Like only a couple of other major cities in America, St. Louis City is technically its own county, with its own sheriff and other elected county officials. However, until 1876, the city was part of St. Louis County, which now possesses a population just shy of one million residents. While the stereotypical image of the county is one of suburban sprawl, endless traffic jams and strip malls, in reality, much of the county is very historic, and was developed as early as the Eighteenth Century. While post-World War II suburbia dominates in the county, there are numerous urban, walkable and historic cities and areas throughout. This section is organized first by one of four sections of the county, followed by the respective historic cities/areas in that section.
Originally the location of the earliest railroad suburbs, Central County has become home to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods and cities in the area. Clayton, laid out as the new county seat when the City left the county in 1876, now serves as a second downtown to the region. Webster Groves and Kirkwood saw growth as residents fled the choking smoke of the city in the late Nineteenth Century. Meanwhile, post-World War II, Ladue grew from a rural community to the center of the region’s wealthy elite.
Laid out with street names derived from the county’s townships, Clayton now boasts a large number of skyscrapers, and its more small town feel is starting to slip away as greater density begins to dominate its downtown. However, its many private streets, many laid out at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, still possess historic houses, and preserve their subdivisions’ park-like settings.
Named after a famed Scottish-American engineer who brought his expertise to the design of St. Louis’s water works, Kirkwood was also one of the first areas outside of the city limits to see urban growth; in fact, much of the town is older than large portions of the city. Freed from the laws restricting construction to brick, Kirkwood’s houses boast some of the best examples of wood frame Nineteenth Century architecture in the region.
Really nothing more than farms with the exception of the St. Louis Country Club before World War II, Ladue saw an explosion of construction of Modernist houses, many owned by some of the most prominent businessmen of St. Louis, in the post-war period. Still one of the wealthiest suburbs in the region, its Modernist legacy is threatened with destruction as the Mid-Century houses are demolished for larger, Post-Modernist construction.
Dominated by the thriving Loop, perhaps the most bustling commercial streets in the St. Louis region, University City has long had an august reputation among the St. Louis suburbs. Laid out in the decades after the World’s Fair in 1904, the town features beautiful early Twentieth Century architecture as well as post-war tract housing north of its historic core. A large number of Chinese business thrive in old Modernist storefronts along Olive Blvd, themselves perhaps refugees from the demolition of Hop Alley in downtown St. Louis.
Webster Groves was originally born from three different suburbs, each with its own train station that served commuters traveling to downtown for work. Now the home to a university and a seminary, the town still has a thriving downtown near its old rail stations, and preserves its historic housing stock, much of which is from the Nineteenth Century.
Benefiting from the building of the first interstate in St. Louis, proximity to McDonald Doulgass’s airplane factories, and the first true suburban shopping malls, North County grew rapidly after World War II, with much of the development centered around the old French settlement of Florissant and Hazelwood, home to one of Ford’s automobile plants. Much of North County now suffers from much of the same problems that afflicted North St. Louis in the 1960’s and 70’s: an aging housing stock that is too old to be new, and too new to be old; loss of manufacturing jobs; and demographic and racial tensions that have remained unresolved in the St. Louis region for the last century.
The history of Florissant is perhaps as old as the St. Louis region itself. Settlement of the area began in the late 1700s, and the remnants of the town’s common fields stretch out to the northwest from the original street grid laid out by French colonists. Also known as St. Ferdinand, the town also can lay claim to being the place where St. Philippine DuChesne spent much of her career. After World War II, Florissant also saw massive growth as the city became the center of suburbia, growing to become the most populous town in St. Louis County. The recipient of many beautiful Modernist churches and buildings, the city is seeing a age develop as its role as a suburb in North County evolves in the new millenium.
Jennings was the archetypal inner-ring suburb; it saw explosive growth after World War II, sitting on major thoroughfares such as West Florissant Avenue and Jennings Station Road, where the first suburban shopping malls sprang up. Those two malls, River Roads and Northland Plaza, are now both gone, but they set the pattern of depleting shoppers from downtown St. Louis, a trend that continues to this day. The housing stock, single family ranches built on large grass lots, also continues in suburbia as far away as St. Charles and Warren Counties. Parishes such as Corpus Christi exploded in population as Roman Catholics left city churches, and Modernist designs replaced smaller structures. Abandonment and economic disinvestment is creeping in.
Read about Jennings here.
Originally laid out as a railroad suburb, Kinloch became the center of healthy, proud middle-class African-American community living in their town in the era of segregation. What happened to Kinloch that caused its severe decline is still debated, but the demolition of a huge portion of the town for an aborted runway at Lambert seems to have been the first major blow. Now largely abandoned, its future remains unclear.
Like other parts of the county, South County’s population exploded after World War II as people displaced by the construction of I-55 and those now provided a short commute because of it, flooded what had largely been a rural area. South County still to this day has few incorporated cities, but is known for large, unincorporated areas such as Mehlville, Affton and Lemay.
Centered around Gravois Avenue, which goes straight to downtown, this area was always a small unincorporated municipality, but not without its own history. It saw an influx of residents in the post-war years, and most of the housing stock is from that time.
A truly intriguing portion of the St. Louis region, Lemay could best be described as South City in St. Louis County. Much of the area was developed in the Nineteenth Century, and the area, despite suburbanization, still maintains its own distinct cultural and architectural flavor.
The portion of the county furthest from the City, West County saw increased development in the 1960’s and 70’s, as the suburbs pushed out into what had been isolated farm and resort communities. Manchester Road, at one point an Indian trail and then for a time Route 66, dominates the area with strip malls and traffic. Still, out on back roads, the fascinating history of the area is preserved in small hamlets, log cabins and abandoned summer cottages.
Chesterfield, now a large, wealthy suburb, initially began its life as a series of small towns along Olive Street Road. Much of its rural past remains, tucked in between new developments and shopping centers.
Valley Park began its interesting history as a resort community, accessed by the railroad from the city. As the resort communities began to die out in the mid-Twentieth Century, Valley Park saw itself transition from a sleepy river town to a suburb of a much larger region.
Wildwood encompasses the entire western edge of St. Louis County, taking up a greater area by square miles than the City of St. Louis. Long rural and rugged, the area is filled with large state parks and forests, which, along with municipal ordinances regulating lot sizes for new construction, has maintained the largely forested and agricultural feel of this portion of the region. But the small farming communities and scattered historic buildings, including on the one of the two former rights-of-way of Route 66 in West St. Louis County, make for a rich history going back to the Nineteenth Century.