Lafayette Square is a neighborhood in St. Louis that surrounds the beautiful Lafayette Park. The park, which was created in 1836, is the city’s oldest public park, and the neighborhood is one of the oldest in St. Louis. When the neighborhood was first developed, it was considered one of the most fashionable places to live in the city.
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It experienced a period of decline after a tornado devastated the area in 1896, and then later, when industry, industrial intrusion and highway construction further weakened the neighborhood.
In the past four decades, it has seen a time of true rebirth. Many of the older historic homes have been purchased and renovated. Today, in addition to most of the houses now being restored, many shops and restaurants have found their home in Lafayette Square.
St. Louis started as a French village in 1764, and during that time the land where Lafayette Square now sits was a common pasture for village livestock. Bands of criminals would camp out in this area and rob travelers. By 1835, the city was under American rule and the mayor got permission from the state legislature to begin selling the commons. The hope was that this would drive out the criminal element.
The city set aside about 30 acres of the land for community recreation. Lafayette park was born. Bordered by a street on each side, the southern street was called Lafayette in honor of Revolutionary War General Marquis de La Fayette. Growth of the neighborhood was stunted by a real estate panic in 1837, but by the early 1850s, several prominent St. Louis residents bought the land bordering the southern end of the park.
The expensive homes that were built along Lafayette avenue were accompanied by state legislation preventing “any nuisance within a distance of 600 feet from the park.” The park was officially dedicated as Lafayette Square in 1851. Over the next several years, lots were sold surrounding the park and by the 1870s the park was encircled by beautiful homes. Improvements of the square were made at this time as well, with “trees, shrubbery, graveling, fencing,” and outdoor concerts. The goal was to make Lafayette Square one of the most beautiful places in the United States.
1867 saw the construction of the first bandstand as well as the opening of Benton Place, a private street off of Park Avenue. A historic crowd of over 25,000 people gathered to witness the unveiling of a bronze statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton in 1868. The park received one of the six casts of Houdon’s life-size marble sculpture of George Washington in 1869, and around the same time architect Francis Tunica’s design won a competition to build an iron fence around the Square.
Lafayette Square thrived in the 1870s with continuing development of Benton Place on the north, and regular concerts on Thursdays and Sundays. These concerts attracted crowds numbering in the thousands. Growth continued into the 1880s and early 1890s.
Then in 1896, Lafayette Square was largely destroyed by a tornado. Besides millions of dollars in damage, it also killed many people. It uprooted nearly all of the trees in the Park and on Benton Place. It damaged the fence surrounding the park, and destroyed the bandstand. It destroyed the Union Club and the Methodist church at Jefferson and Lafayette Avenues, damaged the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, tore the roof off the Unitarian church, and impaired or destroyed many homes on the Square.
After the tornado, many residents gave up on the neighborhood and moved away. However, some stayed and began to rebuild and things had improved enough by 1904 that the Square was able “to earn special commendation from foreign landscape architects who were visiting the World’s Fair.”
When the Missouri Supreme Court declared the 1918 residential zoning ordinance unconstitutional in 1923, businesses began to purchase lots in the area. Gas stations and grocery stores moved in, diminishing the grandeur, and then the Great Depression further depressed the area.
By the end of World War II, the neighborhood that had once been the jewel of St. Louis had reached its low point. At this time, it was considered “a pocket ghetto of the unfortunate and poor,” also known as “Slum D.”
In the 1970s, the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee formed, and in the years that followed, effort was made to restore Lafayette Square and its surrounding neighborhood to its former splendor. Most of the homes have been restored or rebuilt in the Victorian style.
Oaks and maples canopy the park, which is once again enclosed by its original cast iron fence. Beautiful swans call the lake home. The neighborhood has been featured in Better Home & Gardens, naming it “one of the ten most beautiful painted ladies neighborhoods in the nation.”
Twice a year, the residents of Lafayette Square generously open their homes to tours organized by the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee. The Spring House and Garden Tour takes place on the first weekend each June, and the Holiday Parlor Tour is on the second Sunday of each December.
The first tour took place in 1969. Residents wanted to show off their ongoing renovations and to promote other homes for sale in the neighborhood. Tour guests who bought one of the featured run-down homes supposedly got a refund of their ticket price. The tour has become well-known as a showcase of Victorian architecture, and each tour features a unique poster sold to support ongoing neighborhood restoration efforts.
Lafayette Square was declared a historic district by Saint Louis in 1972. It has a few walking and biking trails, a duck pond with a fountain, a children's playground, decorative landscaping, and a gazebo that can be rented.
The boundaries of the Lafayette Square neighborhood include Chouteau Avenue on the north, Interstate 44 on the south, Truman Parkway on the east, and South Jefferson Avenue on the west.
A premier destination spot in the city, Lafayette Square is home to restaurants and cafés, unique shops and galleries, wine tastings, live music, and historic bed and breakfasts. For more information on all of the wonderful things to do in this historic and gorgeous neighborhood, visit
How would you like to visit this beautiful neighborhood? Have you already been there? What was your experience? We welcome your comments.