A little corner in McKinley Heights offers a rare look into to the French Colonial period in St. Louis
A small piece of land still exists northeast of the now busy intersection of Gravois and Jefferson Avenues. It has a history that dates back to the French colonial days of St. Louis. If you walk or drive down one of these main roads, the view of this still quiet little triangle of land is blocked by the shop windows on the north side of Gravois. But turn the narrow streets, some of the shortest in town – even streets with names – and a whole new world opens up in front of the visitor.
The story of this little corner of what is now McKinley Heights begins with a French naval captain, Pierre François DeVolsey. On September 17, 1767, he was granted 240 arpents (about 203 acres) in the Petit Prairie south of Madame Chouteau’s estate – at least so his lawyer Jean Pierre Cabanné told a board of three commissioners after the territory became part of the United States. According to the minutes of February 15, 1833, the three commissioners agreed and affirmed the rights of the DeVolsey heirs to the land. His case was one of many the United States has negotiated, and they have not always sided with the applicant.
Just a few years later, in 1848, the country was divided into the Devolsey Addition, bounded by Shenandoah to the north, Gravois to the southeast, and Jefferson to the west. But originally, like much of the city east of Grand Boulevard, the private developers had chosen different names that were later standardized in the late 19th century. Victor Street was Devolsey, Gaine Street was High, and Indiana Street was Blow. Charless Street remains, although the school of the same name has been demolished and Devolsey has moved to a short section outside Gravois. Across that broad street, what is now Cushing Street (and not much more than an alley) in Benton Park was originally Cabanne Street, undoubtedly a reference to the DeVolseys’ business relationship with Jean Pierre Cabanné. The alley behind Gravois is officially signed as Beauty Alley. Gaine Street is little more than a country road or alley.
Expanding at the junction of Gravois and Jefferson in 1848 was a risky undertaking. The St. Louis Commons were not used for agriculture but for grazing. It was littered with sinkholes and was widely viewed by contemporaries as a kind of wasteland. Certainly the karst topography was economically valuable in providing storage caves for the Lemps, George Schneider, and the Stumpfs. But Compton and Drys 1876 Pictorial St. Louis gives us an amazing picture of what happened in the Devolsey Addition: there was actually a dense little village that had sprung up between the sinkholes and ponds. In connection with the Fairview Addition of 1848 south of Gravois, perhaps several hundred people lived in the rectangular area formed by the area bounded by Jefferson, Shenandoah, Victor, and McNair.
And if you look carefully, while most of these houses have disappeared, there are still some very old survivors hiding out in public. These buildings could be some of the oldest houses in St. Louis that are at least 160 years old. The good news is that some of these survivors have been restored and are now inhabited by devoted owners. They will continue to provide us with a window into St. Louis’s interior design revolving around the Civil War. But many others are abandoned, threatened with demolition, and deserve to be recognized for their historical significance.
One of my favorite buildings in the area is a back alley that sits at the back of a lot that faces Shenandoah. But the alley is Gaine Street, so is it really a back alley? Regardless, the house is an amazing example of native architecture with a two-story porch that faces north. If you look carefully there is even a narrow door that leads to the attic. The earlier density of the neighborhood is also evident as the ghost outlines of a house that once stood in the west can be clearly seen in the wall. In much of America, alleyways or second buildings on lots have been banned, making this house all the more rare and valuable.
I have written about the rare half-flounder houses that are scattered around the city center, and there are quite a few on Gaine Street that are remnants of what used to be much more. Some of them are still occupied, and there is at least one example of a “double flounder” where two are built right next to each other, creating a hipped roof. But there is also a couple that is abandoned and wrapped in overgrowth. There’s something about the simple geometry of these homes that appeals to me, and property records show that many of them have an off-site lot that opens up opportunities for large gardens. The area is perhaps thirty meters from Gravois, but traffic noise is blocked by the storefronts in between.
As the city grew into a village, the small houses were torn up and replaced with urban living arrangements that were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further additions were made to the north and west, and the old street names were merged into the State Street naming system. But remnants of the South Side’s rural past, when this was once the St. Louis Commons, still exist in this secluded and quiet corner of McKinley Heights.