The Buildings of Lafayette Park
by Carolyn Willmore
Lafayette Park was once part of the St. Louis Commons, established in 1767. On the Commons, the people of St. Louis could gather firewood, hunt game, and graze their cattle. Since the land was not available for housing, there were no buildings.
By 1836, the city of St. Louis needed land to expand, so the Commons was sold and developed. A thirty-acre square bounded by Lafayette, Missouri, Park, and Mississippi Avenues was reserved for public use. On November 12, 1851, the city of St. Louis dedicated this land as a park named Lafayette Square. (The name was changed to Lafayette Park in 1854.)
Since the city did not approve any funds to develop the new park, early park improvements were funded by donations from area residents. Most of the initial $8,000 raised was spent to build a rough wood fence around the park. With the free-ranging cattle and other animals fenced out, the remaining money was used to plant trees in the park.
There was little money left to pay a caretaker’s salary, so a barter system was devised. In exchange for living quarters in the middle of the park, the superintendent took care of the park grounds. He received no salary or funding for the park’s upkeep other than what he could earn by farming two acres of parkland.
The first building erected in Lafayette Park was the superintendent’s cottage. It stood in the middle of the park north of the main lake. The 1874 Report of the Board of Improvements for Lafayette Park indicates the superintendent lived in the cottage as early as 1859.
By 1871, a need arose for a “refuge from storms”, especially for women and children. A conservatory was proposed to house tropical plants over the winter and offer shelter from storms during the summer months. In the meantime, the superintendent’s cottage was repaired and three rooms fitted “for the convenience of ladies and children.” I think that means restrooms were built, making it a comfort station. Its doubtful the greenhouse was ever built.
Apparently, the cottage survived the tornado of 1896. A photo of the new iron footbridge in a Koken Iron Works catalogue shows the cottage in the background along with an unknown building, possibly a shed.
By 1908, both of these buildings were gone, replaced by the building known today as the Boat House. Lafayette Park finally had a shelter where women and children could seek refuge from a storm.
Blue prints from the St. Louis Parks and Recreation Department refer to the structure as a Comfort Station. It contained restrooms and a place to go for refuge from bad weather. At that time, the building had a red clay tile roof and the windows were free of the metal protectors seen in a current photograph.
The Park House, located at the corner of Mississippi and Lafayette Avenues, is the oldest building in Lafayette Park. Built in 1867 as a police station, it was equally funded by the police and the park boards. No picture has been found of this simple building.