Somnolent St. Louis – American Travel

SOME years ago, while riding westward through the Alleghenies in an observation car of the Pennsylvania Limited, a friend of mine fell into conversation with an old gentleman who sat in the next chair.

“Evidently he knew a good deal about that region,” said my friend, in telling me of the incident later. “We must have sat there together for a couple of hours. He did most of the talking; I could see that he enjoyed talking, and was glad to have a listener. Before he got off he shook hands with me and said he was glad to have had the little chat. Then, when he was gone, the train-man came and asked me if I knew who he was. I didn’t. Come to find out, it was Andrew Carnegie.”

I asked my friend how Mr. Carnegie impressed him.

“Oh,” he replied, “I was much surprised when I found it had been he. He seemed a nice old fellow enough, kindly and affable, but a little commonplace. I should never have called him an `inspired millionaire.’ I’ve been reconstructing him in my mind ever since.”

I am reminded of my friend’s experience by my own meeting with the city of St. Louis; for it was not until after I had left St. Louis that I found out “who it is.” That is, I failed to focus, while there, upon the fact that it is America’s fourth city. And now, in looking back, I feel about St. Louis as my friend felt about the iron-master : I do not think it looks the part.

St. Louis leads the world in shoes, stoves, and tobacco; it is the world’s greatest market for hardware, lumber, and raw furs; it is the principal horse and mule market in America ; it builds more street and railroad cars than any other city in the country; it distributes more coffee ; it makes more woodenware, more native chemicals, more beer. It leads in all these things. But what it does not do is to look as though it led. Physically it is a great, overgrown American town, like Buffalo or St. Paul. Its streets are, for the most part, lacking in distinction. There is no center at which a visitor might stop, knowing by instinct that he was at the city’s heart. It is a rambling, incoherent place, in which one has to ask which is the principal retail shopping corner. Fancy having to ask a thing like that !

I do not mean by this that St. Louis is much worse, in appearance, than some other American cities. For American cities, as I have said before, have only recently awakened to the need of broadly planned municipal beauty. All I mean is that St. Louis seems to be behind in taking action to improve herself..

Almost every city presents a paradox, if you will but find it. The St. Louis paradox is that she is a fashion-able city without style. But that is not, in reality, the paradox, it seems. It only means that being an old, aristocratic city, with a wealthy and cosmopolitan population, and an extraordinarily cultivated social life, St. Louis yet lacks municipal distinction. It is a dowdy city. It needs to be taken by the hand and led around to some municipal-improvement tailor, some civic haberdasher, who will dress it like the gentleman it really is.

I remember a well-to-do old man who used to be like that. His daughters were obliged to drag him down to get new clothes. Always he insisted that the old frock coat was plenty good enough; that he could n’t spare time and the money for a new one. Nevertheless, he could well afford new clothes, and so can St. Louis. The city debt is relatively small, and there are only two American cities of over 350,000 population which have a lower tax-rate. These two are San Francisco and Cleveland. And either one of them can set a good ex-ample to St. Louis, in the matter of self-improvement. San Francisco, with a population hardly more than half that of St. Louis, is yet an infinitely more important-looking city; while Minneapolis or Denver might impress a casual visitor, roaming their streets, as being equal to St. Louis in commerce and population, although the Missouri metropolis is, in reality, considerably greater than the two combined. However, in considering the foibles of an old city we should be lenient, as in considering those of an old man.

Old men and old cities did not enjoy, in their youth, the advantages which are enjoyed today by young men and young cities. Life was harder, and precedent, in many lines, was wanting. Excepting in a few rare in-stances, as, for example, in Detroit and Savannah, the laying out of cities seems to have been taken care of, in the early days, as much by cows as men. Look at Boston, or lower New York, or St. Paul, or St. Louis. How little did the men who founded those cities dream of the proportions to which they would some day attain ! With cities which have begun to develop within the last fifty or sixty years, it has been different, for there has been precedent to show them what is possible when an American city really starts to grow. Today all American cities, even down to the smallest towns, have a sneaking suspicion that they may some day become great, too—great, that is, by comparison with what they are. And those which are not altogether lacking in energy are prepared, at least in a small way, to en-counter greatness when, at last, it comes.

Baedeker says St. Louis was founded as a fur-trading station by the French in 1756. “All About St. Louis,” a publication compiled by the St. Louis Advertising Men’s League, gives the date 1764. Pierre Laclede was the founder, and it is interesting to note that some of his descendants still reside there.

When Louis XV ceded the territory to the east of the Mississippi to the English, he also ceded the west bank to Spain by secret treaty. Spanish authority was established in St. Louis in 1770, but in 1804 the town became a part of the United States, as a portion of the Louisiana Purchase.

In the old days the city had but three streets : the Rue Royale, one block back from the levee (now Main Street) ; the Rue de l’Eglise, or Church Street (now Second) ; and the Rue des Granges, or Barn Street (now Third).

Though a few of the old French houses, in a woeful state of dilapidation, may still be seen in this neighborhood, it is now for the most part given over to commission merchants, warehouses, and slums.

Charles Dickens, writing of St. Louis in 1842, describes this quarter :

“In the old French portion of the town the thorough-fares are narrow and crooked, and some of the houses are very quaint and picturesque: being built of wood, with tumble-down galleries before the windows, approachable by stairs or rather ladders from the street. There are queer little barbers’ shops and drinking houses, too, in this quarter; and abundance of crazy old tenements with blinking casements, such as may be seen in Flanders. Some of these ancient habitations, with high garret gable windows perking into the roofs, have a kind of French shrug about them; and, being lopsided with age, appear to hold their heads askew, besides, as if they were grimacing in astonishment at the American improvements.

“It is hardly necessary to say that these consist of wharves and warehouses and new buildings in all directions ; and of a great many vast plans which are still `progressing.’ Already, however, some very good houses, broad streets, and marble-fronted shops have gone so far ahead as to be in a state of completion, and the town bids fair in a few years to improve considerably; though it is not likely ever to vie, in point of elegance or beauty, with Cincinnati. . . . The Roman Catholic religion, introduced here by the early French settlers, prevails extensively. Among the public institutions are a Jesuit college, a convent for `the Ladies of the Sacred Heart,’ and a large chapel attached to the college, which was in course of erection at the time of my visit. . . . The architect of this building is one of the reverend fathers. . . . The organ will be sent from Belgium. . . . In addition to these establishments there is a Roman Catholic cathedral.

“No man ever admits the unhealthiness of the place he dwells in (unless he is going away from it), and I shall therefore, I have no doubt, be at issue with the inhabitants of St. Louis in questioning the perfect salubrity of its climate. . . . It is very hot . . .”

The cathedral of which Dickens wrote remains, perhaps, the most sturdy building in the section which forms the old town. It is a venerable-looking pile of gray granite, built to last forever, and suggesting, with its French inscriptions and its exotic look, a bit of old Quebec. But for the most part the dilapidation of the quarter has continued steadily from Dickens’s day to this, and the beauty now to be discovered there is that of decay and ruin—pathetic beauty to charm the etcher, but sadden the lover of improvement, whose battle cry invariably involves the overworked word “civic.”

An exception to the general slovenliness of this quarter is to be seen in the old Merchants’ Exchange Hall on Main Street. Built nearly sixty years ago, this building, now disused and dilapidated, nevertheless shows a facade of a distinction rare in structures of its time. I was surprised to discover that this old hall was not better known in St. Louis, and I cheerfully recommend it to the notice of those who esteem the architecture of the Jefferson Memorial, the bulky new cathedral on Lindell Boulevard, or that residence, suggestive of the hanging gardens of Babylon, at Hortense Place and King’s Highway. Take the old Merchants’ Exchange Hall away from dirty, cobbled Main Street, set it up, instead, in Venice, beside the Grand Canal, and watch the tourist from St. Louis stop his gondola to gaze!

But what city has respected its ruins? Rome used her palaces as mines for building material. St. Louis destroyed the wonderful old mound which used to stand at the corner of Mound Street and Broadway, forming one of the most interesting archeological remains in the country and, together with smaller mounds near, by, giving St. Louis her title of “Mound City.”

With Dickens’s statements concerning the St. Louis summer climate, the publication, “All About St. Louis,” does not, for one moment, agree. In it I find an article headed: “St. Louis has Better Weather than Other Cities,” the preamble to which contains the following solemn truth :

The weather question is purely local and individual. Every person forms his own opinion about the weather by the way it affects him, wherever he happens to be.

Having made that clear, the writer becomes more specific. He informs us that, in St. Louis, “the prevailing winds in summer blow over the Ozark Mountains, insuring cool nights and pleasant days.” Also that “during the summer the temperature does not run so high, and warm spells do not last so long as in many cities of the North.” The latter statement is supported —as almost every statement in the world, it seems to me, can be supported—by statistics. What wonderful things statistics are! How I wish Charles Dickens might have seen these. How surprised he would have been. How surprised I was—for I, too, have visited St. Louis in the middle of the year. Yes, and so has my companion. He went to St. Louis several years ago to attend the Democratic National Convention, but he is all right again now.

I showed him the statistics.

“Why!” he cried. “I ought to have been told of this before !”

“What for?” I demanded.

“If I had had this information at the time of the convention,” he declared, “I ‘d have known enough not to have been laid up in bed for six weeks with heat prostration.”

Though the downtown portion of St. Louis is, as I have said, lacking in coherence and distinction, there are, nevertheless, a number of buildings in that section which are, for one reason or another, notable. The old Courthouse, on Chestnut and Market Streets, between Fourth and Fifth, is getting well along toward its centennial, and is interesting, both as a dignified old granite pile and as the scene of the whipping post, and of slave sales which were held upon its steps during the Civil War.

Not far from the old Courthouse stands another building typifying all that is modern—the largest office building in the world, a highly creditable structure, occupying an entire city block, built from designs by St. Louis architects : Mauran, Russell & Crowell. Another building, notable for its beauty, is the Central Public Library, a very simple, well-proportioned building of gray granite, designed by Cass Gilbert.

The St. Louis Union Station is interesting for several reasons. When built, it was the largest station in the world—one of the first great stations of the modern type. It contains, under its roof, five and a half miles of track, and though it has been surpassed, architecturally, by some more recent stations, it is still a spectacular building-or rather it would be, were it not for its setting, among narrow streets, lined with cheap saloons, lunch rooms, and lodging houses. That any city capable of building such a splendid terminal could, at the same time, be capable of leaving it in such environment is a thing baffling to the comprehension. It must, however, be said that efforts have been made to improve this condition. Six or seven years ago the Civic League proposed to buy the property facing the station and turn it into a park. St. Louis somnolence defeated this project. The City Plan Commission now has a more elaborate suggestion which, if accepted, will not only place the station in a proper setting, but also reclaim a large area, in the geographical center of the city, which has suffered a blight, and which is steadily deteriorating, although through it run the chief lines of travel between the business and residence portions of the city.

This project, if put through, will be a fine step toward the creation, in downtown St. Louis, of some outward indication of the real importance of the city. The plan involves the gutting of a strip, one block wide and two miles long; the tearing out of everything between Market and Chestnut Streets, all the way from Twelfth Street, which is the eastern boundary of the City Hall Square, to Grand Avenue on the west. Here it is proposed to construct a Central Traffic Parkway, which will pass directly in front of the station, connecting it with both the business and residence districts, and will also pass in front of the Municipal Court Building and the City Hall, located farther downtown. The plan involves an arrangement similar to that of the Champs-Elysees, with a wide central drive, parked on either side, for swift-moving vehicles, and exterior roads for heavy traffic.

An expert in such work has said that “city planning has few functions more important than the restoration of impaired property values.” American cities are coming to comprehend that investment in intelligently planned improvements, such as this, have to do not only with city dignity and city self-respect, but that they pay for themselves. If St. Louis wants to find that out, she has but to visit her western neighbor, Kansas City, where the construction of Paseo boulevard did redeem a blighted district, transforming it into an excellent neighborhood, doubling or trebling the value of adjacent property, and, of course, yielding the city increased revenue from taxes.

A matter more deplorable than the setting of the station is the unparalleled situation which exists with regard to the Free Bridge. Though the echoes of this scandal have been heard, more or less, throughout the country, it is perhaps necessary to give a brief summary of the matter as it stands at present.

The three used bridges which cross the Mississippi River at St. Louis are privately controlled toll bridges. Working people, passing to and fro, are obliged to pay a five-cent toll in excess of car fare. Goods are also taxed. It was with the purpose of defeating this monopoly that the Free Bridge was constructed. But after the body of the bridge was built, factional fights developed as to the placing of approaches, and as a result, the approaches have never been built. Thus, the bridge stands to-day, as it has stood for several years, a thing costly, grotesque, and useless, spanning the river, its two ends jutting out, inanely, over the opposing shores. In the meantime the city is paying interest on the bridge bonds at the rate of something over $300 per day. The question of approaches has come before the city at several elections, but the people have so far failed to vote the necessary bonds. The history of the voting on this subject plainly shows indifference. In one election the Twenty-eighth Ward, which is the rich and fashionable ward, cast only 2,325 votes, on the bridge question, out of a possible 6,732. Had the eligible voters of this ward, alone, done their duty, the issue would have been carried at the time, and the bridge would now be in operation.

One becomes accustomed to exhibitions of municipal indifference upon matters involving questions like re-form, which, though they are not really abstract, often seem so to the average voter. Reforms are, relatively at least, invisible things. But the Free Bridge is not invisible. Far from it! There it stands above the stream, a grim, gargantuan joke, for every wan to see —a tin can tied to a city’s tail.

In writing of St. Louis I feel, somehow, like a man who has been at a delightful house party where people have been very kind to him, and who, when he goes away, promulgates unpleasant truths about bad plumbing in the house. Yet, of course, St. Louis is a public place, to which I went with the avowed purpose of writing my impressions. The reader may be glad, at this point, to learn that some of my impressions are of a pleasant nature. But before I reach them I must rake a little further through this substance, which, I am becoming very much afraid, resembles “muck.”

St. Louis has, for some time, been involved in a fight with the United Railways Company, a corporation controlling the street car system of the city. In one quarter I was informed that this company was paying dividends on millions of watered stock, and that it had been reported by the Public Service Commission as earning more than a million a year in excess of a reasonable, return on its investment. In another quarter, while it was not denied that the company was overburdened with obligations representing much more than the actual value of the present system, it was explained that the so-called “water” represented the cost of the early horse-car system, discarded on the advent of the cable lines, and also the cost of the cable lines which were, in turn, discarded for the trolley. It was furthermore contended that, in the days before the formation of the United Railways Company, when several companies were striving for territory, the street railroads of St. Louis were overbuilt, with the result that much money was sunk.

In an article on St. Louis, recently published in “Collier’s Weekly,” I made the statement that the street car service of St. Louis was as bad as I had ever seen; that the tracks were rough, the cars run-down and dirty, and that an antediluvian heating system was used, namely, a red-hot stove at one end of the car, giving but small comfort to those far removed from it, and fairly cooking those who sat near.

This statement brought some protest from St. Louis. Several persons wrote to me saying that the cars were not dirty, that only a few of them were heated with stoves, and that the tracks were in good condition. With one of these correspondents, Mr. Walter B. Stevens, I exchanged several letters. I informed him that I had ridden in five different cars, that all five were heated as mentioned, that they were dirty and needed painting, and that I recalled distinctly the fact that the rail-joints caused a continual jarring of the car.

Mr. Stevens replied as follows:

“In your street car trip to the southwestern part of the city you saw probably the worst part of the system. Some of the lines, notably those in the section of the city mentioned by you, have not been brought up to the standard that prevails elsewhere. I have traveled on street cars in most of the large cities of this country, north and south, and according to my observation, the lines in the central part of St. Louis, extending westward, are not surpassed anywhere.”

As I have reason to know that Mr. Stevens is an exceedingly fair-minded gentleman, I am glad of the opportunity to print his statement here. I must add, how-ever, that I think a street car system on which a stranger, taking five different cars, finds them all heated by stoves, leaves something to be desired. Let me say further that I might not have been so critical of the St. Louis street railways and its cars, had I not become acquainted, a short time before, with the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which operates the street railways of Minneapolis and St. Paul: a system which, as a casual observer, I should call the most perfect of its kind I have seen in the United States..

“What is the matter with St. Louis ?” I inquired of a wide-awake citizen I met.

“Oh, the Drew Question,” he suggested with a smile. `The Drew Question ?” I repeated blankly.

“You don’t know about that? Well, the question you asked was put to the city, some years ago, by Alderman Drew, so instead of asking it outright any more, we refer to it as `the Drew Question.’ Every one knows what it means.”

The man who asks that question in St. Louis will receive a wide variety of answers.

One exceedingly well-informed gentleman told me that St. Louis had the “most aggressive minority” he had ever seen. “Start any movement here,” he declared, “and, whatever it may be, you immediately encounter strong objection.”

In other quarters I learned of something called “The Big Cinch”—an intangible, reactionary sort of dragon, said to be built of big business men. It is charged that this legendary monster has put the quietus upon various enterprises, including the construction of a new and first-class hotel—something which St. Louis needs. In still other quarters I was informed that the city’s long-established wealth had placed it in somewhat the position of Detroit before the days of the automobile, and that much of the money and many of the big business enterprises were controlled by elderly men ; in short, that what is needed is young blood, or, as one man put it, “a few important funerals.”

“It is conservatism,” explained another. “The trouble with St. Louis is that nobody here ever goes crazy.” And said still another : “About one-third of the population of St. Louis is German. It is German lethargy that holds the city back.”

Whatever truth may lurk in these several statements, I do not, personally, believe in the last one. If the Germans are sometimes stolid, they are upon the other hand honest, thoughtful, and steady. And when it comes to lethargy—well, Chicago, the most active great city in the country, has a large German population. And, for the matter of that, so has Berlin! Some of the best citizens St. Louis has are Germans, and one of her most public-spirited and nationally distinguished men was born in Prussia—Mr. Frederick W. Lehmann, former Solicitor General of the United States and ex-president of the American Bar Association. Mr. Lehmann (who served the country as a commissioner in the cause of peace with Mexico, at the Niagara Falls conference) drew up a city charter which was recommended by the Board of Freeholders of St. Louis in 1910. This charter was defeated. However, another charter, embodying many even more progressive elements than those contained in the charter proposed by Mr. Lehmann, has lately been accepted by the city, and there can be little doubt that the earlier proposals paved the way for this one. The new charter had not been passed at the time of my visit. The St. Louis newspapers which I have seen since art, however, most sanguine in their prophecies as to what will be accomplished under it. All seem to agree that its acceptance marks the awakening of the city.

German emigration to St. Louis began about 1820 and increased at the time of the rebellion of 1848, so that, like Milwaukee, St. Louis has today a very strong German flavor. By the terms of the city charter all ordinances and municipal legal advertising are printed in both English and German, and the “Westliche Post” of St. Louis, a German newspaper founded by the late Emil Pretorius and now conducted by his son, is a powerful organ. The great family beer halls of the city add further Teutonic color, and the Liederkranz is, I believe, the largest club in the city. This organization is not much like a club according to the restricted English idea; it suggests some great, genial public gathering place. The substantial German citizens who arrive here of a Sunday night, when the cook goes out, do not come alone, nor merely with their sons, but bring their entire families for dinner, including the mother, the daughters, and the little children. There is music, of course, and great contentment. The place breathes of substantiality, democracy, and good nature. You feel it even in the manner of the waiters, who, being first of all human beings, second, Germans, and waiters only in the third place, have an air of personal friendliness with those they serve.

Aside from his municipal and national activities, Mr. Lehmann has found time to gather in his home one of the most complete collections of Dickens’s first editions and related publications to be found in the whole world. It is, indeed, on this side—the side of cultivation—that St. Louis is most truly charming. She has an old, exclusive, and delightful society, and a widespread and pleasantly unostentatious interest in esthetic things. In fact, I do not know of any American city, to ,which St. Louis may with justice be compared, possessing a larger body of collectors, nor collections showing more individual taste. The most important private collections in the city are, I believe, those of Mr. William K. Bixby, who owns a great number of valuable paintings by old masters, and a large collection of rare books and manuscripts. As a book collector, Mr. Bixby is widely known throughout the country, and he has had, if I mistake not, the honor of being president of that Chicago club of bibliolatrists, known as the “Dofobs,” or “damned old fools over books.”

An exhibition of paintings owned in St. Louis is held annually in the St. Louis Museum of Art, and leaves no doubt as to the genuineness of the interest of St. Louis citizens in painting. Nor can any one, considering the groups of canvases loaned to the museum for the annual exhibition, doubt that certain art collectors in St. Louis (Mr. Edward A. Faust, for example) are buying not only names but paintings.

The Art Museum is less accessible to the general citizen than are museums in some other cities. Having been originally the central hall of the group of buildings devoted to art at the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, it stands in that part of Forest Park which was formerly the Fair ground. Posed, as it is, upon a hill, in a commanding and conspicuous position, it reveals, somewhat unfortunately, the fact that it is the isolated fragment of a former group. Nevertheless, it must take a high place among the secondary art museums of the United States. For despite the embarrassment caused by the possession of a good deal of mediocre sculpture, a legacy from the World’s Fair, which is packed in its central hall; and despite the inheritance, from twenty or. twenty-five years since, of vapid can-vases by Bouguereau, Gabriel Max, and other painters of past popularity, whose works are rapidly coming to be known for what they are—despite these handicaps, the museum is now distinctly in step with the march of modern art. The old collection is being weeded out, and good judgment is being shown in the selection of new canvases. Like the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, the St. Louis Museum of Art is rapidly acquiring works by some of the best American painters of today, having purchased within the last four or five years canvases by Redfield, Loeb, Symons, Waugh, Dearth, Dougherty, Foster, and others.

Another building saved from the World’s Fair is the superb central hall of Washington University, a red granite structure in the English collegiate style, designed by Cope & Stewardson. The dozen or more buildings of this university are very fine in their harmony, and are pronounced by Baedeker “certainly the most successful and appropriate group of collegiate buildings in the New World.”

It is curious to note in this connection that there are eight colleges or universities in the United States in which the name of “Washington” appears; among them, Washington University at St. Louis; Washington College at Chestertown, Md.; George Washington University at Washington, D. C.; Washington State College at Pullman, Wash., and the University of Washington at Seattle.