Clayton Is Exhibit A in the Rapid Shift from Historic to Modern Suburbs
The Great Divorce of 1876, initiated by the city of St. Louis, necessitated the need for a county seat for freshly minted St. Louis County. City residents, objecting to the rising cost of expansion in St. Louis County and none too pleased with the state legislature’s control and influence over urban affairs, craved independence from their “countrified” neighbors. As nearly 80 percent of the area’s voting base resided in the city, the split passed, though narrowly.
Neighboring communities of Kirkwood and Florissant both threw their hats into the ring for consideration as the county seat, but county commissioners preferred to build the courthouse on a plot of farmland west of Hanley Road and north of Clayton Road recently donated to the county by two native Virginian farmers, Ralph Clayton and Martin Hanley. County residents agreed in a December 1877 vote.
As Clayton’s 100-acre donation to the county made up the great majority of the city limits, the area around the courthouse would bear Clayton’s name as per conditions of the donation. On April 19, 1878, construction began on the St. Louis County courthouse. Clayton, originally a settler of the land in the 1830s, passed away in 1883.
Image courtesy of Carmen Troesser.
Although Clayton wasn’t incorporated as a city until April 1913, it was a self-sufficient, self-governed community for decades prior. After its formal incorporation, the city quickly became a trendy and desirable destination for well-to-do city dwellers who wanted a nearby haven to escape the rat race of the city. In the first half of the 1920s, Clayton’s population more than doubled, rising above 7,000, and its property values more than tripled.
Clayton wasn’t exempt from the effects of the Great Depression, but the suburban county seat’s lack of manufacturing and industry somewhat protected it from a complete bottoming out during the 1930s.
Orthodontist Leo M. Shanley, a fresh graduate eager to establish his own practice, approached noted architect Harris Armstrong in 1934 about commissioning the design of a new office at 7800 Maryland Ave., north of City Hall. Inspired by what he saw after attending that year’s Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, Shanley wanted his practice to combine an open, light and healthy atmosphere with a bold and progressive aesthetic.
Armstrong’s 1935 creation, known as simply the Shanley Building, is generally recognized as the first International Style building in the Midwest and one of the earliest Modernist buildings in the region. Its presence makes known a sharp juxtaposition in an area whose obsession throughout the 1930s with traditional brick left little room for International Style experimentation.
Image courtesy of the Society of Architectural Historians.
The building, also featuring one of the earliest American uses of glass brick, cost three times as much as the construction of a typical dental office. The building remained a dental office through the early 1990s before becoming the home of a private-sector DMV office. Today, the Shanley building is best contextualized as a pre-WWII entry on the National Register of Historic Places fighting off nearby rapid commercial development and currently under imminent threat of demolition for a mixed-use project.
In the 1940s, the post-WWII suburb boom across America saw Clayton grow from a quaint suburb to the leader of the St. Louis metropolitan area, as growth slowed in the St. Louis city limits.
Perhaps the best representation of this era in Clayton’s architectural and cultural history is its Famous-Barr building on the intersection of Forsyth Boulevard and Jackson Avenue. Constructed in 1948 for a staggering $2.75 million, it’s considered to be the first department store in the area to make the move from Downtown to the city suburbs. The building’s sensual curves, matched by the natural curve of Forsyth Boulevard, give it an International Style appeal, while its spacious open-air courtyard, perfectly geometric windows and window displays floating like TV sets provide a “Jetsons”-esque Atomic Age allure.
Famous-Barr closed the store in 1991 in light of competition from the nearby Galleria mall, and Washington University took over the building in the year following, becoming a great patron for the building’s preservation, using the space to house a combination of administrative offices and libraries.
Image courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.
In 1952, Clayton re-zoned its 104-acre Central Business District, allowing for larger commercial and retail expansion. And five years later, in 1957, the city eliminated height limitations on new buildings, clearing the way for greater density and greater buildings. By the early 1960s, the county’s population had surpassed the city’s, and the suburb’s first office towers opened, becoming immediately popular with tenants before construction had even finished—and establishing much of the identity which the city retains today.
The 1970 construction of the Sevens Building and second tower of the Pierre Laclede Center complex, 24 and 23 floors, respectively, were milestones for the city and further set in motion the trend of area businesses relocating to Clayton’s spacious office spaces. The 19-story Interco Tower, completed in 1986, provided a welcomed modernist aesthetic to the skyline. Today, the city of Clayton possesses millions of square feet of office space; the Laclede Center alone holds nearly 580,000 square feet.
Early 2018 saw Clayton boast the highest per-capita development numbers of anywhere in the Midwest, thanks in large part to Centene’s massive $770 million global headquarters campus expansion project, the 458,000-square-foot Shaw Park Apartments, the 26-story Two Twelve Clayton building and a reimagining of Chapman Plaza at Shaw Park.
Image courtesy of Carmen Troesser.
Modern-day Clayton is a center for government and business, yet it also offers a true residential core and a healthy pedestrian environment; 80 percent of the city land is either residential or city park. It’s a destination for shopping and food as well. Helmed by eateries such as Pastaria, Sardella, Herbie’s, Half & Half and Tani Sushi Bistro, Clayton’s Central Business District boasts an impressively high number of noteworthy restaurants.
Yet the juxtaposition of modern and historic lingers. Martin Hanley’s 1855 house at 7600 Westmoreland Ave.—the oldest structure in the city of Clayton—still functions as a historic museum on the downtown’s edge, a reminder of just how quickly a landscape can change. Not only did Clayton not possess its signature skyline until just roughly 50 years ago, but go back another three generations, and the suburb was undeveloped farmland, a fringe community on the outskirts of a booming metropolis.
Featured image courtesy of Carmen Troesser.
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