Pierre de Laclede’s de Liguest’s 1764 design for the city of Saint Louis was unusually complex, with ruler-straight streets and identical street-blocks set at exact right angles. Maps from 1780 show an orthogonal (perpendicular) urban plan, with a single central square open to the Mississippi River. The street-blocks of Saint Louis were organized along a longitudinal axis that ran parallel to the river and a pronged perimeter wall contained the entirety of the frontier city. By any measure, the highly ordered grid plan worked well. Laclede’s town grew quickly, trade flourished and the citizens thrived in peace and semi-independence. In his book, Montreal in Evolution, Dr Jean-Claude Marsan suggested that, like Montreal, Saint Louis had “the legacy of a medieval mentality” but few historians connected Laclede’s rigid mathematical urban design to the city’s subsequent triumphs. In fact, a well-known medieval planning and socioeconomic logic was embedded in the aesthetic details of Laclede’s initial plan for Saint Louis. An examination of Laclede’s urban design components reveals a striking similarity between his urban design and the pragmatic, geometric planning concepts used to establish hundreds of French bastides in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Established both as business accelerators as well as an imperial means of rapidly urbanizing disputed or uninhabited territories, hundreds of medieval bastides were built in southwestern France, Laclede’s home district. According to Dr Wim Boerefijn, from the University of Amsterdam:
From the 12th to the first half of the 14th century, many towns were created in the region of Aquitaine in southwest France. A group of new settlements, which are known from contemporary sources as ‘bastides’, were created from about 1230 to 1350 by various landlords [including Kings]. This group consisted of more than 350 new towns, many of which were quite small, meant for about fifteen families, while some were quite large, planned for up to 3,000 families.
Laclede grew up in the Aquitaine region of France, then known as the province of Bearn and his plans for Saint Louis incorporated both the main design and socioeconomic components of the French bastide system. As a well-born, well-educated young Frenchman, the future town planner must have visited dozens of medieval bastides in the foothills around his hometown of Bedous. His uncle was a leading history scholar and Laclede may have discussed the theoretical basis of bastides with his uncle. However the young military man learned the art of urban planning, there is strong evidence that Laclede had a deep, almost intuitive sense of the urban design theories of his era. His fondness for the planning devices of Bastide Monpazier and Bastide Lalinde, above other examples, suggests that he studied those medieval towns, either through personal inspection or through books.
While the bold, right-angle geometry of Monpazier was often cited as the bastide that influenced colonial town planning, in fact Bastide Lalinde’s long organizing spine and three-sided central square facing the river made it the most likely model for not only 1764 Saint Louis, but also for New Biloxi (1711), New Mobile (1721) and New Orleans (1725). Before making his way up the Mississippi River to found the city of Saint Louis, Laclede spent seven years on the Gulf coast, presumably frequenting all three French Louisiana capital cities.
Closely resembling the urban design of Bastide Lalinde, all four of the abovementioned French Louisiana cities were organized along a longitudinal axis that ran the length of the town to the fortification walls. Although the use and focus of the central squares differed among the four cities, the geometry was consistent. The main axis ran across the bottom of the central square. Similar to medieval bastides, life in the French Louisiana cities was deliberately planned around a central town square. The Louisiana central squares were symbolically positioned at the exact centers of the cities, following the design fashion of the 18th century, contrary to the central squares of the bastides, which were usually located off center.
Medieval Bastides were built to protect and centralize regional trade which is why markets, rather than churches, sat on the French bastide town square. Additionally, Laclede constructed his trading center, his house, at the head of the town square. Even more significantly, he adhered to the original bastide characteristics when he placed the main church for Saint Louis one block off of the square. This was a significant departure from what Laclede has seen in the capital city of New Orleans where the official French planners placed the church at the head of the central square, possibly following the Spanish urban codes of the day.
In one dramatic refinement of the medieval formula, Laclede and the other planners of French Louisiana specified nearly square street-blocks, rather than the long rectangular blocks of the bastides. It was thought that the equal blocks added to a sense of egalitarianism and freedom for the new towns. Nearly square blocks were made fashionable by a famed French planner. As Rouhlan Toledano noted in her book, A Pattern Book of New Orleans Architecture, “New Orleans administrators and engineers…followed customs set by French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).” An expert fortification designer, Vauban had been King Louis XIV’s defense and colonization genius and his methodologies were published a thick volume of his planning practices. Vauban was widely imitated throughout the colonial global French Empire in the 18th century, especially his urban symmetry, square blocks and triangulated fortification walls for the new town of Neuf Brisach (1699).
Laclede was a great book collector. It’s possible that he studied Vauban’s design books in order to borrow his rigidly geometric grid, nearly identical block dimensions and pronged stockade walls. Or perhaps he merely lifted the designs from his knowledge of New Orleans, New Biloxi and New Mobile. In any event, compared to the official French military engineers, Laclede’s design decisions for Saint Louis were independent and somewhat iconoclastic.
As the founder of the new frontier town, Laclede evidently had plenty of leeway in its design and enjoyed similar freedoms when he established the commercial focus and semi-autonomous governance for Saint Louis. Though he lacked training as a town founder, Laclede managed to launch a spectacular boom town, one that brought unprecedented prosperity to the region. Intriguingly, when he devised the community plan for Saint Louis, he followed many of the socioeconomic tenets of the 13th century bastides. Like the medieval Kings and Lords of the bastides, the founder of Saint Louis used subsidies in the way of land grants, loans and business introductions to attract desirable settlers to his new town. He intentionally planned Saint Louis as an import/export business accelerator, using the entrepreneurial mentality that had civilized the once wild frontier of southwestern France.
Laclede demonstrated an extraordinary talent for recruiting clever, well-mannered and well-cultured French, French-Canadian and Creole settlers to his new, multi-cultural river city. His offerings attracted French families by the dozens and simultaneously, Laclede negotiated lucrative, mutually beneficial import/export agreements with dozens of Native American tribes living around Saint Louis. He had a natural skill for establishing trade relationships among many different nationalities.
Indeed, according to Dr Fred Fausz, an authority on French Colonial Saint Louis, Laclede’s ability to establish a longstanding, collaborative relationship with the Native American tribes set him apart from other frontier town founders. Dr Fausz:
St. Louis is absolutely distinctive because it was an Indian capital – the center of Midwestern Indian diplomacy [with] at least 32 tribes [visiting] every year. 131 Indian tribes gathered in Saint Louis in 1781 for a conference.
Like many of the bastides in France, the site for Saint Louis had thirty foot high bluffs which protected the site from both floods and attacks. There was a clear, fresh water creek behind the bluffs. Dr Wim Boerefijn:
Another motive, which we know played a significant role in the foundation of a number of bastides, was to provide protection to travellers on through roads [and river ways] and to the inhabitants of a region from bands of robbers and possibly also from hostilities by the inhabitants of neighbouring settlements. In general, the plans are quite regular in the layout of their streets, piazzas and allotments, which suggests that they were planned more or less precisely.
Laclede planned and developed Saint Louis with well-informed precision. Thirty two years after the French founder designed his gridded city and recruited the first residents, Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of re-establishing the French Empire and sent General Victor Collot to the Ohio and Mississippi valleys to survey the existing French colonial towns. Napoleon charged Collot with the task of surveying the former French holdings, still operating in North America.
On his part, General Collot was not impressed with any of the frontier towns– except for Saint Louis. He wrote:
The position of St Lewis, considered in a military point of view is one of the best on the river Mississippi. If it were put in a respectable state of defense, it would cover Upper Louisiana, and prevent every [eruption] by the Upper Mississippi, the Illinois and the Missouri; commanding at the same time, the Western States and Upper Canada.
St Lewis can also oppose every [eruption] from the Ohio against the New Madrid. It is at St Lewis that a stop may be put to the invasions and usurpations of England.
Though he never mentioned Pierre Laclede, General Collot greatly admired the city of Saint Louis. The renowned General noted the social success of the ordered city, its manners and culture as well as its military possibilities. Other geopolitical forces prevented Napoleon from attempting to retake his French Empire, but Collot conveyed the impression that Saint Louis would have made an excellent French Capital, if the French Empire were to be reestablished.
Pierre de Laclede de Liguest would have been proud to hear the city of Saint Louis praised by General Collot and possibly Napoleon. His entrepreneurial city retained its commercial character which made it one of the fastest growing cities in the 19th century. Laclede’s Saint Louis may have lost some of the multicultural and cosmopolitan character he intended, but with this new understanding of the link between Saint Louis and 13th century bastides, perhaps some of the more tolerant and cosmopolitan characteristics can be revived.
With grateful acknowledgement to Isabelle Heidbreder, Director of the Alliance Francaise in Saint Louis, for her generous time and translations.