66 Through St. Louis: City Hall
This is the second in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.
Route 66 motorists who picked the City 66 alignment of the Mother Road wound up in the heart of St. Louis. When they pulled into downtown, they were greeted by a pink and orange, spire-covered structure seemingly dropped straight out of belle époque Paris. But while they snapped pictures and read about St. Louis City Hall in their tourist brochures, they probably never realized the headache involved in getting it built!
St. Louis mayor John Darby bought the site for the current city hall building from the Chouteau family back in 1840 for $25,000. Given the terrain's muddy, uneven state, it became known as Darby's Ditch. Soon the land was transformed into Washington Square Park, which featured a central fountain and provided much-needed open space downtown, but it took another five decades to erect a building.
So where was city hall at the time? It stood just a few blocks from its current site, at the corner of 11th and Market streets, and was much hated. At a time when St. Louis was popularly referred to as "the future great city of the world," residents viewed the building as an undersized, underwhelming, and outdated embarrassment. They even nicknamed it The Barn. (Sound familiar?)
In 1890 an architectural competition was announced to construct a new city hall building. Architect George G. Mann and draftsman Harvey Ellis won with their French Renaissance structure modeled after Paris’s city hall, the Hôtel de Ville. Construction began that summer, but without any bonds to finance the $2 million cost, the work limped along on annual handouts from the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Five years later, The American Architect magazine mocked St. Louis’s chaotic situation: “The new City Hall at St. Louis . . . now stands an empty skeleton, the sport of the elements. . . .” Despite the ridicule, construction dragged on.
In 1896 the lot beside the in-progress city hall building became the site of that year's Republican National Convention, where future U.S. president William McKinley was first nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. By the late 1890s, the still-unfinished structure was occupied for use, but the ultimate deadline was looming: the 1904 World’s Fair. Local architect Albert Groves scrambled to finish the rotunda and cascading marble staircase, and the at-long-last-completed St. Louis City Hall made its grand debut on November 5, 1904—less than a month before the Fair closed.
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian