When Martha Rose Greer-Green moved from Texas to Lafayette Square in 1970, her mother had some tart words about her decision: "People move away from St. Louis, they don't move there." That was the perception at the time even within the metro area. Once you could, you headed to the suburbs. You did not put down roots in a neighborhood that was filled with the neglect of disinvestment, aging structures and a population considered rough and tumble.
Indeed, Greer-Green moved to the historic neighborhood just southwest of downtown at a time when it had fallen so far, the only way to go was up. The grand old Victorians that once held St. Louis' most eminent citizens had been subdivided, abandoned or, in some cases, turned into flophouses. There were shells all over the neighborhood's 218 acres, and you could buy one for a song — $3,000, even $1,000. Demand was that low.
"When, in the late 1960s, bright, young, ambitious professionals began buying derelict properties in the Square, they often did so against the wishes of their families, who feared for their safety and questioned their sanity," notes neighborhood historian Mike Jones, who maintains lafayettesquare.org/archives. "Lafayette Square was known as Slum D in city plat maps in 1950." Adding to the sense that the neighborhood was a poor investment, the long-discussed North/South Distributor highway was slated to cut through its eastern end. It wasn't until the 1980s that the threat was extinguished and the Square left its state of limbo.
Yet even at the time of Greer-Green's arrival, there were signs of new life, indications that someone cared about these houses and this neighborhood. The Lafayette Square Restoration Committee, an organization with a mission as straightforward as its name suggests, was founded in 1969 and began hosting house tours in its very first year.
The restoration movement wasn't organized on any official level, and no governmental assistance was at its root. It was the result of individual buyers purchasing single properties, perhaps moving onto a second, but certainly not buying them as entire blocks or via big parcels. In that, it represents the best qualities of small-scale redevelopment, with buyers coming in the exact moment that prices hit an absolute low, bringing the equity of sweat and tears. Laughs Houston Smith, a past president of the restoration committee who moved to the Square in 2000, "[You] would buy a house with no roof, a tree growing through the third floor. You'd spend $6,000 and then the rest of your life trying to rehab this thing."
Fifty years later, just about everything has changed in Lafayette Square. In December, a single-family home sold for $1 million, and while plenty of rentals and more affordable townhouses remain, listings in the $600,000 and $700,000 range are common. And it's not just the adventurous and the child-free who have taken up residence. There are strollers everywhere these days, so many that the neighborhood's charter school, Lafayette Prep, has a major expansion underway and the shared neighborhood pool has a waiting list rumored to be approaching the five-year mark. "It's quite a popular option for residents," Smith says.
This weekend, hundreds of visitors will arrive to take part in the Restoration Committee's annual spring tour. They'll pay $25 to tour a selection of the neighborhood's homes and gardens — a good percentage likely unaware that many St. Louisans once wrote off the neighborhood as a lost cause, and never thinking of the band of pioneers who proved them wrong.
The Transplant: Martha Greer-Green
As a young expat from Texas, Martha Greer-Green came here to take part in a communally owned-and-run building on Mississippi Avenue, though that project would sink about six months after her arrival. She would come to call several places in the neighborhood home.
"I had two friends who talked me into coming up and working on this house," she recalls. "I didn't have any other connection, but these were my best friends at the time. And I thought, 'Why not?'"
There were a few reasons, not that she heeded them.
By the time of her arrival, the neighborhood was already a full century removed from its early days as the home to St. Louis' elite, then living along what was considered the western edge of the city. The neighborhood built itself around the first park west of the Mississippi, dedicated in 1836. Two- and three-story homes constructed with exceptional detail cropped up in all four directions in what seemed like breathing-room distance from the city's commercial center downtown.
But in 1896, the "Great Cyclone" tore through the neighborhood, devastating many structures. And if that wasn't a near-fatal blow, the Depression would be. By the '30s, many once grand homes were converted to rooming houses.
Jones, the neighborhood historian, dates interest in restoration to architect John Albury Bryant, who purchased a home on Benton Place in 1945. But it took a few decades for a movement to catch up with him — in Jones' telling, it was galvanized by the destruction of a mansion at Mississippi and Kennett.
By the time Greer-Green arrived, rehabbers had already begun the hard work of restoring the neighborhood's biggest homes, brick by brick. Wrote author Tim Conley in Lafayette Square: An Urban Renaissance, published in 1974, "It will be some time before the park, the broad avenues, and the surrounding townhouses reflect their original appearance, but the vast majority of the homes near the pleasant vista of the park are already undergoing extensive rejuvenation."
Added Conley, "The families that occupy these residences represent a broad spectrum of St. Louis' population. They are bound, not just by an eccentric love for brick and mortar, for high ceilings and beautiful casework, but also by their determination to renew this unique neighborhood ..."
"Unique" is one adjective. Greer-Green has another.
"It was more sketchy then," she says, with some understatement. "Some of the locals were pretty rough."
In many ways, it was that life you dream of — rent was cheap and Greer-Green walked to her job at the nearby Malcolm Bliss mental health facility. In other ways, it was less of a dream:
"At Gratton and Park there was a tire shop. I rented the upstairs unit. At that point, I thought it was filled with potential, very little of which I could actualize," she recalls. "When I got there, there was no hot water and when I went to the landlord, they seemed to think that was normal. Here I am from Irving, Texas. I expected hot water, so he did get me a hot water heater. That was my first battle, so to speak."
In addition to what she was finding inside her new apartment, there was fascinating activity outside it. "My friends were working with the neighborhood association," she says. "They were social-work-inclined and wanted to be a part of the neighborhood, but not kick people out." She recalls noticing a neighbor one day walking down the street in an agitated state and holding a gun. Looking back on the situation, she laughs a bit at her pluck, as she went over, talked to the man and helped resolve the situation peacefully. That was one occasion. More often, there was a general sense of the community falling a bit apart at the edges, at least in terms of personal safety.
Even in her second-floor apartment, she says, "I had fears. I would sleep with my purse in my bed, keys out. Nothing really ever happened to me, but there was an aura I felt there, though that can sound silly."
Eventually, Greer-Green returned to Texas, but it was a short-lived trip that simply stirred up the emotions she had felt in St. Louis. So she returned. Though it's hard to define, there was an energy she felt drawn to, a spirit coming into being within cities all across the country.
"It was like a tapestry," she offers. "There were a lot of layers that one could experience at different times. Sometimes there was a volatile energy, it was unpredictable and dangerous. Other times, you felt the idealism, the freeness, new challenges and changes and transformation. I think all of those things were there. St. Louis is so old that you can feel the energy, questionable or not. In Lafayette Square, it was there. When people started rehabbing there, you had artists. The gay community was strong. People had different ideas of what they wanted in life."
Asked if she misses that moment in time, Greer-Green answers quickly.
"You know what," she says, "it's random. I do still think about it, as it was so formative. Yes, I was in my twenties. I wasn't moving there at 16 or 21. I was 26 and an adult or on the verge of that. It did kind of consolidate my values in some ways. There was still a '60s hangover happening, there was talk of The Man, talk of the corporate world. I was never a big fighter against the system, but I knew that I didn't want a certain life. I knew I didn't have to have all of that."
When her mother tried to warn her off from St. Louis, she understood the point. "I knew what she meant, but she didn't know St. Louis. I was in a fast-growing town, Irving, Texas, the original home of the Cowboys. It wasn't completely country, but it really was on some level. Here, everything was vertical, these red-and-green structures, with red-and-green trim. I missed the Texas horizon. But I sure did love St. Louis."
She has called St. Louis home since, though she now lives in Benton Park, a neighborhood that, in some ways, mirrors the relaxed, freewheeling spirit of the earlier Square.
The anchors: Walter Jones & Duke Haydon
When Walter Jones was looking at a home on Albion Place in Lafayette Square in 1972, he found what you could generously call a fixer-upper.
"There were actually three fires set in the home, one on each floor," he says. "We never found out the real story on that. The doors were boarded up, there was collapsed plaster, the interior doors were burned, a lot of the woodwork was charred. The wiring had burned and part of the roof was gone. The highway was set to come through Lafayette Square, so there were more of these [burned buildings] all through the Square."
He remembers a neighbor almost draping herself over his car when he was leaving; she was that enthusiastic to see anyone take an interest in one of the multiple board-ups on Albion Place, which only runs a single city block from Jefferson to Missouri. Despite the numerous reasons to not buy the building, there was one number that made sense in his mind: $1,000, the home's asking price. He took the deal.
"I had no experience in renovation, at all," he says with a smile. "We thought we could figure out how to do this. I was a young, wacky kid. Basically, it started with the cleanup. Shoveling out all of the debris took me four or five months. At the same time, I had to make things workable, like installing some temporary electric service just to do some work inside." During the cleanup, he found a roofer. "Overlaying an entirely new roof was $580, or over half the price of the house. Now, that same job would cost like $30,000 with all these peaks and gables."
A couple of years later, a fellow named Duke Haydon would look at a building across the street from Jones' place, a low-key rooming house with a couple of tenants that Haydon remembers as "no prizes."
Haydon says, "We ended up paying $10,000. Everyone we knew said that was exorbitant, that we were getting taken. And I pretty much agreed with them, but I didn't care. This place had so much of the original workmanship that I just figured I'd eat the cost; I'd take it."
Unlike Jones' burnout, Haydon's Victorian-era structure was largely intact. It was somewhat "spooky," he says, recalling the darkness inside, the heavy curtains and use of paneling over original plaster walls, carpets over gorgeous wood floors. The building had been given the kind of cheap fixes that split up many a home into a boarding house. As an example, Haydon slides open a lovely pocket door, noting that a bolt once sealed it, allowing that first-floor tenants some privacy and security.
Initially, Haydon didn't veer that far from the model.
"When I eventually wound up divorced and finishing school, a bunch of my derelict friends moved in and were paying $50 a month to help me make ends meet," he says. "They were a little better behaved than the prior tenants, but not by much. They were all musicians. We had some great parties in here."
His comment draws a sort of pleased, faraway look from Jones, who has been Haydon's neighbor for most of their adult lives.
"Those guys were a lot of fun," Jones says. "They were great and we all had great times."
From the early '70s on, the pair set down some roots across Albion. Jones' wife even owned a nearby corner store for a while. "The idea was about ten years too soon," Jones says. The couple also bought a four-family on the block, and though they don't own it now, the move was only partially about making money as a rental property and more about helping to protect their investment.
Throughout their time on the block, Jones' kids "were among the last free-range children," enjoying time in Lafayette Park, found at the eastern end of their block.
Haydon, too, recalls moments of wonder, trying to process the possibilities of the Square, whether it was moving up, down, sideways or something altogether else.
He remembers the building next door, which had been an apartment building. "It burned one night, it left nothing but the brick walls. It sat for like five or six years, maybe ten years. Now, this is the house right next door, so that's kind of a big deal. Finally, somebody from the neighborhood who's no longer here bought it and turned it into condominiums. I can't believe she made any money on the deal, but we've had some very nice neighbors because of it, though they don't always stay long."
Certainly not as long as Haydon and Jones. Sitting in Haydon's dining room, the two reminisce about times good and bad. They recall how their street used to be a throughway, cars racing by to get to Jefferson (it's since been sealed off). They remember people walking to the nearby National supermarket, cursing and threatening and generally causing some stir as they passed through.
They also recall the early years, when the people who Greer-Green referred to as "spelunkers" were constantly darting in and out of buildings slated for demolition, freeing woodwork, bits of HVAC, electrical systems, decorative elements. Essentially, anything that could be scavenged before the wrecking balls hit, these folks were freeing.
In fact, checking off the names of some of the best of this lot, including the late Bob Cassilly (himself a resident rehabber, beginning in the early '70s), Haydon and Jones indicate that they may have themselves known the joys of spelunking.
Jones allows, "It's scary when you're in a vacant building, doing something you're not supposed to be doing, looking over your shoulder and scared to death." Mind you, this was a long time ago and done for all the right reasons. "With the things we saw, abandoned homes knocked down and carted aways, you felt justified in going in and saving a mantle or some doors," he adds.
Haydon suggests that the pair haven't been as active on boards and committees as some others, but that they've been useful to the neighborhood "as anchors." The phrase seems to please Jones.
"There is an aging population here, like myself and Duke here," Jones says. "I have been considering moving into something smaller, while new people are continuing to move in, changing things, making up a different kind of Lafayette Square. At least as far as I can tell, it seems to have been done in the right way. The neighborhood has lots of room to grow, while not wanting to kick people out when they don't fit in economically."
That includes the new apartments now underway in the former mop factory at Park and Tucker, which will all be rental units, as well as various other development projects catering to various income levels.
"This has always been a pretty welcoming neighborhood," Jones says. "People tend to accept newcomers. It's a real broad patch of social, economic and racial differences."
The Pioneer: Charlie Struckhoff
Charlie Struckhoff arrived in Lafayette Square in 1969 and moved out in 1981. In many respects, his dozen years there mirrored some of the neighborhood's most significant changes. Asked about his deepest memory of that time, his answer is an interesting one.
"The most important thing that was happening there is that every week there was a house burning," he says. "I can't say if these were professional arsonists or people trying to make a buck on insurance. At least once a week we'd all go down to a fire and cheer on the fire department. And, if necessary, we'd salvage things out of there. We ended up buying a house on Mississippi Avenue and stored a lot of things there."
Struckhoff and his crew of adventurers weren't above the law. "We did that," he acknowledges. "Then there were people who were paid to go in and take [items] here and there. At one point, we had to call the police on a 'reputable' antique dealer who was known to stash stained-glass windows and mantles."
As Struckhoff recalls it, growth in the Square was gradual in his first five years of residence. "There were bargains available. Then some speculators came in and prices went up. I think people were buying those that were as well preserved as possible. We paid $2,500 for a place that was livable, with bedrooms on Missouri Avenue, and we got a good house.
"People were looking for livability and so it was a gradual progression. As those houses were snatched up, people were looking at the damaged houses." So many stoves, radiators and other, big pieces of furnishings piled up on curbs in the neighborhood that the city adopted a bulk pickup system; Struckhoff was one of the very first drivers in the fleet, ferrying trash from the Square to the city dump on a regular basis.
The Struckhoffs' Missouri Avenue house came with a tenant, an elderly gent who paid $40 a month for a room, a refrigerator and a shared bath; the Struckhoffs allowed him a place until he needed to move into assisted living. At the time, Struckhoff estimates that three-quarters of the buildings inside the Square were rooming houses. The owners were often on the older side themselves, and they took deals to sell as they came.
Others had made the neighborhood their own as well. "Before we moved in, there was a small gay community in Lafayette Square, centered around Benton Place on the north side of the park," Struckhoff says. "And we became friends with those people, the early birds who preceded us. There was an influx of educators, too. It was a mix of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary."
Among them were those who gravitated to Mannering and Woodstock, two communal buildings on Waverly Place, a small stub of a street on the neighborhood's southern edge. As one of seven people buying into those buildings (a group that included three couples), Struckhoff was instrumental in putting together that shared living experience, with up to fifteen units housing more than 30 people at a time. The group shared some facilities, like TV rooms and kitchens. Here, too, ingenuity flourished. The buildings' kitchens were, for example, purchased from a shuttered hotel in Frontenac.
Stories about the Square, he's got them. Even a few that are fit for print. Asked about the general vibe of the neighborhood, Struckhoff says it was "always amazing." But then, he pauses to note, "Life is always amazing."
The Lafayette Square House Tour takes place this weekend, June 1 and 2. Full details are available at lafayettesquare.org.