Lafayette Square is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. Aside from the wonderful architecture of its homes (more on that in a bit), the Square is loaded with great spots to relax. With an amazing park, a good selection of bars and restaurants, and an abundance of neat little shops, you can’t go wrong with spending an weekend day (or night) walking its sidewalks.
Lafayette Square: At one time, this was one of the most fashionable places in all of St. Louis and thanks to its addition to the Register of Historic Places in 1972, there has been a resurgence of vitality to the area. Drop by any weekend between Spring and Fall and you will find residents and visitors walking through the park, shopping along Park Ave, or grabbing a bite to eat at one of many great area restaurants.
To understand the neighborhood today, let’s take a look at the history.
Lafayette Square: what is now regarded as one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city certainly did not start out that way. A few hundred years ago Lafayette Square was basically a litter of encampments for criminals and thieves waiting to rob travelers. It was not until 1835 when the city began to sell portions of this land to private owners did things start to turn around. It started with the Board of Alderman electing to set aside 30 or so acres for “community recreation” in an attempt to rid the area of these undesirables. This area became what is now Lafayette Park, names after the Revolutionary War General Marquis de La Fayette. The area around the park would officially become Lafayette Square in 1851 by city ordinance.
While many of these first homes were smaller in size, this changed in the 1850’s along Lafayette Avenue when a few wealthy individuals purchased land along the Southern end of the park for personal residences. As this was becoming the new “place to live” for the wealthy, real estate developers were not far behind in buying land and building home along the other three borders of the park. This development continues until the 1870’s ad was followed by a rebuilding period after a devastating tornado ravaged the landscape in 1896. With the inclusion of gas stations and grocery stores in the 1920’s and followed by the Great Depression, the area fell into deep disrepair and was regarded as a ghetto and slum.
Similar to other St. Louis City neighborhoods, a group of local citizens with a sense of community spirit and a love of old architecture banded together to form the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee. Their efforts lead Lafayette Square to become the city’s first historic district (by ordinance) and in 1973 the U.S. Congress placed Lafayette Square on the National Register of Historic Places.
The majority of the houses in the Lafayette Square district were built before 1900, some dating back to before the Civil War. The period of greatest construction activity for this district of Second Empire style Victorian town houses was the two decades after 1865. Houses were usually two full stories topped by a third floor mansard roof with dormer windows. Typical design features were arched doorways and windows, bay windows and ornate cornices. Facades were faced with limestone or sandstone (sometimes incised plaster) with brick side and rear walls. The largest examples are on Benton Place and Park Avenue north of the park. Elsewhere in the district, houses are smaller although still large by contemporary standards. Some of the later ones, built during the 1880s, were designed in the Italianate style. After 1890, the prevailing architectural mode turned to houses displaying a Germanic influence, built of red brick featuring wide arches, turrets, classical columned porches and iron balconies.
The Lafayette Square District was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and became a City historic district in 1972.
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