Against the backdrop of patrons sampling wine, dining on appetizers, sampling an Espresso or listening to the band on the Station Plaza’s stage, the frequent sound of a train horn permeates the air, increasing in volume until the bright yellow freight engines and passenger trains come into view and either pass through or stop directly in front of them.
Passenger trains — from downtown St. Louis, too — stop several times daily at the historic station in the heart of the hustle and bustle of downtown Kirkwood. As the porter helps passengers with their belongings, visitors to the quaint custard stand next door, are mesmerized by the action. The conductor toots the horn, casually waves to all from his engine window, and the train continues past the row of century-old buildings, a gift store housed in a caboose, a former feed store and hatchery, the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market and the historic three-story City Hall with its four prominent stone pillars and tall white spire, all nestled alongside the tracks. Dinners, drinks and ice cream licks resume.
No, it’s not 1893, the year the endearing station was built and nearly 40 years after the first train arrived on the Pacific Railroad, when this railroad community sprang to life. But here in Kirkwood, centrally located in the middle of the two main arterial highways leading to downtown St. Louis, 14 miles away, the city’s historical roots have a pervasive influence on this eclectic neighborhood of 27,000. Those hundred-year-old buildings? Today they house some of the neighborhood’s more than nearly 40 hip restaurants that range from coffee shops to fine dining, as well as boutique stores galore.
Two- and three-story Victorian, Tudor and Italianate villa style homes that date back to the 1860-70s and feature beautifully shaped gables, extensive wrap-around front porches, screened verandas, all on expansive wooded lots, surround the 16 square blocks of the downtown business district. The area, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is also home to the decades-old Kirkwood Farmers’ Market.
Park your car for free and stay. As residents say, if you don’t already live here, it’s the place to visit. This walkable enclave will keep you entertained with plenty to do. If you prefer, you can also ride the new Kirkwood Connector, a free electric cab service, which ferries visitors and residents from one downtown hotspot to another Thursday through Saturday evenings. Riders can either signal to the driver or call for a ride (314-252-8889); payments and tips are not expected.
But back to the offerings. There’s the history, of course, and you can learn more about it at Mudd’s Grove, the 150-year-old stately red brick house that is home to the Kirkwood Historical Society and host of numerous events. The site is named in honor of Henry T. Mudd who helped frame the Missouri Constitution of 1875, served in the state legislature and as curator of the University of Missouri. Free tours of the house and museum are offered on select days.
Immerse yourself in the shopping and dining experiences that continue to draw visitors on a daily basis. The area is home to more than 100 specialty shops and restaurants whose owners and staff often welcome customers by name as they enter. With regard to the stores, think A to Z – from adventure supplies to zebra-striped clay pots — and all with cool names: The Bug Store, Paperdolls Boutique, Blush Boutique, Clay & Cotton, Grapevine Wines, Head to Toe Dancewear, Lass and Laddie, O.K. Hatchery Feed and Garden Store, the Sugar Shack, Rusted Chandelier, sammysoap, and Pottery Hollow, to name a few.
But if you’re in to farm to table, fresh flowers, pumpkin patches, and the smell of freshly cut pine needles during the holidays, the farmer’s market is your spot. The market, which serves a cornerstone for the community as a place to eat, shop and gather with friends, hosts events throughout the year, including Tunes at Ten (Saturdays, May – September), the Peach Festival (July), Pumpkin Patch and Harvest Festival (October), and the Christmas Tree Lot and Gingerbread Shoppe. The market is also home to Tropical Moose, St. Louis’ premier snow cone and shaved ice stand (May through Labor Day). It’s well worth the wait on a hot summer day, and there’s even a shave ice special on the menu for Fido.
Other downtown Kirkwood celebrations and festivals include the Route 66 Festival-Cars & Guitars (June); the Halloween Walk during which the stores and restaurants distribute treats to children; the Holiday Walk that features Santa’s arrival and trolley rides, and Small Business Saturday (November); and free Photos with Santa sessions at the historic train station (December). Numerous exhibits and summer camps, along with hundreds of interactive exhibits can be explored at the “kid-approved” Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, just a short walk from the downtown area.
Sports fans – Kirkwood has you covered. The city’s competitive Thanksgiving Day football game between the Kirkwood Pioneers and neighboring Webster Groves Statesmen high school football teams is now in its 103rd year. Yep, 103 years of passing the pigskin. The Frisco Bell trophy, a bell from a retired locomotive, passes to the winner each year. Turkey Day, as the celebration is referred to, not only encompasses the football game but the festivities held the week prior to it, including the Chili Bowl Cook-off, the Turkey Day 5K run, pep rallies, and a Friendship Dance hosted and attended by students from both schools. The game itself draws thousands of fans each year and has been recognized nationally by both ESPN and Sports Illustrated.
Fourteen parks offer a variety of outdoor fun. The oldest, 92-acre Kirkwood Park, features the Kirkwood Community Center, the Recreation Station Ice Arena, Aquatic Center, Racquet Club, playground, picnic pavilions, athletic fields, handball courts, horseshoe pits, concession stand, hiking trails and a community garden. The park also offers a summer concert series at the Lions’ Amphitheater and fishing at Walker Lake. Stages St. Louis, a theater company, plays to sold-out crowds at Reim Theatre, currently within the park’s boundaries, however, groundbreaking for a new 500-seat performing arts center will begin soon.
Another park, Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, is comprised of 112-acres of oak hickory forest in a quiet corner near Kirkwood’s southern border. An oasis of tranquility, visitors can hike along the numerous trails, as well as explore the two levels of exhibits in the nature center.
And when you’re through with your day, grab a table in the plaza, sit back, order something to satisfy your palette, and just wait to hear it…the low rumble and squeak of wheels on a track, whistle blowing.