About Lafayette Park
A Walking Tour
The Park Master Plan
Creating the Plan
Join or Renew
The History of Lafayette Park
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
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
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
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
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.
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City of St. Louis Parks