Lafayette Park was set aside from the St. Louis Common in 1836 and dedicated in 1851 as one of the first public parks, and by far the largest of its era, in the City of St. Louis, Missouri. It is considered by many historians to be the oldest urban park west of the Mississippi.
Because of the city’s foresight in creating a Board of Improvement charged with developing the park and raising the funds to do so, this nearly treeless, unfenced and under-developed thirty acre tract of land was gradually transformed into a sophisticated urban park, extensively appointed with water features, landscaped gardens, pavilions, gas lighting and walking paths.
After obtaining just over $8,000 in funding through subscriptions of the surrounding property owners, the Board’s first priorities were enclosing the grounds to keep out grazing animals and planting trees to provide shade. A wooden fence was built, a large number of shade trees planted, and the parks first paths laid out. In 1858 a city ordinance set aside eight acres of the park to be used as a military parade ground, in the area now used for vintage baseball and other games of sport.
Substantial improvements really got underway in 1864 when municipal bonds were issued to raise $30,000. Professional landscape artist Maximillian G. Kern, who later laid out much of Forest Park, was hired as park superintendent. Over the next few years he guided the planning and development of the park’s most striking landscape features and plantings.
In 1868 an additional $71,500 (about $4.5 million in 2008 dollars) was raised through another municipal bond issue. With these funds the iron fence and gateways that you see today were constructed around the park. In the same year the bronze statue of Thomas Hart Benton was dedicated before a reported crowd of 30,000-40,000 people. The Benton statue, created by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, was the first public monument west of the Mississippi River and one of the first public works by any female sculptor. 1869 saw the installation of yet another treasured monument, the bronze statue of George Washington cast from Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble original.
The late 19th century saw the heyday of Lafayette Park. Victorian visitors to the park enjoyed strolling, picnicking, cruising the main lake in Swan Boats, and listening to concerts at the Music Stand. A typical weekend saw daily crowds in the thousands and the Park House was established as a police station to ensure that order was maintained.
In 1896, a devastating tornado ripped into St. Louis and went directly through Lafayette Square. Dozens of homes were severely damaged and nearly all of the trees and structures in the park were completely destroyed. Rebuilding began immediately and many park attractions were repaired or replaced, but the park never regained its former grandeur, perhaps because transportation was improving and many wealthy residents chose to move further west to newer residential areas rather than rebuild in Lafayette Square.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century Lafayette Park served primarily as a neighborhood park. Various park features were updated or converted to more modern usage. The West Lake was transformed in 1916 to a Lily Pond and then in the 1940s to a wading pool. In 1943 the Park House was converted to the groundskeeper’s residence.
After World War II, the neighborhood along with the park fell into a prolonged period of decline. The West Lake was filled in, possibly during the Polio epidemic of the 1950s. The music stand was torn down in 1951, and by the late 1960s the Park House had fallen into disrepair and been boarded up.
The park’s first renaissance occurred in the 1970s, when Lafayette Square residents and the city, prompted at least in part by the upcoming United States bicentennial, began focusing on park restoration. The iron fence surrounding the park was repaired and partially restored, and residents mobilized to renovate and restore the Park House. In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration, the Park received as a gift from the people of France a second treasured sculpture by Houdon, a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, which is displayed in the Park House.
The year 2001 marked not only the 150th anniversary of Lafayette Park’s dedication, but the beginning of the current public effort to restore the park to its original grandeur. The Lafayette Park Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and preserving the park and its historic legacy, was formed to raise funds and plan improvements. In 2003-2004, Lafayette Square residents, the City of St. Louis. the Conservancy and other interested parties joined together to create a Master Plan that guides park restoration and development.