Famous are the private streets of St. Louis.
A segment of St. Louis’ high society sought to be independent of the rest of the population long before the advent of modern-day regulations and zoning. Many of these private streets are still in existence, but some, like Vandeventer Place, were destroyed in the 20th century. These elite refuges for wealthy people are seen by St. Louisans today as a wonderful reminder of the glory days or as telling relics of unresolved class resentment. It’s fascinating to see how the modern observer of these private streets viewed these St. Louis inventions as they were being platted.
An interesting article in the now-defunct St. Louis Republic provides insight into the establishment of private streets in the period 1900 to 2000, when the majority of the Pitzman designs were opened. Newspapers have certain confidence at that time. The article opens with a modest brag about Union Station, the most important and busiest railway station of the day. The terminal is where all rail traffic flows through, so visitors from out of town cannot see the city while they transfer to other depots. Even though most private streets aren’t located near downtown St. Louis, the author says this.
The reporter includes a quote from a driver who gave tours to visitors.
“Everyone is amazed and delighted at our private areas, Vandeventer Westmoreland and Portland, being the three most convenient in a two-hour ride.”
Later, the conversation turned to visitors’ amazement at the beautifully tended boulevards which separated grand carriageways. A few people wondered how the money was raised to pay all the gardeners. Vandeventer Place is well-known for its requirement for unanimous approval from all landowners to change any restrictions that were in place at its foundation. Some rumors suggest that it is still difficult for residents of private streets in St. Louis, to pay the bills for large numbers of medians or privately owned streets.
Although Vandeventer Place’s eventual demise is well-known, Grand Center was transformed after the Civil War into an exclusive residential area. It became a second downtown in the early 20th century. However, there were signs of its weakness as early as 1895.
The impartial observer of the moment sees that the only mistake made in the projection of Vandeventer Place was to overlook or underestimate the city’s growth. Vandeventer Avenue, the western boundary of the private street, is becoming a retail street. Grand Avenue, the eastern border, is abandoning residential ideas with a persistence that, although it is clear evidence of the city’s progress, is still painful for the love of old. Vandeventer Place is now a lot hemmed in with street railroads, and business houses, and this could prove to be quite a detriment in the next few years.
These words were prophetic as Vandeventer Place would eventually become a neighborhood of office buildings, theaters, or housing for relatively low income. This grand private house was split in two, one for the veterans’ hospital, and the other for a juvenile detention center.
The article then discusses the private streets that open north of Forest Park, Westmoreland, and Portland Places. Although it’s difficult to visualize, the author laments the unpaved Kingshighway and Union roads. Residents of wealthy new homes were forced to fork out money for sidewalks. There was much discussion about the famous gatehouses at the east and west ends. Residents of West End had strong opinions about which entrance was better. Although the gates were not originally closed, they were opened to allow access. Homeowners made sure that the sidewalks are smooth and maintained the driveways.
Although the article seems a little optimistic about the end to coal burning, it is still many decades away. We learn that Portland and Westmoreland residents could only burn coke (distilled coal) and “hard coal”, bituminous coal having been banned. Combining with Forest Park to its south, the grand homes’ walls supposedly didn’t get stained by air pollution.
The article also touches upon Cabanne Place, located in the West End’s far western reaches. This area is described by the author in mysterious terms. He describes it as “the Mecca for the man who desired a home ‘far away from the madding crowd’ but who was able to keep his carriage to go to work.” However, the “unexplored area” can be reached as easily from the city’s central area as Grand Avenue was a generation ago.
The article ends with a visit to Compton Heights, one Pitzman’s greatest masterpieces. Although the author initially seems confused by the curving streets of Hawthorne & Longfellow, he soon realizes that curved lines do not necessarily provide the fastest distance between two points. Pittman reduced the likelihood of traffic cutting through the neighborhood by curving the main arteries. Pittman’s curving of the main arteries of the subdivision has made St. Louis’ private streets a legacy of post-World War II developers who sought to make such designs more accessible to homeowners from all walks of life, including those not belonging to the upper classes. Webster Groves was an example of a railroad suburb, but the modern subdivision would replicate it on a large scale.