Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Big Old Houses: "Oz" in St. Louis

Big Old Houses: "Oz" in St. Louis
by John Foreman

Here's a typical sight in the city of St. Louis, MO, a gate to a private street. Runaway growth and an acute local sense of property rights drove St. Louis' 19th century elite into restricted residential enclaves, places where soap factories, locomotive works, dry goods emporiums, tanneries, etc., wouldn't appear overnight next door. Lucas Place, opened in 1851, was the city's first private street. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were 57 of them.

Like everything (and everybody) St. Louis has had its ups and downs. The 19th century, however, would seem to have been all up. The population, about 20,000 in 1840, leaped to 160,000 by 1860, then to 350,000 by 1880. By the beginning of the 20th century St. Louis was America's 4th largest city and proud host of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Things topped out in 1950, when 857,000 souls lived within the city limits. Postwar de-industrialization, suburban flight and urban decay a term often synonymous with urban renewal — reduced that figure to 318,000 today.
Many of the city's private places succumbed along the way, but many survived to flourish again in today's environment of enlightened urban redevelopment — known less neutrally as gentrification. The grandest of them all is a pair of streets called Portland Place and Westmoreland Place that border Forest Park in the Central West End. Portland and Westmoreland are, true to the local paradigm, barred to through traffic, their intersections with the outside world ornamented by the gates in these photos.
How could I have never heard of these places? Me, of all people? Portland-Westmoreland, according to Julius K. Hunter who wrote a book on the subject, is a "scene of cumulative magnificence seldom if ever matched." And you know what? He's right.
Blocked by the Mississippi River on the east, 19th century St. Louis expanded westward, urbanizing the countryside with a rapaciousness bereft of aesthetic conscience or any kind of zoning. The development of Forest Park, opened in 1876, was to some extent a reaction to this. The park became a marker of the city's newest fashionable district.
The land beneath Portland and Westmoreland is located in what was called the Forest Park Addition. Why it's called this is a mystery to me, since as far as I can tell it was never intended to be part of the park. In 1887, it was bought by a group of speculators, who flipped it the following year to another group, who divided it in two. Portland and Westmoreland are often referred to as a unit, however, they are separate associations. The Westmoreland Place Assn. abuts and includes a row of spectacular houses facing Forest Park on a public road called Lindell Blvd. Unlike the houses in these images, they do not lie within the gated section of the association, and for that reason I have not included them here.
Author Charles Savage, in his "Architecture of the Private Streets of St. Louis" describes Portland-Westmoreland as the "apogee of architectural variety." He's right too. Concerning the architects who designed these places, east coast me recognized Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge and Peabody & Stearns, but few others. James Jamieson, W. Albert Swasey, Eames & Young, Theodore Link, Weber & Groves, Gale Henderson, etc., etc. unfortunately didn't ring bells. Assigning architectural labels is a slippery business, but to my eye the houses on these remarkable streets fall into 5 categories, to wit: Romanesque, Renaissance, Georgian, Classical and (OK, no other name for it) Eclectic. The first house within the gates went up in 1891, a time when residential fashion was heavily influenced by the Richardsonian Romanesque.
I have a penchant for grandeur, of which there's plenty in the Renaissance contingent. There are 87 houses on these two streets. Trying to identify the owners, dates and architects for every one of them is beside the point. Like Newport's Bellevue Avenue or New York's Tuxedo Park, Portland-Westmoreland's aesthetic strength lies as much in the impact of the ensemble as in the virtues of its individual houses.
Among other things, deed restrictions on original lot owners required them to spend at least $7000 on construction.
Some (but not all) of the Georgian and Georgian-influenced designs replaced earlier houses.
If it's got columns, we're calling it Classical.
And if it's a chateau or a Puritan manor, a mid-century modern (only one of those) or something Flemish, Mussolini Greek Revival or vaguely Prairie style, or I don't know what it is, then we're calling it Eclectic.
If God is in the details (which is where He's supposed to be), then architectural charm will reside there as well — in stone lions and front doors, driveways and iron railings, and the cartouche over a front door with the initials of the person who built the house.
I did see a few interiors, which were predictably luxe, although not strong on vintage kitchens or baths.
I liked St. Louis and hope to visit again.
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