By Carolyn Willmore
Lafayette Park was the largest and most graciously appointed park in St. Louis in the late1860s. The thirty-acre park was beautifully landscaped and enclosed by an elegant iron fence. Band concerts and boating on the central lake drew crowds of 5,000 people on a good day. A station house was built in the southeast corner of the park for the police force needed to maintain order.
In 1866, the Hon. S. D. Barlow arranged the purchase of two hundred and two carloads of gravel and sixty-seven carloads of mineral blossom rock for the amazingly low price of $300. Fair market value at the time was $5000. Mr. Barlow was president of the Iron Mountain Railroad Company and a member of the Lafayette Park Board of Improvements. He lived at Mississippi and Kennett.
The gravel covered pathways that crisscrossed the park and wound past three water features, pavilions, statues and a bandstand. The unusual Ozark rock was the main building material of a feature called the Rockery or Grotto built around 1866. The following description is from the 1874 Report of the Board of Improvements for Lafayette Park:
“With the mineral blossom a very beautiful and interesting rockwork was constructed around the natural and deep depression on the east side of the park. A large cistern was built at the west end of the depression, and the rockwork was made to partially surround and cover it, forming a grotto where cool water can be obtained at all times. The depression being of considerable length and depth, it was spanned by a rustic bridge, adding to the whole a novel feature, and forming a pathway for visitors on that side of the park.”
Stereoscopic view cards record two wooden bridges over the east lake. A rustic pavilion with a thatched roof stood on the hill west of the grotto. Stone paths wandered through the area.
The rockery was natural looking, covered with mosses and ferns.
On May 27, 1896, a cyclone rolled through Lafayette Square. Fifty years of tree planting in Lafayette Park was wiped out in a few minutes. Luckily, the statues of Benton and Washington sustained little damage. The elaborate bandstand west of the main lake collapsed and the rustic bridges were shattered.
An effort was made to restore Lafayette Park by planting trees and replacing attractions. The popular Grotto was skillfully reworked. The rustic bridges were replaced with ornate iron bridges built by Koker Iron Works of St. Louis. Beautiful stone paths and formal plantings created a picture perfect scene.
At the turn of the century, just one of iron bridges remained. The ornate ironwork side rails and the four metal urns topping the end pieces had vanished. The missing urns at the ends of the bridge were replicated and reproduced through the efforts of the Lafayette Park Conservancy and the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee.
Mineral blossom rock still edges the lake and studs the hills in the Grotto. Thanks to the tremendous effort of Ruth Kamphoefner and her helpers, the rockery became a lovely garden spot again. Today, the Grotto gardens are maintained by Ward Buckner, Susan Pinker-Dodd, Marcia Lange, Pat Barber, Carolyn Willmore and other volunteers.
Special thanks to the Missouri Botanical Garden, Ron Taylor and Susan Pinker-Dodd for images used in this article.