How Architecture Survived The Day St. Louis Burned
Many St. Louisans know the story. The steamboat White Cloud set itself ablaze in 1849 during the cholera epidemic. The fire spread to other boats that were docked at the levee and quickly, much of downtown St. Louis was destroyed. According to the historical narrative, the culprit was the wood that was used in the construction of the city. A series of laws were quickly passed by civic leaders to reform the architecture that is the core of our culture. This setup St. Louis’s future success in the 1850s, and ’60s.
The truth is not always so simple and the shared narrative is often inaccurate. First, brick and stone masonry buildings were already plentiful on the levee in 1849. Many of these buildings burned along with their wooden neighbors. However, St. Louis has indeed become a city known for its red brick. This beautiful brick has made iconic neighborhoods such as Soulard, Hyde Park, and St. Louis Hills.
As I explored the West End neighborhood, I discovered that the story of wood-frame houses being prohibited within city limits after 1849 wasn’t so simple. There are some wood frame survivors left, though they were not built before their lots were annexed by City Hall. However, it is important to remember that the current boundaries were established in 1876 and the vast majority (over 90%) of St. Louis houses were built after the 1870s.
The West End neighborhood is the same. Although the official boundaries are smaller than they were in the past, it still includes many of the blocks north and south of Forest Park where wealthy residents lived. Because these streets and lots were designed for early automobiles, it is not unusual to have alleys but long driveways that run between houses. These lots are larger squares and rectangles than the narrower lots east of Kingshighway. The area, which was served by streetcars, was unique in that it had its very own right-of-way for the Hodiamont Streetcar. It runs between Cabanne, and Vernon, and curves down between Kensington, Cates, and Cates avenues. Some streets bend with the grid, like Belt and Bartmer avenues, which predate modern suburbia.
This brings me to the West End’s wonderful wood houses. The ideal place to begin is the home of Theodore Link. He was the architect of Union Station and the Central West End’s Second Presbyterian Church. The Shingle Style architecture that he admired from his East Coast contemporaries is evident in the house, which is located on the south side of West Cabanne Place. It’s a private street off Hamilton Avenue. The Shingle Style, which was a departure from the Queen Anne Style’s elegant millwork, used cedar shingles and rough-cut stones to create the impression of a country home. As anyone who has ever owned a cedar-shingle roof knows, they can be very expensive to replace. This is why many of the St. Louis houses that I recognize as having been clad with the Shingle Style in the past have switched to vinyl siding, which is much more maintenance-friendly.
Queen Anne is still a prominent feature of West End architecture. However, the weather damage has caused much of the wood to be removed. The Queen Anne style was popularized by planning mills. These saws powered by steam could quickly produce intricately-designed ornamentation which could be sold in Sears Catalogs and other places. Without the need to hire a skilled, but expensive, woodcarver or carpenter, homeowners could decorate their homes with intricate millwork. Access to Queen Anne’s best-preserved Queen Anne surprises was possible in small towns thanks to the extensive railroad links of the 19th century. St. Louis was more accessible than other cities, as we can see in Kirkwood and Webster Groves, which were railroad suburbs in the late 1800s.
As is the case with St. Louis architecture there are always subtle variations, delighting details, and deviations. The first floor of the Link House is made up of buff brick. A single-family home is hidden amongst the dense apartments in DeBaliviere Place. It has a rusticated, stone first floor and shingles on the upper floors. The front features a beautiful, curved turret. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show that there were many wood-frame homes, not brick, with stone fronts. This shows how St. Louis architecture can surprise us with its exceptions to common assumptions.