Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A Look Into St. Louis’ French Colonial District

Just to the northeast of today’s bustling intersection of Jefferson and Gravois avenues, you will find a little bit of this country. It dates back to the French Colonial period of St. Louis. The storefronts along Gravois’ north side block the view of the still-tranquil triangle of land. Turn down the narrow streets of the city, which include alleys with names and are some of the most beautiful in the city, and you will find a new world.

Pierre Francois DeVolsey, a French marine captain is the first to tell the story of this corner of McKinley Heights. He was granted 240 Arpents (approximately 203 acres) in Petit Prairie south from Madame Chouteau’s land on September 17, 1767. This was according to Jean Pierre Cabanne, his lawyer. The board was formed after the territory became part of the United States. According to minutes, taken on February 15, 1833, by the three commissioners, they agreed to confirm the DeVolsey heir’s rights to the land. The United States arbitrated many cases, but it didn’t always agree with the claimant.

In 1848, the land was divided into the Devolsey Addition. It is bound by what is now Shenandoah to the north, Gravois to the southeast, and Jefferson to the west. The original name of the city east of Grand Boulevard was Devolsey. However, private developers chose different names which were eventually standardized in the late 19th-century. Victor Street was Devolsey Street, Gaine Street High, and Indiana Street Blow. Charles Street is still there, but the school with the same name was demolished and Devolsey moved to a small section of Gravois. What is now Cushing Street (and a mere alley) in Benton Park was once Cabanne Street. This may be a reference to Jean Pierre Cabanne’s business ties with the DeVolseys. Gravois’ alley is officially known as Beauty Alley. Gaine Street is a country lane.

It was risky to build an addition in 1848 near the intersection of Jefferson and Gravois. The St. Louis Commons wasn’t used for agriculture but grazing. It was plagued with sinkholes and was generally considered a deserted area by its contemporaries. The karst topography provided lagering caves to the Lemps, George Schneider, as well as the Stumpf. Compton and Dry’s 1876 pictorial St. Louis gives us a striking image of what was going on in the Devolsey Addition. There was a small village that had sprung up between the sinkholes and the ponds. In the rectangular area bordered by Victor, Shenandoah, and McNair, several hundred people lived in conjunction with the Fairview Addition (1848) to the south.

If you look closely, however, you will see that many of these houses have been demolished, but there are still some old survivors visible. These buildings could be the oldest remaining houses in St. Louis at least 160 years of age. The good news about these buildings is that many of them have been restored and are now occupied by dedicated owners. They will continue to offer us a glimpse into the domestic architecture of St. Louis during the Civil War. Many others, however, are in danger of destruction and should be recognized for their historical significance.

An alley house at the back of a lot facing Shenandoah is one of my favorite buildings in the area. The alley is Gaine Street so it is not an alley house. The house is a remarkable example of vernacular architecture. It has a two-story porch facing north and even a narrow door to the attic. You can see the ghost outline of an old house in the brick wall, which shows the former density of the area. This house is rarer than the other alley dwellings (or second buildings on lots), which have been banned in many parts of America.

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