The Rising Fourth City (1890 - 1904)



Upwards and Outwards

 “Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.”
            Louis Sullivan, architect of the Wainwright Building in Downtown St. Louis, in The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered (1896)


The mighty Wainwright Building, at 7th and Chestnut Streets, claimed by architect Louis Sullivan as the work that turned his career.  The building would become a model for skyscraper design across the U.S., even though now it seems tiny in the shadow of modern buildings!  Missouri History Museum.

By 1890 St. Louis had accumulated more than 450,000 inhabitants, and the city’s downtown business district would boom.  This time the growth would not be outward across the land, but upward across the sky.  The narrow cast-iron storefronts and thick brick walls of 3-5 story buildings all squeezed together near the levee were no longer useful - the new titans of commerce were so large they could no longer wear these buildings.  The new businessman’s headquarters took up half or possibly an entire city block, and soared 10 stories into the air on a lightweight steel skeleton.

The Chicago architecture firm of Adler & Sullivan’s first St. Louis commission came with the Wainwright Building, constructed for St. Louis brewer Ellis Wainwright.  Sullivan, who learned the art of design working under Frank Lloyd Wright, increasingly desired a uniquely “American” architectural expression that reflected the economic prosperity and new American existence that Europe’s “classical” models could not provide.  He was the foremost contributor to the concept of the “skyscraper” – an endlessly tall, layer-oriented building supported from the inside by a network of steel rather than the opaque exterior walls of brick or stone.  The Wainwright Building was the most emblematic of this new concept that would radically change American cities, the work Sullivan would later describe as the turning point of his career.


Union Station, seen from Market and 18th Streets in 1904.  Missouri History Museum

The exclamation point to St. Louis’ stature came in 1894 with the opening of Union Station, at Market and 18th Streets.  The 606-foot long train depot was designed by noted St. Louis architect Theodore Link in 1891, and three years later his castle-esque structure was complete with a clock tower, the Terminal Hotel, giant Grand Hall, and ten-acre train shed.  The final cost of Union Station was $6.5 million, and its train shed was the largest in the world.  By 1896, 950 passenger cars were processed per day.  Two years after Union Station opened, right around the corner work began on a new French Renaissance style City Hall modeled on the Hotel de Ville of Paris.


St. Louis City Hall seen just after 1900.  The large central spire would later be removed.  Missouri History Museum.


A Bustling City, For Good and Bad

“St. Louis, the fourth city in size in the United States, is making two announcements to the world: one that it is the worst governed city in the land; the other that it wishes all men to come and see it.  It isn’t our worst governed city; Philadelphia is that.  But St. Louis is worth examining while we have it inside out.”
- Claude H. Wetmore in 1902’s Tweed Days in St. Louis, which exposed corruption in government and business affairs among the city’s elite


An 1896 map showing the path of the deadly cyclone of May 27th.  Lafayette Square, Soulard, and southern downtown suffered extensive damage.  Missouri History Museum.


A family standing in front of their destroyed home after the 1896 cyclone. Missouri History Museum.

On May 27, 1896 the St. Louis south side was struck by the most devastating tornado of the century.  It ripped across the stately homes of Lafayette Square, the crowded tenements of Soulard, and the St. Louis riverfront before ravaging the East St. Louis rail yards.  The great cyclone completely demolished Lafayette Park (the only thing left standing was a statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton), killed at least 140, injured over 1,000 more, and demolished over 8,000 buildings.  It crossed directly over the Eads Bridge, but James Eads’ masterpiece of engineering suffered no damage whatsoever to the pier structure.  Contemporary estimates place the damage at over $10 million.  Little assistance was given to the impoverished immigrant communities living in the destroyed areas.


 St. Louis reached 575,238 inhabitants at the turn of the new century making it the fourth largest city in the nation behind New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  It was an eclectic and diverse city, as 19% of St. Louis inhabitants were foreign born and 41% had foreign-born parents, but it was also congested and dirty.  Only 22% of its inhabitants owned their homes, and the average dwelling held seven persons.  A great hazard of life in the River City was the everlasting smoke that poured out of factories, trains, and homes, with French visitor Charles Croonenberghs describing its textural quality as “one is satisfied by an afternoon walk in St. Louis as if one had eaten a heavy dinner.”   St. Louis, despite all the pollution and often-filthy living conditions associated with a large industrial city, was not particularly unhealthful by the standards of the time.  St. Louis surprisingly had the lowest death from disease rate in the top five largest cities.  At only 628 deaths per 100,000 people, it was around half that of New Orleans’ 1,040.

A boy looking curiously down the alley running between Market and Walnut along 8th Street, the home of the Chinese enclave known as “Hop Alley.”  Hop Alley would exist for over half a century before being bulldozed for a Busch Stadium parking garage. Missouri History Museum.


A Croatian immigrant and his daughter sitting outside a business on the near south side of St. Louis.  The area we now know as Soulard was home to a mixed variety of immigrant groups.  Missouri History Museum.

Pockets of cluttered activity were everywhere in turn of the century St. Louis.  Some areas were occupied by a single ethnic or social group, like the Chinese enclave known as Hop Alley (along 8th and Market Streets), while some others were a speckled mix of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.  The near south side neighborhood of Soulard contained pockets of Germans, Bohemians, Slovaks, Czechs, Croatians, Polish, and Ukranians within its crowded bounds.  Exclusive private places began popping up around the city in an attempt to keep the wealthier citizens away from the noise and bustle of dram shops, factories, liveries, and crowded boarding houses.  In these private places on the edge of the developed city, like Vandeventer Place (near Grand and Olive) and Compton Heights (just south of Grand and Lafayette), wealthy residents took over the costs of maintaining the streets and they set the rules about what types of businesses (often none) and homes were allowed on them. 


The opulent Vandeventer Place, a private street of gigantic homes located along North Grand.  Vandeventer Place would never truly fulfill its magnificence, as the noise and pollution of industrial uses would soon crowd its edges.  The site of Vandeventer Place is now the VA Hospital on North Grand.  Missouri History Museum.


            The turn of the century saw tremendous upheaval in the governance structures of many U.S. cities, and St. Louis was no different.  Dozens of businessmen and government officials, collectively nicknamed “The Big Cinch,” widely collaborated in hidden schemes that made them wealthy at the expense of the citizens.  In May 1900, 3,325 streetcar workers of the St. Louis Transit Company walked out on strike. The strikers were heavily supported by the north and south side working class and they refused to yield, often piling boulders on the streetcar lines and even attempting to bomb the car barns.  By September their misery forced them to surrender, but the episode had exposed the problems of corporate arrogance and the poor municipal services of S. Louis.  A young lawyer named Joseph W. Folk represented the streetcar workers, and he began aggressively pursuing the Big Cinch’s corrupt political officials, exposing various election frauds, misspent public funds, and illegal agreements.  The exposure of what became known in the press as the “boodle ring” made national headlines.

Rubbish and boulders piled onto the streetcar tracks on 15th Street north of O’Fallon Street during the 1900 Streetcar Strike.  Missouri History Museum.


 On to 1904 - 1915: The World Comes to St. Louis



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The 250th Celebration!