The Lafayette Square Neighborhood, located on the near south side of St. Louis, Missouri started out as THE place to live in the mid to late 1800’s. Three story mansions surrounded the 30-acre Lafayette Park with its elaborate cast iron fencing. It was one of the oldest parks west of the Mississippi. The neighborhood was within walking distance of Union Station and the riverfront, where many of the wealthy landowners had made their fortune in shipping and the fur trade. Then in 1896, a good deal of the Lafayette Square area was destroyed by one of the worst tornados ever to strike the city. The wealthy residents decided not to rebuild, instead deciding to move to the still fashionable Central West End part of the city. Over the years the Lafayette Park neighborhood became a patchwork of the few remaining mansions, parking lots, and warehouses. A number of high-rise housing projects were built between Lafayette Square and downtown, near 14th Street. In the late sixties and seventies, the decline of the neighborhood began in earnest. I know. I was born there and lived there until I was fifteen. The projects went into decline and a lot of gangs roamed the area. Most of the mansions became rooming houses, their beautiful tin ceilings plastered over, the mahogany woodwork and pocket doors painted, and the ornate fireplaces that were in practically every room were bricked shut. We had our own skid row near Mississippi and Park Avenues; lined with liquor stores, broken glass, and still-breathing corpses in the alleys. The once beautiful Lafayette Park was definitely not a place you ventured into after dark.
Then, in the late eighties, a few urban pioneers began to trickle in and stake their territory. A few of the mansions along the park began to be restored to their former glory. You could tell by the bright Victorian colors that made them stick out like a well-healed thumb. Today the area is rapidly becoming the fashionable place to live again. It seems that every time I go down there I see a new upscale restaurant opening or an old warehouse being converted into condominiums. Gone are my old school and the mental hospital that sat across from it, replaced by block after block of new homes. The old hi-rise projects are long gone and the low-rise projects that sat next to them have been converted to multi-income level housing. The old City Hospital, which sat there for more than fifteen years boarded up and infested with pigeons, is getting a $100 million face-lift into condos, retail space, and offices. I no longer recognize my old neighborhood.
A lot of this new development comes from a couple of guys named Chris Goodson and Trace Shaughnessy. Their business is called Gilded Age. They both lived near Lafayette Park when it was in decline and formed a neighborhood betterment association. They both have been instrumental in the area’s rebirth.
Their latest project, called the Union Club, is going to be built on a vacant lot at Jefferson and Lafayette that last was the site of a supermarket. The original building that stood on the lot, also called the Union Club, was destroyed by that tornado in 1896. The original was a social club with the rounded arches of the Romanesque style, which was popular at the time. The new namesake will be similar in design, but will be multiple in purpose.
The building, which will sit just a half a block from the park, will have ground level space for offices and a restaurant. The upper three floors will add 39 condos to the area. Each will be about 1,100 square feet, some with balconies overlooking an interior courtyard with a fountain. Prices will start at about $200,000.
Gilded Age started by restoring some thirty vacant houses around the park, and besides the City Hospital project and the Union Club, they have also built 16 townhouses and rehabbed into condos the former Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church.
Gilded Age’s condos range from the traditional with crown moldings to lofts with concrete floors. Some of the more unusual, with stained glass and wood ceilings over thirty feet tall, are in the rehabbed church. Sizes are from 900 to 2,500 square feet and the price range is from $500,000 to $615,000.
Back in the 1800’s, Lafayette Square represented the Gilded Age of St. Louis. With the rebirth of ” the Square” in full swing, the city just might become “the place” to live in the future. One thing’s for certain: I really don’t recognize my old neighborhood anymore and that’s a good thing. Good, but also a little sad.