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I Heard There Used To Be A City Here

I had a coupon for White Castle, so I headed over to the location on South Broadway, which is right in the middle of what could most diplomatically be described as a wasteland.  Local historians claim tens of thousands of people once lived within a five minute walk of Gratiot, Cerre and their intersections with Broadway, but to visit nowadays a casual visitor might easily fail to believe them. Among them was the house of Julia Dent, the future wife of Ulysses S. Grant, and her family. It was still standing by 1940 when it was photographed by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Rotated

Contrast the above satellite image with the same location (albeit in a slightly different orientation) and ask yourself, is this what should have become of this neighborhood south of downtown?  Obliterated from the map?

Frenchtown

I have determined that several of the buildings depicted in the Compton and Dry view are still standing, and that there seems to have been little new construction in the area except for interstates in the last one hundred years.

Field

The buildings we will look at here have almost all been built by the 1876 edition of Oliver and Whipple as well as the later Sanborn maps.

Near South Side

Broadway Oyster Bar’s building appears in the Compton and Dry view and the Whipple map, complete with its half-flounder alley house in the back by 1876; the city’s database’s later date of construction is clearly wrong

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Again, this building below is much older, with a Second Empire Mansard roof in the back along Cerre Street; it also appears on maps much earlier than the city database claims.

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Apparently one hundred years ago, when the new front was built on the building above, the neighborhood still had life.

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Train tracks, which have been passing through the area since probably before the Civil War, are an obstruction, but not a fatal one; I honestly did not mind walking under them as a train went by. The proximity of the El in Chicago to expensive housing proves that people will still live near elevated tracks if the area is otherwise desirable.

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The Field House, dating from 1845, is the standout from the other slightly abused buildings in the area.

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Once part of Walsh’s Row, it was the second to last of thirteen row houses on what must have been a desirable section of the city.  It is really depressing that there is no demand for people to live so close to downtown; that an area is so devoid of life even on a sunny day would exist is an impossibility in most cities in the world.

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The first half dozen or so houses in Walsh’s Row were 2.5 stories, while the further south ones had a full three stories and surely more expensive.

Walsh’s Row. 6xx South Broadway. [Eugene Field House, 634 S. Broadway, at far end of row]. Photograph, 1910. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 21164. Scan © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.

The house was photographed in 1934 for the Historic American Buildings Survey, most likely right before its neighbors in the row were demolished. Note the fire escape; I suspect the houses had been converted into tenements by this point.

The rest of Walsh’s Row was demolished in 1934, seemingly for nothing.  I know of nothing having ever been on the property since, and the properties are now bundled into one parcel owned by the Field House.

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Update: Beale on Broadway closed in 2019.

Below, this building that now houses Beale on Broadway is perhaps one of the oldest houses in the city; it appears as far back as 1876, and once had a front porch.

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Incongruously, next door is a giant parking lot for a Dobbs Auto Repair Shop.  While I greatly appreciate Dobbs’s service and am a longtime customer of other locations, I cannot fathom that the City of St. Louis believes a suburban style business is the correct use of this property, particularly in the earning of taxes for the city.  Land near the downtown of a city should be reserved for high density, walkable development–you know, how St. Louisans had originally developed this block over one hundred years ago.  Apparently their wisdom has been lost on our generation.

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While all five surviving buildings (of the once hundreds or thousands in this neighborhood) are occupied with thriving businesses, the most logical and profitable use for all of the vacant lots, which sit empty all week except on weekend nights when they become parking lots, would be the construction of condominiums to boost the foot traffic in the area.  Broadway is also ridiculously wide and one way here, which only causes the land to become more undesirable as people fly by at 50 mph.

One Comment

  1. I play music at Beale on Broadway frequently; recently when coming into the parking lot from the alley behind Dobbs I noticed cobblestones visible at the bottom of a large pothole. It made me sick to my stomach….what history is buried underneath a pile of gravel now used for overflow parking from baseball games?

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