Demolition Fire Midtown

Stairs to Nowhere

by Michael R. Allen

The limestone steps on August 28, 2005. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.
Grandel Square, known in the 19th century and early twentieth century as Delmar Avenue, once was one of Midtown’s populated residential streets. The Midtown area was settled as early as the 1850s, but was not subdivided with official streets until after the 1861 death of Peter Lindell, who owned much of the area. His Lindell’s Grove was subdivided by heirs and became a fashionable and somewhat bucolic retreat for wealthy and middle-class families eager to escape the polluted and overcrowded inner city.

By 1875, when Compton and Dry published Pictorial St. Louis, Midtown streets were lined with dense clusters of mansions on streets like Lindell and West Pine and stone-faced townhouses in Second Empire, Romanesque and Italianate styles on streets like Delmar, Olive and Westminster. Delmar’s residents were upper-middle-class to wealthy, building townhouses more lavish than those on neighboring streets but more restrained and smaller than the largest houses in the neighborhood. The wealthier residents used limestone to face their homes, while others used sandstone. The house at 3722 Delmar, built in 1884, was among the neighborhood’s most impressive townhouses, with an ornate Italianate style, pale limestone face and a three-story height.

The fashionable blocks of Midtown changed by 1900. Just as residential growth spread outward from downtown, so did commercial growth, Streetcar lines made it easy to live in Midtown — and to work there. Some of the older houses were purchased and demolished for new office buildings on Grand and Lindell, and the neighborhood’s character changed. Some observers saw Midtown becoming a second downtown, and the wealthiest residents began to flee further west.
A photograph from the Heritage/St. Louis architectural survey, taken around 1972, shows the house at the top of stairs. Apparently, it had recently caught fire and was in use as the “Grandel Square Hotel” in its last years.

By the 1930s, the neighborhood was scene to office buildings, hotels and the “Great White Way” of movie theaters. People crowded the streets day and night, even as the Great Depression’s arrival spelled the end of dramatic growth for the city. Houses remained, but many were converted into multi-family apartment buildings or rooming houses. The house at 3722 Grandel Square was one of the old townhouses that were carved up into a hotel. The other likely fates of the day — demolition, alteration by storefront addition — were actually worse. Even by the time of this house’s demolition, many other houses of this type in Midtown were long gone.

The house burned around 1970, and was demolished by 1975. The staircase from the sidewalk to the front door was not removed, though and remains to this day. The limestone steps have cracked and settled, making the once-elegant proposal of ascending an earthier endeavor. Those who climb the steps stand on a rugged lawn, no doubt still containing parts of the house pushed into the foundation during demolition.

Next door to the east, the Meriwether House — built by Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, a descendant of Meriwether Lewis — survives as one of the dozen or so single-family dwellings remaining in Midtown. (Around 1900, there may have been as many as 250 such buildings.) The Meriwether House, almost demolished in 1999, closely resembles the house that stood at 3722 Grandel Square, giving those who see the stairs to nowhere a good idea of where they once lead. The owners of the Merriwether House are completing a restoration and condo conversion that will brings its appearance and use full circle.

Now is again a good time for the Meriwether House. Photograph by Claire Nowak-Boyd (August 28, 2005).

The stairs next door, also owned by the Meriwether House’s owners, aren’t as likely to return to their former life. They may remain tentatively in place, but no more shall they lead to a Gilded Age manor. However, perhaps the stairs will bring awareness to newcomers that the Merriwether House is no singularity, and that Midtown once was something far from the sun-baked plain of asphalt and grass that it has become.