Drivers beware — trying to stay focused on the road is next to impossible in Lafayette Square – the neighborhood’s eye-popping splendor easily relinquishes one’s control over the steering wheel. St. Louis’ oldest historic district, and also a designated National Historic District, is located three blocks south of downtown, and 1.4 miles from the Gateway Arch.
Bordered by Chouteau Avenue on the north, Interstate 44 on the south, Truman Parkway on the east, and South Jefferson Avenue on west, this reclaimed urban community lives at the intersection of historically ornate and abundantly hip. Park your car for free and start enjoying the amenities, all located within a few blocks.
But first, get your color swatches out — the hues of the meticulously restored 150-year-old two- and three-story Victorian mansions are stunning. Bright yellow doorstrimmed in aqua blue and brown on one, salmon and turquoise on another; lime green and purple facades with ornate moldings painted light blue on yet another. They are so beautiful that Better Homes and Gardens recognized the neighborhood as one of the nation’s 12 prettiest painted places in 2012. These stately homes, commonly referred to as the “painted ladies,” surround the lush 30-acre Lafayette Park, itself an oasis of beauty. And it’s claim to fame? Dedicated in 1851, Lafayette Park is the oldest urban park west of the Mississippi.
Like a picture out of a Victorian novel, the park’s flowers, natural grasses, towering trees, waterfalls, fountains and iconic iron bridges provide a peaceful backdrop and respite. The original iron and stone fence erected in 1869 still encircles the park’s perimeter. Its history and beauty define its charm. Along the self-guided historical walking tour, visitors will pass the athletic field, which served as a military parade ground in 1858; a bronze statue of George Washington created in 1869 by French Sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon; a circular horse watering trough-turned planter; and a music pavilion with the original base from 1896, among numerous other notable landmarks. In days of yore, Victorians rowed around the park’s main lake in swan boats. Today, the swan house and fountain are reproductions of the Victorian originals.
The park is also the home for the Saint Louis Perfectos and the Lafayette Square Cyclones, a baseball club that plays by the rules and customs of the 1860s. Visit the first weekend in June and celebrate the Shepard Barclay Festival, the club’s premier event of the season.
In addition to the private residences surrounding the park, the neighborhood’s French Second Empire and Federalist architectural structures house two craft breweries; specialty shops; Park Avenue Coffee, which features original small-batch blends; quirky and one-of-a-kind restaurants; yoga and art studios; wine, chocolate and rooftop bars; a bistro; and a creamery.
- Meet a sommelier and taste a few of the more than 700 wines available at 33 Wine Shop & Bar;
- A few doors down is Square One Brewery, located in Christopher Schumacher’s original tavern built in 1883. The building was later acquired by Anheuser-Busch and operated as a “tied house,” serving products exclusively made by the brewery, an old English tradition. Today, the brew house brews and distills a variety of award winning pilsners, stouts, ales, whiskeys and rums. Make sure to sit on the patio next to the 15-foot stone wall and brick fountain;
- If you prefer sweeter alcoholic choices, visit Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Creamery, a modern micro-creamery that serves small-batch ice cream flavors, with alcohol-infused options.
- Four Muddy Paws healthy pet market sells freshly cooked treats and allows you to self-serve wash your own dog or cat;
Peruse laser engraved family trees platters, pillowcase dresses for toddlers, leather wallets made from baseball gloves and other rare finds at Looking Glass Gifts and Jewelry;
- Eat and drink at SqWires restaurant, located in the former Western Wire Factory, a picture-perfect renovation of an old Victorian building. From the handcrafted steel fireplace and leather banquette seating to the industrial ceiling fans and exposed brick and beams, the restaurant is a mecca for foodies into oysters, Bloody Mary’s, weekend brunches, and smoked brisket. Local blues and jazz musicians play regularly;
- The block long plaza in front of SqWires, complete with gardens, park benches and a splashing fountain, is a gathering place for local events.
Annual neighborhood festivities include an antique fair (June); Cocktails on the Plaza (July); Movies in Lafayette Park (summer); Taste of Lafayette (August); Tour De Lafayette/Gateway Cup Bike Race (Friday before Labor Day); Tricks & Treats on Park (Saturday before Halloween); the Holiday Tree Lighting (second Saturday in December); and the Holiday Market (second Sunday in December), which features roasted chestnuts, spirits and crafts.
But back to those colorfully “painted ladies.” Twice each year, the residents open their homes to the public for the ever-popular Spring and Garden Tour (first weekend in June) and the Lafayette Square Holiday Parlor Tour (second Sunday in December).
Visitors even have the option to stay in one of these gloriously painted homes. Three bed and breakfasts inns – Park Avenue Mansion, Napoleon’s Retreat, and Lehmann House – welcome guests year round. They feature 12-foot carved front doors, garden courtyards, champagne breakfasts, canopy beds, and French terry cloth robes, among other amenities. Pamper yourself, Victorian style.
Whatever you choose — color your world in Lafayette Square.