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The Rehabbers Who Saved Lafayette Square 

50 years ago, when most of St. Louis wrote off the neighborhood, a band of DIY risk-takers dared to bet on its future

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Sarah Beaman-Jones and Walter Jones have anchored Albion Place since early '70s. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Sarah Beaman-Jones and Walter Jones have anchored Albion Place since early '70s.

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."

Duke Haydon, with wife Diana, paid $10,000 for his home in the '70s. Friends thought he overpaid. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Duke Haydon, with wife Diana, paid $10,000 for his home in the '70s. Friends thought he overpaid.

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."

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