Lafayette Square is a neighborhood in St. Louis located just southwest of Downtown. It surrounds Lafayette Park which is the city's oldest public park, created by ordinance in 1836. The neighborhood is one of the oldest in St. Louis, and when it was developed it was one of the most fashionable in St. Louis. The neighborhood declined after a tornado devasted the area in 1896. Later industrial encroachement and highway construction further weakened the neighborhood. Since the 1970's residents have been buying and renovating the older homes in the neighborhood. Now most of the homes have been restored and the neighborhood is home to many shops and restaurants.
Since St. Louis’s beginning as a French village in 1764, the land which is now Lafayette Square had been a common pasture for village livestock and had never been privately owned. These commons became encampments for bands of criminals who would attack and rob area travelers. In 1835, now under American rule, Mayor Darby gained permission from the state legislature to being selling the commons to drive criminals out. When the city began to sell the common pasture, the Board of Aldermen set aside about thirty acres for community recreation. The square park was bordered by a street on each side, with the southern street called Lafayette in honor of General Marie-Joseph-Paul-Roch-Yves-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, who had visited St. Louis a few years prior.
In 1837 a real estate panic forced many who had bought land surrounding the Square to cease their payments causing the land to revert to the City. In the early 1850s, after courts had adjudicated the ownership of these properties, several prominent St. Louisans bought most of the land bordering the southern end of the Park. These families built expensive homes along Lafayette Avenue and secured state legislation preventing “any nuisance within a distance of 600 feet from the Park.” On November 12, 1851, the park was dedicated as “Lafayette Square” by City Ordinance 2741. By 1856, real estate developers had begun to sell lots on the western edge of the park (along Missouri Avenue) and by 1858 lots on the east side (Mississippi Avenue) were being sold. On Park Avenue (on the north edge of the Square) the lots were developed by the 1870s.
From the 1850s to the 1870s money from neighborhood residents and city coffers went towards improvements of the Square. These included “trees, shrubbery, graveling, fencing” and outdoor concerts. One newspaper called for more funds for improvement, writing that the Square “only needs to be properly improved to be one of the most attractive places in the United States.” During the Civil War, Lafayette Square was spared from the riots that plagued other city parks. With the end of the war, martial law also ended, and lot purchasing picked up.
The first bandstand was constructed in 1867 coinciding with the opening of Benton Place — a private street (or, in the local terminology, "private place)" off of Park Avenue. In 1868, an historic crowd of 25,000 to 40,000 gathered to witness the unveiling of a bronze statute of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The next year the park received one of the six casts of Houdon’s life-size marble sculpture of George Washington. In the late 1860s, architect Francis Tunica’s design won a competition to build an iron fence around the Square, which was completed in 1869. The newspaper the Daily Democrat, June 27, 1870 wrote:
- "In looking about the city and noting its improvements, we have been struck with the great progress attained in the vicinity of Lafayette Park. Within two years some of the finest residences in the city have been erected and the work is still going on. The beauty of the grounds, the elevation above the city, the character of the buildings, the beautiful shade trees, wide streets, and accessibility to the city by two lines of horse cars, the restrictions (by Statute) upon the erection of objectionable buildings or the carrying on of objectionable business, all combined should make this quarter the most desirable in the city for residence."
The 1870s was a time of flourishing for the Square marked by the continuing development of Benton Place on the north, and regular concerts on Thursdays and Sundays routinely attracting concertgoers numbering in the thousands and sometimes more than ten thousand. At one point, the park was tended to by thirteen gardeners. The 1880s and early 1890s were marked by organic growth of the neighborhood and increased importance of local churches and schools.
On May 27, 1896, Lafayette Square was largely destroyed by a tornado. The tornado did millions of dollars worth of damage, and killed many. The tornado uprooted nearly all of the trees in the Park as well as the trees on Benton Place, damaged the fence, destroyed the bandstand, destroyed the Union Club and the Methodist church at Jefferson and Lafayette Avenues, crippled the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, tore the roof off of the Unitarian church, and crippled or destroyed many homes on the Square. Although some residents gave up on the neighborhood and moved away, others began to rebuild and by 1904 the Square had improved enough “to earn special commendation from foreign landscape architects who were visiting the World’s Fair.”
In 1923, the Missouri Supreme Court declared the 1918 the residential zoning ordinance unconstitutional (see City of St. Louis v. Evraiff, 256 S.W. 489 (Mo. 1923)) and businesses began to purchase lots in the area. What the tornado of 1896 had begun, and the encroachment of gas stations and grocery stores continued, the Great Depression accelerated. By the end of World War II, the Square’s half-century of decline was complete. At this time, the neighborhood that was once the jewel of St. Louis had reached the low point in its history by becoming “a pocket ghetto of the unfortunate and poor,” known as “Slum D.”
KETC video about Lafayette Square: <youtube v="djhPxNiL_Dk" />
The neighborhood is centered around Lafayette Park, which is shown below. <googlemap lat="38.6162" lon="-90.215456" zoom="16" width="700" controls="large">38.616061, -90.21608, Lafayette Park</googlemap>
- David T. Beito, "The Private Places of St. Louis," in Beito, Peter Gordon and Alex Tabarrok, The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), p. 47-75.
- John Albury Bryan, Lafayette Square: The Most Historic Old Neighborhood in St. Louis (2d ed. rev. Landmarks Assn. of St. Louis, Inc. 1969) (Lafayette Square Press 1962).
- Timothy G. Conley, Lafayette Square: An Urban Renaissance (Lafayette Square Press 1974).
- Daily Democrat, June 27, 1870.
- Where We Live: A Guide To St. Louis Communities (Tim Fox ed. Missouri Historical Society Press 1995)