of the century, they introduced the new concept of city planning in efforts to impose order on the urban chaos.
The First Suburbanites
"A city is not beautiful by accident," wrote historian William Wilson in history of the City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City. "It is, by design or indifference, an ugly, unplanned array of buildings and streets that becomes beautiful only when men strive to transform its deformities, as they did in many United States cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries." A series of factors exacerbated the problem in St. Louis on the eve of the new century. Economic growth held higher priority than urban aesthetics. As the city grew it engulfed other communities, patching their maps into its own as well as creating new suburban areas. Subdivisions sprouted, with some 31 residential additions platted by 1845. City residents and new neighborhoods continued farther and farther from the core city throughout the nineteenth century.
Problems of living in the core city were highlighted in 1849, when the steamer White Cloud caught fire. Other steamboats and wood frame buildings quickly caught; soon much of the southern portion of the city was ablaze. The fire destroyed blocks of buildings and 23 steamers, at a cost of $6.1 million. Soon thereafter, the city required that new structures be built of less flammable material. When portions of downtown and the Soulard neighborhood rose from the ashes, the phoenix was brick or masonry. As late as the 1880s, property deeds in some new developments in the city required masonry construction. The preponderance of brick structures in St. Louis is the legacy of the White Cloud fire.
Wealthy St. Louisans started developing Lafayette Square in the 1850s around Lafayette Park. Montgomery Blair, former Postmaster General in the Lincoln administration, hired Julius Pitzman in 1866 to design Benton Place as a private street on the model of Lucas Place; four years later it hired its own security force. The park dated to 1825, when the city set it aside as its first park. It remained undeveloped until 1864, when pressures of new residents compelled the park board to hire Maximillian Kern to impose order upon it. A lake, ornamental pond, rocky grotto, bandstand, pavilions, iron fence, and trees transformed it into a walking park for St. Louis Victorians.
Over the next five decades, other private streets followed, making them a unique feature of St. Louis. First planned in 1870, Vandeventer Place developed between Grand and Vandeventer just north of Olive in the 1880s. Most of the other "places" sprouted in the early twentieth century north of Lindell in an attempt to barricade residents from less desirable elements.
More moderate homes and neighborhoods followed the same general pattern of people moving to the outskirts of town and commuting into the city daily. As the city grew, the "outskirts" were farther and farther from downtown. New streetcar line extensions (and, later, expressways) reached farther into St. Louis County, with new residential allotments following close behind.6
The Shaw neighborhood is a good example. Mary Tyler sold most of the property in 1887 to the Western Investment and Improvement Company. The following year the company announced a development "unprecedented in size and scope: 1200 lots in the new Tyler Place subdivision." But little happened until the Grand Avenue viaduct was completed in 1889, giving easy access and streetcar connections between the planned neighborhood and the rest of the city. The first homes sprung up in the 1890s, particularly after the Panic of 1893 ended. By the turn of the century, the area's population swelled. These neat middle-class homes offered a life away from the hustle, grime, smoke, and cramped living of the St. Louis farther east. It was the most recent installment in the march westward. Like many St. Louis neighborhoods, title covenants also dictated set-backs from the street, a two-story height limit, and masonry construction.
Since St. Louis set its boundary in 1876, it eventually ran out of undeveloped room in which it could expand. Streetcars and trains carried people from "bedroom communities" in the County to the city daily. As the suburbs expanded, St. Louis County population rose while the city's declined. County population doubled in the 1920s while the city's leveled. City population dropped in 1940, but the County's rose twelve percent.
Creating the "City Beautiful"
A new generation of current and aspiring local leaders at the turn of the century saw St. Louis as a typical industrial metropolis. One visitor in the early 1890s commented on a visit to St. Louis that "the air is so rich along the Mississippi, the pasty dust from American coal smoke falls so thick in the streets, that one is satisfied by an afternoon walk in St. Louis as if one had eaten a heavy dinner. Everyone coughs. . . .what smoke, what an atmosphere charged with chimney emanations, in this capital, the name of which seems to betoken only charm and poetry." No wonder people were moving to healthier areas.
City planning as a solution was based on the idea that changing people's environment would improve their behavior. Citizens would take better care of their cities and be less inclined to the baser activities if only they improved the urban environment. The national movement thus became known as the "City Beautiful" movement. Locally, the Civic Improvement League, created in 1902, expanded the idea seven years later to include capital improvements in the city. George Kessler and his ilk saw urban planning broadly as a way to ameliorate urban problems. He sought to impose order on the city through a comprehensive plan joining the city with a system of streets and boulevards, and make it healthier with better water and sanitation. During Mayor Rolla Wells' administration (1901-9), a new era was in the making.
The approaching Louisiana Purchase Exposition gave city fathers added incentive to improve the environment. Progressive local journalist William Marion Reedy first linked urban reform and the Fair in his 1899 article in Reedy's Mirror, "What's the Matter with St. Louis." Fair chairman David Francis knew that the upcoming extravaganza needed good planning to put the city's best foot forward. He hired landscape architect George Kessler in 1902 to design the fair grounds at Forest Park. Kessler, one of the nation's leading landscape architects and planners, had already created the boulevard system in Kansas City. Soon after arriving in St. Louis, he began work on city planning as well.
The Fair became the impetus for overdue improvements. Beauty alone was not the issue. City Beautiful reformers sought long-term reform to make cities better places to live. Mrs. Louis McCall of the Civic Improvement League wrote in 1902 that "It is gradually dawning upon everyone that a nice, clean, well-kept city is 'money in the pocket' of everyone who lives in the city . . . . Even the coarser sort of politicians are beginning to realize that it makes for their personal popularity to be in favor of improvements such as we urge."
Demanding clear water for Fair fountains, Francis convinced Mayor Rolla Wells to build a new water filtration plant on the Missouri River. Dirt streets were paved-including the prestigious Lindell, since it was the entrance to the Fair. Trash was collected regularly. McCall wrote that "The leavening is working in St. Louis. One can see it and feel it everywhere. The World's Fair project is regarded as a blessing simply because it affords a reason, appreciated by all, why the city should be promptly put in its best shape to receive visitors from all around the world."
The Fair inspired the city to spend $200,000 on street repairs and another $77,000 on sewers in 1902 alone. Government enacted a smoke abatement ordinance the following year, and clear water flowed on the eve of the Fair in 1904.7 The leavening was working.
Reformers used the Fair as an excuse to implement improvements, then capitalized on its momentum for more. Fair planners intended to keep only the Smithsonian aviary as part of what became the St. Louis Zoo and the Palace of Art as the new art museum. It reproduced the plaster statue of St. Louis, which graced the Fair entrance, to stand in front of the St. Louis Art Museum.
After the Fair, Kessler refurbished Forest Park. He oversaw planting thousands of trees and adding a drainage system. He added vistas and open spaces, because open green areas were central to ameliorating the effects of overcrowded cities. He recommended a new park governance, too, with a nonpolitical board including experts in planning and parks.
A central component was covering the River des Peres through the park. It was not much more than a creek in some spots, running through Forest Park, under the site of the Arena, and south to connect with the Mississippi. It provided drainage and water for the homes and businesses in those areas, but also became an open sewer by the turn of the century. A wooden underground trough carried the water during the fair in 1904. But as many short-term remedies have a habit of doing, the temporary slough became a permanent fixture. After a flood killed eleven and damaged more than 1,000 homes, city fathers reviewed the problem anew. A permanent subterranean tube for the River Des Peres was constructed between 1929 and 1931.
Order from Chaos: City Planning
Meantime, Kessler was also busy developing parts of the city's first comprehensive plan, starting with the Kingshighway Commission. His plan transformed Kingshighway into a green ring around the city. The piecemeal boulevard design (along Forest Park, for example) and width of Kingshighway are legacies of this initial planning effort.
After the Fair and Kingshighway plan, the Civic League commissioned the city's first comprehensive city plan. It named committees in 1905 that read like the Who's Who of St. Louis. When proposed two years later, the plan considered a range of improvements. The parkway between City Hall, the Civil Courts building, and the Public Library is a surviving core of the cluster of public buildings. Further infrastructure improvements-street paving, removing poles and overhead wires, improving the riverfront, planting trees, installing drinking fountains, and building monuments-would benefit all citizens.
An expanded system of parks gave more localized green space. The Commission found that there was one acre of park for every 96 people living west of Grand, but an acre for every 1,871 between Grand and the river. Besides existing Forest Park and its Victorian counterparts Tower Grove and Lafayette Parks, the city would add and develop parks as places for both vigorous activity and gentler communing with nature.
All this led to a new permanent City Plan Commission in 1911. When Kessler left St. Louis four years later, the Commission had proposed parks, parkways, transportation routes, a Central Traffic Parkway down the center of the city, riverfront improvements, and expanded city services. To progressive reformers, the Commission would develop the answers to St. Louis's urban woes.
But it didn't. The city implemented the plan here and there, with much political haggling. Novelist Winston Churchill lamented that "if the city had spent all that money that it spent on the fair on city planning commission recommendations . . . the results would have shown substantial benefits more enduring." There had been lasting benefits, to be sure, but nothing near the grandiose dreams of the early century.
Harland Bartholomew & Urban Planning
When Kessler left, disenchanted by the political process of implementing city planning, the City Plan Commission hired Harland Bartholomew, a young up-and-coming city engineer from Newark, New Jersey. Successes under his belt and a sense of the professionalization of the field, Bartholomew arrived to find that best-laid plans remained only that: ideas. A year after his 1916 arrival he wrote his Problems of St. Louis, making the case for urban planning and citing the issues needing to be addressed.
Bartholomew cited problems of the "considerable instability" of downtown, public transportation inaccessible to some people, constrictions of set city limits (the ghost of 1876 again), and undue delays and expense in public works. There were, of course, good examples of urban planning in St. Louis. The "Lindell cut-off" at Lindell and Locust was "a good indication of what will be accomplished by other city planning projects on a larger scale." The Cabanne Addition (in the city's west end north of Delmar) showed the quality of life gleaned from good planning with sidewalks, set-backs, street lights, and such. Bartholomew's plan, first outlined in 1917 and in full swing by 1923, addressed problems through organized effort. Bartholomew's plans foreshadowed much development in St. Louis for the next seventy years. He called for main thoroughfares to carry people from the core city to its outskirts, a precursor to our freeway system. He noted that St. Louis was the largest city in the United States with only surface public transportation; Metrolink opened in 1993. He called for luring business back to the city to bolster its tax base; through government incentives in the 1970s and 1980s, more than fifteen major developments started in downtown. He called for razing slum areas and moving those living in poverty into housing meeting basic standards. In this way, he is the intellectual father of urban renewal in St. Louis, especially the Mill Creek Valley clearance. He called for a housing authority to acquire large blocks of land for new housing which met certain standards, which became a reality in 1939.
His concept of stabilizing neighborhoods found later support. The west end redevelopment, starting in 1965, and the renaissance in Lafayette Square in the 1970s drew from historical ideas, while setting the stage for other neighborhood improvements in Soulard, Hyde Park, Fox Park, LaSalle Park, and Shaw. The City's 1973 plan for attracting people back to the city's historic neighborhoods has its roots in Bartholomew's thinking from fifty years earlier.
Bartholomew also developed the city's first zoning ordinance. He blamed "private land development" for the economic map of St. Louis, and called on city government to manage it through zoning laws. And, he wrote in 1917, "the welfare of the group is therefore now generally considered to supersede the rights of the individual when questions of health, safety and general welfare arise." Mayor Henry Kiel signed such an ordinance into law in 1918, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional six years later.
Under Bartholomew, the city initiated plans to renovate the riverfront. Since the early nineteenth century, the levee was generally considered less than desirable. Aged warehouses and other buildings, saloons, and remnants of bygone days needed clearing, they reasoned. The Civic League first called for its renovation in 1907. No fewer than nine plans over the next quarter century each tried a different twist on the same theme: the buildings had to go, and the city needed thoroughfares to carry people (and later, cars) to and from it with speed and convenience.
New Deal funds helped raze the buildings in the area, but the land sat vacant for the coming decades. Completion of the Arch, interstates 70 and 44, and U S Route 40/I-64 brought Bartholomew's plan of an express system carrying people to the area, and a renovated riverfront to final conclusion. It was all part of making what Bartholomew himself called "an organism whose life and health depend upon the successful performance by each part of its necessary function."
Engineering the Mighty Mississippi
City planning has also involved attempts to reign in the Mississippi River. Swift currents compel the Mighty Mississippi to move eastwardly. So businessmen of the mid-1800s feared St. Louis would be landlocked. The United States Army remedied the problem in 1844. It assigned an engineer, Captain Robert E. Lee (the future Confederate general), to design a way to keep the river on track. The problem stemmed partly from river snags, but more so from a geographic feature: the shifting sand bars on the river bottom. Through a system of underwater dikes, Lee orchestrated the Army's work to route water back toward St. Louis to keep it a riverfront city.
Other engineering of geography has proved more complicated and, on occasion, potentially dangerous. The United States Corps of Engineers has worked to manage the Mississippi and Missouri rivers since the 1930s. A series of locks, dams, retaining walls, and flood control mechanisms make the rivers more navigable for barges, still carrying raw materials (grain and coal, mostly) east. By and large, the system works, and people come to depend on it.That was part of the problem with the Flood of 1993. Residential areas expanded into old flood plains, now protected and available through a more highly managed river system. But what happens when the "flood of the century" comes as it did in 1993? Flood walls and dikes broke or were overflowed, destroying homes and businesses. As the rivers swelled, they came to engulf once-dry suburbs. Some blamed these efforts for worsening the problem through its efforts to harness geography, while others have argued that the problem was beyond the control of any entity. Regardless, it illustrates the dichotomy of being a river city. It is among both the great blessings and the great curses.