comptonheights1

Killing Time Along Russell

It is rare for me to do a mid-week bike ride but I had some time and was feeling inspired. First of all I was included as one of the “10 Amazing St. Louis Photographers to Follow on Instagram” by Fox 2 News in St. Louis. It was quite a surprise and I am familiar with and respect many of the people on that list. I have found Instagram a very creating, inspiring and positive place if you use it in a way that is creative, inspiring and positive. It’s been a great place to show my art, my process of making art, and the things that inspire my art.

Plus I was going to go to a lecture by Michael Allen at Ritz Park on South Grand later that evening. I always find his tours, presentations and lectures thoughtful and informative. Anyway, I had a good three hours to kill. My bike is handy so I thought I would take a ride in the neighborhoods nearby: Tower Grove East, Compton Heights, and Fox Park. These are not new areas but every time I bike somewhere I see new things and the built environment changes too. The changes can be interesting and frustrating but that is the nature of the places that we inhabit. We humans are always making our mark and adding to the layers of history.

comptonheights1Less than a week before this ride, Ben and I did the Compton Heights House Tour – which was great. While doing the tour I had the thought that I should explore more and take a look at some of the places that were not on the tour. I started near the Compton Heights Water Tower at Grand and Russell. Russell is a fantastic street to bike down. If you start in Soulard and just head west you will see an interesting evolution of buildings, houses, street grids. The street itself goes through many changes – from being a wide street to being a divided street, to a narrow street. Many times these changes coincide with the change of neighborhood. It reflects the fact that the city grid was created by developers of the neighborhoods. I have a similar opinion of St. Louis Avenue on the north side. Both are east/west streets and in a way, you follow the westward expansion of the city and see how the architecture and neighborhoods changes over time. Anyway, my bike ride mostly straddled Russell but branched as far south as Pestalozzi and as far north as Geyer.

Compton Heights is one of the great neighborhoods in St. Louis. Russell goes right through the heart of Compton Heights. It’s mostly a clean grid but with a serpentine circle that is enclosed within that grid. It is shady with large old trees. The streets of Hawthorne and Longfellow are quiet, serene, shaded and bounded by mostly large old mansions from the turn of the 19th/20th century. There’s houses that range from Richardson Romanesque, Chateau style, Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, Arts and Crafts and there are even some smaller Tudor Revival, southwestern and mid-century style houses thrown in. There is a lot of variety. On Russell and surrounding streets are there are some equally great houses and one is the Magic Chef Mansion on Russell. Just across the street is the reservoir and the old Compton Hill Water Tower.

The land Compton Heights resides on started out as part of the St. Louis Commons. St. Louis City hugged close to the river and there were several prairies or cultivating fields that were shared by all the city residents. Any resident of the city could grow food, raise livestock, hunt, collect firewood. As the city grew rapidly into the 1850s the city annexed the land. The Compton reservoir was built in 1871. If you look at the neighborhood in the 1875 Compton and Dry map, it looks like much of the land that has gone to make up this neighborhood was dotted with ponds, springs, valleys, and maybe sinkholes. Today there is no trace of that. There is still natural beauty but it more of the human hand.

Keeping with a lot of residential development in St. Louis, Compton Heights was a planned development. It was bought, laid out and subdivided by local investors in the late 1880s. This was common in the city and helps explain the disjointedness of the city grids. It can be frustrating as a person that is not familiar with the area but as a person who enjoys exploring I find it delightful.

By 1890 the first building permits were issued but development was slow. The neighborhood was unique at that time in that as it was developed it was landscaped, Julius Pitzman laid out the streets in conjunction to the landscape to create a natural aesthetic so residents didn’t seem subjugated to a rigid grid. It was also the first planned subdivision with deed restrictions which still apply today. It’s part of the reason why, when many areas fell out of favor or into disrepair, or subdivided into flats or rooming houses in the 1930s through the 1950s, Compton Heights retained its integrity.

housestablizeThe neighborhood was rocked by the The Great St. Louis Tornado of 1896 and the selling of tracts was negatively affected by a nationwide depression. To speed up the sale of lots, they were auctioned in 1902. By the time the 1904 World’s Fair came to the city, the neighborhood finally took off. I did note that all of the houses we toured were built in the late 1900s and early 1910s. It has stayed as an intact neighborhood ever since and today is seen as one of the most beautiful and maybe exclusive neighborhoods of the city. However, it isn’t as exclusive as the private places that inhabit parts of the city – streets where the public isn’t welcome and if you have no place there, you may be thrown out, ticketed or arrested for trespassing. At least in Compton Heights anyone can stroll or take a leisurely ride and enjoy the beautiful setting.

All the neighborhoods I rode around are mostly residential with a few restaurants and stores dotting the landscape. Tower Grove East and Fox Park are less exclusive and more middle-class to working class. In fact early working class German immigrants settled in the area between 1885 and 1915 and the architecture seems to reflect that. However, it has gone through some rough times recently but seems to be slowly rebounding. Though there are many ragged stretches as you get closer to Jefferson and Gravois. Tower Grove East, like Fox Park and many other neighborhoods, has deep German roots. Riding through it is hard to imagine a lot of this land as prairie but at one time this was the La Petite Prairie – common grazing and farming land – in the 1700s. By the early 19th century this system was being abandoned and the land was being sold into private hands. Germans started setting in the area in the 1840s and much of this land was bought by German immigrants. As the German immigrants became come prosperous, they developed many blocks and built grand homes. Many of which survive today. They are not the mansions of Compton Heights and they don’t have large lots. Tower Grove East’s development is more urban with narrow lots and houses that are situated closer together. Still is very beautiful with big mature trees and great brick architecture.

I saw some changes from the last time I rode around in the area. There is some rehabbing of some properties on Magnolia near California. Plus there have been some new houses built on Magnolia. There are still buildings that are empty and have deteriorated. I’m not sure of the reasoning but it seems most of the vacancy – from lots to houses and other buildings seen near Gravois. It would be nice if some of the vacant lots could be more developed to plug the holes in the neighborhood’s fabric.

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One of the surprises of my ride was the towering cathedral on Gravois – not that it was hidden. It is huge. It just dwarfs everything. Imposing Gothic Revival structure that could look a bit threatening with some dark clouds looming. The church is called St. Francis de Sales. It’s also known as the Cathedral of South St. Louis. It is the second largest Catholic Church in St. Louis (The largest being the Basilica on Lindell). The church itself was founded in 1867 and had a German immigrant congregation that reflected the surrounding neighborhoods. However, the original church was destroyed in the Great St. Louis Tornado in 1896. After that, did they give up? No. They rebuilt and rebuilt it larger and more grandiose. The new church was finished in 1908. It was hard to see them or get a good look at them from the outside but the stained glass windows were designed by Emil Frei Sr. The name may sound familiar because is studio Emil Frei Glass has designed a lot of stained glass in St. Louis and other places. They did the stained glass in the demolished modernist treasure, Lewis and Clark Library in Moline Acres. The building was demolished but the stained glass was saved and some is displayed on the new library. Emil Frei Glass was founded in 1898 and is still a family business. They have a website: click here to visit and learn about their history and see samples of their fantastic work.

It was a fairly short ride because I was killing time but in a place with a lot of history, the ride was still interesting and still filled with new discoveries (by this outsider). Eventually, I’ll get back out to see where Eads and Pitzman built their mansions that are now gone and keep on getting to know the area.

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Broadway to the Greenway

For the past few weeks I have taken a break from biking around St. Louis city and have instead biked around Belleville, Edwardsville, and St. Charles. Plus I did a few rounds on the trails in Madison Country a couple times for a combined total of 37-ish miles. Also within this time period I have decided to get serious about my diet and to try to take off some weight because despite riding my bike I have gained 20 pounds over the past year. It has to be because of my diet – which has been crap. I eat out too much and eat food that is not good for me too much. I’m not 18 anymore. I’m 38 and my metabolism is probably slowing down. I’ve built up some bad habits in the past 20 years. I don’t have a problem motivating myself to be active – I love being active. I ride my bike, I like to go on walks (used to run), and I do boxing classes. My achilles heel is food. I just don’t eat right. Anyway, this doesn’t affect my bike riding but I may be more moody.

Since I’ve enjoyed my time on the MCT Trails in Madison County I thought checking out the River Des Peres Greenway would be worth my time. I could get down to Carondelet, Patch and ride through Boulevard Heights for the first time. Part of my goal is to ride my bike in every neighborhood in St. Louis so I have marked another neighborhood off my list.

stone-houseI started in Patch, a small area just south of Carondelet that is on the southern edge of St. Louis City. The southern border is the River Des Peres. The river forms the border to the city and county. Patch and Carondelet many times get confused with each other. Frankly Patch just tends to be forgotten about and called Carondelet. Patch seems to be a working class type of neighborhood that is sandwiched by industrial areas along the Mississippi River and a chemical plant along the River Des Peres. Broadway is the spine that is the main street through the neighborhood. Most of the houses are small and cottage-like. It can seem a bit run down but it is home to many stone cottages and some buildings that date back to the Civil War. Some of the buildings still show the French and some Spanish influence. Of course there is the German influence of architecture too. If anything St Louis’ architecture seems rarely pure in it’s style or ethnic roots. A French Colonial or a shotgun house that is more Caribbean in it’s roots may take on characteristics common in German style buildings. A house in St. Louis may have the look of a house in New Orleans but take on some characteristics of Federalist Styles and so on. Something always makes a St. Louis house different. Many times the vernacular architecture takes on a combination of styles and it becomes uniquely St. louis. It’s part of what I love most about the city.

I was going to start at a little park called Alaska Park but I found it was really just a big grassy field. I tend to like to start at parks. Instead I started around Catalan and Minnesota. One thing I love about this neighborhood is the stone houses. In the past, I have taken photos of the Steins Row, and some of the houses on Vulcan and on the east side of Broadway. The two, while being the same style, are very different in condition. Steins Row looks great, wonderfully restored and beautiful. The ones east of Broadway are in terrible shape – crumbling, vacant and in need of some TLC. In general the area east of Broadway seems more forgotten about. I remember last time I rode by the ones on Vulcan Street, I made friends with a stray cat. By making friends, I mean approaching the cat and the cat running away and then staring at me – daring me to bother it me. Then if I do, it may hope to claw me to shreds. I imagine my death from a cat and me sprawled out on Vulcan Street in front of a vacant stone house with claw marks all over my lifeless body. Back into reality. It was just lounging below the stoop and I, being a human jerk thought I would disturb his leisure for my own joy. I may be cynical but I love animals.

On this trip I did take some pictures of other stone houses. Actually I think one I took a picture of is in Carondelet proper and the other is in Patch. One house is on Courtois Street which is a German coursed limestone house. It has two stories, symmetrical with the front door at the center. It has a forward sloping gable roof. These types of stone houses were most likely built with limestone quarried near the banks of the Mississippi. I’m sure it was a type of material that was plenty and easy to get to. If you have good stonemasons then something could be built with it. Across the street is South St. louis Square is the Anton Schmitt House on the southeast corner. It was built in 1859 but not on that corner. It was actually originally located in the area in which a large chemical plant sits west of Alabama on the southwest portion of the neighborhood. It was slated for demolition but was moved to the park in 1992. I think now it serves as a small museum. If you want to read more into the houses click here for the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.

southbroadwayThe other stone house is on Minnesota between Quincy and Blow. It’s similar to the one on Courtois but instead of three bays wide it is five bays wide. It is symmetrical with the door in the center, front sloping gable roof with fireplaces on each side. No porch. Front door opens onto the sidewalk. Like the other stone houses, it was probably built between 1840-1850. It looks like there was another house to it’s left but has been demolished. I can see the outline of the roof of a small cottage..maybe another stone house, maybe a one-room house? Hard to know.

I did go over to the east side of Broadway which is a more industrial section but the buildings and houses left are quite interesting – more stone houses, one-room style houses, more houses with a Creole influence mixed in amongst scrap yards and other industrial types of places. Water, Vulcan, Steins, Courtois and Reilly Streets. Houses right on the street. It’s gritty. This was the area of Vulcan Ironworks which my assumption is that is where the name Vulcan Street came from. It’s not a Star Trek reference but I can’t help but think of it. Close to here is where James Buchanan Eads engineered Ironclad warships for the Civil War at Union Marine Works.

Along Broadway are some interesting storefronts, an old firehouse with a large arched garage, some Romanesque Revival influenced mansions with domed towers that sit above the street. In the neighborhood you can still see the divisions of class in the 1800s. Today though, I’d say mostly the neighborhood is of the working class. Small houses, corner taverns and places that are more utilitarian and less beautiful. I could write all day about what I see in Carondelet. If you want to see some of the oldest buildings and more unique neighborhoods in St. Louis, you should hit up Carondelet and Patch. Also Stacked Burger Joint is amazing.

riverdesperesAs a contrast I headed west, under I-55 into area just south of Carondelet Park. This would be Boulevard Heights There, I climbed some hills and my chain popped off my bike. The further west I go, the newer the houses are. The area starts to look more suburban with small bungalow style houses, ranch style houses that are evenly spaced with front yards. I’d guess built up between the 1930s and 1950s. I am not greatly interested. I get to Morganford and speed down the bike lane to Germania and the river Des Peres Greenway. I head over to where it crosses the river and then head down a spur that is called The Christy Greenway. It runs along a creek and past some cemeteries and is peaceful and shaded. I rode that up to Holly Hills Avenue then track back. I then bike the length of the River Des Peres Greenway to Alabama. Hello Patch and chemical plant. It was a quick trip back to where I started. Flat and fast but windy. It seems like it is always windy by rivers. Is that true or am I imagining that? The River Des Peres isn’t really a scenic river by the ducks and geese don’t seem to mind that it resembles an open sewer. Right now it’s pretty low but it can rage with floods when this area gets a lot of rain.

With some time to spare before sunset I combed the streets of Carondelet. There were people milling about some corner bars and bikers were out at some biker bars – roaring their engines. Stacked Burgers and surrounding restaurants were buzzing with activity. It was one of those days that really felt like summer is here. The trees have bloomed, there is the smell of grilling in the air. It was very warm and the sun was bright. There’s going to be plenty more days like this.

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Dutchtown Wanderings

Sunday’s ride was way less of a struggle. Something happened on Saturday night that got me excited and I hope it’s something that comes to fruition. I don’t want to really say much about it yet though. So I was actually excited about going bike riding. I just had to get some sleep first and hopefully wake up early. I don’t set an alarm. Yeah, I know that may be strange but I tend to get up around the same time each day cause I keep a regular sleep schedule all week – not just weekdays.

The first thing was I wanted to go closer to the river and spotted on Google Maps, that Potomac will take you down to 1st Street and you’d be right by the river and to the right would be some rocky bluffs. I had never been down there so I wanted to see for myself. Once I got to Gasconade I would be in the Dutchtown/Mt. Pleasant area. So a good place to start would be around the Lemp Brewery. That was my plan and from there I’d just wander and see where my wheels take me.

Flash forward to Sunday morning, instead of waking up at 6am as usually I overslept until 7am. So not much waking up time where I can lounge and eat breakfast and relax. I wanted to get out. It was also a bit colder than Saturday. Plans are plans and I have the penchant for forcing myself to stick to plans and to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. I do everything according to plan – start at Lemp, hang a left at Broadway and then almost immediately make a right down Potomac. Potomac is all downhill and is great except it’s cold. I’ll warm up though.

firststreet-south1st Street is mostly industry along the river. The reality is I can’t even see the river even though I’m almost right next to it. There are giant white storage tanks. There is not much happening. It is early Sunday morning and it’s Easter. I come upon the rocky bluffs which I start to suspect was actually an old quarry. The rock seems cut and it’s just a small area that is rocky. Go south and north and it’s just a overgrown hill. I do realize though on top of those bluffs is I-55. I can hear the cars and there are billboards planted. I am below the highway. I take some pictures and then head further south. Just more industrial sites and some municipal maintenance related sites. There wasn’t too much to see.

I get to Gasconade and my ride was going to be a living hell for a little bit. While Potomac was downhill, Gasconade is uphill. As I ride around St. Louis, the city is more hilly than many people imagine. If you’re in a car it’s harder to notice. I have a mishap in which my chain dislodges itself. I repair and crank slowly. Breathing or at least trying to. At the top of the hill is a stoplight where I get to rest and catch my breath. Now the wandering begins.

Wandering is typical. That’s what I do. There is no particular route and what I come up upon is surprise. Sometimes I don’t feel like going up a hill, sometimes I see a building that looks promising, maybe I see a soccer game going on at a park, maybe I see a situation I don’t want to go through so I change my route. There are many reasons why I go where I go but many times there just isn’t a pattern. I somewhat loop but it’s a jagged, zig-zag loop. I don’t like out and back.

south-broadwayWhat I always enjoy about the south side is the variety of architecture which changes by neighborhood. Of course some styles you find through many parts of the city. Some neighborhoods are more opulent and others are more simplistic with small less ornament. The thing that ties many together is the use of brick – in the older sections it’s red brick. I rode a lot near South Broadway in the Marine Villa neighborhood, some in Gravois Park and Mt. Pleasant. I’m focusing mostly on Dutchtown even though there were some interesting sights in Marine Villa. Dutchtown isn’t really an area of many Second Empire or victorian styled houses. I find the houses to be more restrained and more of function and smaller. The area used to be a enclave of people from Germany. It’s called Dutchtown not cause Dutch people settled here, it’s cause it a mispronunciation of Deutsch. It should be called Deutschtown. Oh well. I heard the people here used to be called the “Scrubby Dutch” cause the scrubbed their houses – scrubbed the brick and kept their places immaculate. It’s a bit more grimy these days and other than the architecture it’s not really a German neighborhood. However I sense it as a neighborhood of deep German roots and history. It’s a neighborhood of mostly dwellings unlike Marine Villa that has a lot of industry from (former)beer brewing of the Lemp Brewery to operations that depend on the river.

Probably the most significant pieces of architecture on this ride was the Stork Inn on Virginia Ave, Cleveland High School. There were a few random homes that stood out in the area too.

stork innStork Inn wasn’t a random building I happened upon. I knew it was there and since I was near, I thought I’d check it out. The Stork Inn was built in 1910 by Anheuser-Busch as a tavern/restaurant to change the notion of what a tavern was. It was to change the image of taverns from seedy places of drunks to places that were seen as classy places in the time leading up to prohibition. The Stork Inn is a Tudor Revival structure on a triangular wedge of property. It features green glazed brick pilasters where the entrance was, stucco and timber on the second level, and a tower on the northern side (above the entrance). This gives the building the look of old German folk buildings and biergartens. It is quite a focal point in the neighborhood. You can find out almost everything you need to know about this building here.

cleveland-highNot too far away is the old Cleveland High School. It opened in 1915 and was one of the many schools designed by William B. Ittner. It is another focal point in the Dutchtown neighborhood. People describe it as a castle and it does look like a castle with its crenelated towers that serve as a focal point. It features intricate brick patterns, colorful glazed terra cotta panels illustrating various vocations that look medieval. Recently I watched a short feature on the school produced by KETC’s Living St. Louis. If you want to learn more about the school, click to watch.

I rode by Marquette Park and there were men playing a pick-up game of soccer but the area was generally quiet probably because it was a Sunday morning and it was Easter. Unlike most people who were either still sleeping or in Church for Easter activities, I was riding my bike. I was doing the thing that helps fuel my soul, lets me learn history, and inspires my art. In a way it’s like a religion to me.