Hard times for Lafayette Square

The Old House Web

Story and photos by Lisa A. Johnston


Parts of this story: Introduction ~~ Historicalbeginnings ~~ The Great Cyclone of 1896 ~~ The age of blight ~~ Lafayette Square today ~~ Tour Lafayette Square

The Great Cyclone of 1896

The aftermath of the cyclone: Mississippi Block looking north, bordering Lafayette Park.
(Cyclone photos: The St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, Lafayette Square Archives)

Park House destroyed
Two men survey the damage near the Park House after the great cyclone.

Park House now
The restored Park House on a recent winter's day.

Wealthy residents were already leaving the fanciful Victorian neighborhood ofLafayette Square, in favor of more rural St. Louis suburbs. Then a naturaldisaster brought the second great challenge to Lafayette Square.

One May afternoon in 1896, the clouds thickened and turned a forbidding greenish-gray. Residents of St. Louis's South Side,fearing a tornado, quickly took refuge in their basements. Shortly after, amassive funnel touched ground, ripping homes from their foundations andup-rooting trees. In all, 300 people in St. Louis died in what became known asthe "Great Cyclone of 1896."

The grand homes of Lafayette Square lay in waste. The mature oaks and maplesthat shaded the park just that morning were all but gone.

But the cyclone was a catalyst for a wave of restoration. While some abandoned their decimated homes and neighborhood, many others quickly rebuilt and restored the mansions to their originalgrandeur.

The age of blight

2108 Lafayette
2108 Lafayette Avenue is currently under restoration by Wayne and Julie White.

The prosperity was short lived. By the early 1900s, political changes close to home and a developingwar in Europe left the future of the newly resurrected Lafayette Square onceagain in doubt.

In 1923, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that zoning restrictions along the perimeter of Lafayette Square Park were unconstitutional. For the first time, commercial businesses werepermitted -- a change that had an unpredicted, but devastating, effect onLafayette Square.

Without the protection of the wealthy and politically influential residentsof St. Louis, Lafayette Square plunged into its own Great Depression. A carefully crafted neighborhood planthat would have preserved the serenity of the neighborhood was abandoned. Property values plummeted. This transformation in politics andthought speeded the exodus of the remaining affluent families in the Square.

2108 Lafayette

2108 Lafayette

2108 Lafayette

2108 Lafayette

Interior pictures of 2108 Lafayette Avenue before rehabilitation. (Click on pictures for larger view)

Photos: John Greene

By 1960, Lafayette Square had survived two world wars and the Great Depression. Then the racial and social unrest that characterized most of America's cities left Lafayette Square arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in the city of St. Louis.

Once grand houses with majestic architecture were now being chopped into boarding houses occupied mostly by transient renters in rooms costing as little as $10/week. Crimes stemming from alcoholism; prostitution and child abuse plagued this area while arson wreaked havoc on historic architectural treasures.

"The fires were a terrible thing," says Ruth Kamphoefner, an earlyfounder of the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee. "Every Friday andSaturday night the firemen would fight fires and the neighbors would standaround watching and chatting. (LafayetteSquare) lost 55 houses that way."

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