Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Near North Riverfront’s history, revisited

The Near North Riverfront is now firmly back in the past, years after St. Louis had proposed to destroy the area’s historic buildings for a football stadium.

Camille Dry and Richard Compton chose the first plate for their Pictorial St. Louis. They didn’t choose the bustling Levee District or Lucas Place, which is the exclusive residential area. When it came time to sell their idea for a huge panoramic aerial view of St. Louis they instead chose the Near North Riverfront. This area is north of Laclede’s Landing and was once an iconic cross-section of Gateway City. It is where the Mississippi River, industry commerce, and bustling residential areas collide. The lithographer could display his ability to render huge smokestacks and riverboats as well as riverboats and rocky bluffs.

Everything in Plate No. 19 is gone today. 19 is the last of the large work Pictorial St. Louis published in 1876. As I was walking around the area north of the Martin Luther King Bridge I thought about this and looked up at the huge, empty masses of old refrigerated warehouses that Isaac Taylor designed. It’s been six years since my last post about the area. back then I was praising the destruction of these historical buildings in order to build a new stadium. Although I knew I didn’t need to be concerned about the stadium ruining anything, I was fascinated by an area of the city that had been “rediscovered.”

Except for a small portion of the St. Louis area, the Near North Riverfront has been firmly forgotten. How can a place depicted in pictorial St. Louis 1876, with a potential population of thousands, go from being a residential community of only a few dozen people? It is located near an interstate highway that provides connections to other parts of the region as well as employment. The river is visible from the windows. If industry is interested in moving in, there are amazing rail connections. After a half-century of abandonment, why are so many acres of this prime real estate left empty? It looked as if the first 100 years went very well.

The land itself is rich in history. At the northern end of the original grid, there was an old tower that was used for Spanish defenses. This tower was known as Roy’s Mill. According to title research, the land was once owned by Brian Mullanphy, a former mayor who filed a multi-hundred page will with the Recorder of Deeds at his death. Lindell’s original home was located at Third and Lucas streets. Wiggin’s Ferry was also a vital link to the Illinois side. It was also departed from the area. The link led to extensive rail connections, which would eventually destroy much of the historical fabric of the Near North Riverfront. A train tunnel runs through Arch grounds today.

Luther Kennett’s Shot Tower was one of the most unusual industrial structures that were destroyed by later development. Shot Tower, one of many similar towers in America, used gravity to make spherical bullets of lead, or “shot”, in a simple, but clever way. The tower’s top circular holes were used to drop molten lead. These dropped metals would then fall through the holes and form perfect spheres. They would harden before reaching the bottom. Kennett’s Shot Tower was decorated with crenellations, giving it the appearance of an castle turret. It was in disrepair by the beginning of the 20th century, and was eventually replaced by the Cotton Belt Depot.

Nearby, the Near North Riverfront was home to one of America’s most prestigious sugar refineries.

In the next few years, I don’t expect a new sugar refinery, shot tower, or quarry to emerge. Instead, I hope St. Louisans will wonder why so many acres of land are unused and fallow and why beautiful buildings sit empty, waiting to be used again. Artica will return this year, Al’s Restaurant remains open, and New Music Circle hosted a concert earlier in May by STL String Collective. The group performed on the same field that is surrounded by those iconic buildings.

Last Saturday, I walked around the area with two friends. We looked up at the buildings and exchanged stories about art performances or exhibits we enjoyed in the spaces between flood wall and Cotton Belt Freight Depot. The empty, undeveloped land is a blank canvas that has allowed for so much creativity in spite of such devastation. It is amazing to imagine what possibilities would be if more people came back to the Near North Riverfront.

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