History of Benton Park

Benton Park, originally known as City Park, was created by ordinance on June 25th, 1866. The park was later renamed in honor of Thomas Hart Benton, a distinguished Missouri senator from 1821 to 1851. Its initial use was that of the City Cemetery which occupied the site from 1842 to 1865. Covering 14 acres, the park grounds were steadily improved by noted horticulturist Edward F. Krausnick, who landscaped the undulating surfaces using rare trees, shrubs and beds of flowers. Utilizing a greenhouse, rustic footbridge and two ponds, the park was used for botanical instruction as well as traditional community activities. City Parks Commissioner Eugene Weigel noted in 1881 that "in general design and in beauty and composition of its varied flower beds, it stands unsurpassed even by its aristocratic rival, Lafayette Park".

During the 1850s the city began selling the Common Fields, a large tract of undeveloped pasture land outside the western boundary of the city limits, then at 18th street. With this sale of land following the platting of subdivisions and neighborhood. Located within the Commons, the Benton Park neighborhood attracted those who anticipated the city's expansion westward from the early riverfront settlements. By 1875, this area is shown in the Compton-Dry Atlas to be a semi-urbanized district noted for the many breweries, sinkholes and natural limestone caverns which honeycomb the vicinity. Of particular interest is the English Cave which is said to run underneath Benton Park all the way to the Lemp Brewery located three blocks to the south and four blocks to the east. It was this system of caves and their constant 55 degree temperature (ideal for beer storage) that encouraged brewers to settle in the area. All cave entrances, including the one in Benton Park, are now sealed.

With the breweries came a large influx of German immigrants and the architecture of this neighborhood owes much to the imagination and skills of its German masons. Many of the buildings are the work of German-born and trained architects who were heavily patronized by middle-class German residents. The majority, though, were built by south Saint Louis builders and contractors of German descent whose superb craftsmanship and command of materials are still evident. Most prevalent is the wide variety of ornamental brickwork that defines cornice lines, parapets, windows and doors as illustrated in buildings of all size and values. The Benton Park neighborhood contains many buildings designed in Queen Anne, Romanesque and Classical Revival styles, illustrating one of Saint Louis' finest and most complete inventories of ornamental detailing in terra cotta, pressed brick, stamped metal and cast iron materials produced by local industries.

By the early 20th century, Benton Park exhibited all the characteristics of a well developed urban immigrant neighborhood - public and parochial schools, ethnic churches, large breweries, beer gardens, corner saloons, groceries, bakeries and brickyards along with many other smaller industries. While the predominantly German in ethnic character, numbers of Czechs, Serbs, and Irish also lived in the area.

20th century changes began in the neighborhood with the Prohibition Era in 1919 as the end of the well established Lemp Brewery drew near. The massive brewery complex at the intersection of Lemp Avenue and Cherokee Street was sold to International Shoe-Company in 1922 for less than 10% of its pre-prohibition value of $7 million. Prohibition was the first of two consecutive depression eras for the neighborhood because of the area's dependency on the well-being of the breweries located there. After World War II the neighborhood suffered another blow with the demolition of its eastern edge for the Ozark Expressway (I-55) and the beginning of an influx of rural migrants. In 1953, the city conducted a housing survey which identified a portion of the Benton Park area as ideal for a model rehabilitation project. Residents agreed to participate by repairing their homes and the city spent more than $200,000 in street resurfacing, traffic control and park and playground improvements. Nonetheless, the neighborhood suffered a sharp decline in population between 1960 and 1975.

Fortunately for Benton Park, the excessive demolition that occurred in other areas of the city did not occur there, as its housing stock survived with unusually high structural density and little loss of integrity. Today, the vast majority of its streetscapes remain intact with little demolition, few intrusions and minor alterations to buildings. In the mid 1970s, with encouragement and support from neighborhood groups, not unlike that experienced in the Lafayette Square and Soulard neighborhoods, rehabilitation of the area was begun by both long-time residents and a number of new residents attracted by the prospect of a revitalized urban lifestyle in a historically significant neighborhood.

In 1976 Benton Park was selected as the first Saint Louis Location for a Neighborhood Housing Services program sponsored by the City of Saint Louis. By 1979 few dwelling units remained vacant and a precedent-setting project, the Senate Square Apartments, was underway on Senate and Congress streets - the area with the highest crime rate and most buildings owned by absentee landlords in the district. The buildings were acquired by a single entity and successfully rehabilitated into 126 apartments. Benton Park was also the first neighborhood to create its own Arts Council, doing so in 1980 in response to the large number of artists who call Benton Park home.

The 1980s continued to grace this historic south Saint Louis neighborhood with much progress. The summer of 1984 culminated years of effort in the renovation of Benton Park's reflecting ponds, its 1889 footbridge and tattered playground equipment, funded with Federal and City dollars totaling more than $300,000. Additionally, thanks to the diligence of the Landmarks Association of Saint Louis, December 30th, 1985 became the date that the Benton Park Neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic places as Missouri's largest Federal Register District. Such status creates incentives for real estate developers by providing them Federal investment tax credits for the substantial rehabilitation of historic commercial, industrial and residential rental property.

During 1985 the city provided the Benton Park neighborhood additional housing assistance under its Operation Impact program - a six pronged plan that concentrates blight fighting action in targeted neighborhoods. Under one phase of Operation Impact, blighting bills and redevelopment plans for vacant buildings in target areas are introduced to the Board of Alderman. If current property owners cannot or will not demonstrate the capacity and intention to rehabilitate their buildings, this process allows the city to acquire their properties for their fair market values and in turn sell them to individuals or developers interested in their renovation. The city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA Real Estate Inc.) is also involved in this program, lending their market expertise. The activities of both Operation Impact and LRA in Benton Park Neighborhood have accelerated its renaissance considerably as over 50 dilapidated, vacant and derelict buildings have been totally renovated into owner-occupied homes and townhomes.

One of the best known areas of the Benton Park neighborhood is the Cherokee Antique Row. Once a commercial hub serving the needs of the Lemp Brewery workers, the unique character of Cherokee Street was created by the blending of the Federal, Victorian and Richardsonian architecture. In the 1880s, the brewery trolley lines ran down Cherokee Street transporting the mostly German workers to the dry goods stores, butchers, tailors, milliners, saloons and many markets that lined the street. Today a new group of "immigrants" drive from miles around to visit Cherokee Antique Row to rediscover the charms of by-gone years in the antique shops that have replaced the merchants of the last century. The neighborhood also has its share of fine restaurants, such as Frazer's Traveling Brown Bag, Sidney Street Cafe and the DeMenil Mansion Restaurant.

The Benton Park Neighborhood Association, a mix of over 200 young and old residents, was founded in 1979 with the initial purpose of making improvements to the park, specifically the reflecting pools which had leaked into the cave system beneath them since the 1890s. Since its first project, the Association has expanded its scope to improving the entire neighborhood through annual tree plantings in the park and along neighborhood streets; participation in the city's annual clean-up and beautification effort, Operation Brightside; the ongoing crime prevention program, Operation Safestreet and the blight fighting program, Operation Impact. Marketing area housing, sponsoring neighborhood events such as the spring house tour, and raising funds for the production and installation of permanent street signs identifying Benton Park's boundaries, are all projects in which the Association is engaged.