Stone House Diary: Falling in love with a piece of St. Louis history
As a family, we have a passion for history. We like to drive through the old neighborhoods of St. Louis, our son navigating on Google Earth on the iPad, and we gaze upon hidden jewels. The brick is lustrous, and the architecture gives this city its soul.
Each time we see one of these old buildings come down, we feel like we have lost an old friend. One of our favorite Facebook pages is St. Louis History, Landmarks and Vintage Photos. We love comparing photos and learning about what St. Louis was and about its historical secrets. It was here we were first introduced to what was referred to as the “Joseph Motard House,” a little stone ruin on 1111 Missouri Ave. that was rumored to be built when St. Louis was ruled by Spain.
Lisa LaRose and her husband, Mike Schrand, operations and program manager for St. Louis Public Radio, have embarked on a mission to restore what is known in the Lafayette Square as the old stone house. They have a contract on the structure and hope to turn it into a museum about the early immigrants to the area. LaRose will provide periodic updates.
The image of that little stone house seemed to burrow its way into my brain. I couldn’t forget it. How could this be? An amazing historical artifact being left in desolation. I took my son to see it one day. It was sunny, and my son became fascinated with the little stone ruin. As we stood where the north wall once was and looked into the building, my son asked me what happened to it. I told him no one loved it anymore and it started to fall down.
My son said he was going to rebuild it and make it someone’s home. I told him what a sweet boy he was. But that wasn’t the end.
As a family, we began to talk about the building and started to fantasize about what it could be. Slowly we came to realize that we could possibly play a part in saving this place, to refortify it, and tell its story. We found ourselves driving by it more often, making a new friend.
We decided to start talking to friends in the preservation community who gladly lent their ears to hear us talk about our little idea. A museum should be there, one about the French settlers who originally came to St. Louis and built their houses of limestone with gallery porches, just like Pierre Laclède himself.
We decided to place an offer on the small property. It had been owned by the city for the last few years with no prospect for salvation. Our first hurdle was to meet with the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee and sell them on our idea. We met a group in a little coffee shop just off of Lafayette Park and told them our story and our idea. To our amazement, they too were excited about our idea and also had hoped that one day someone would step up and save the little stone house on Missouri Avenue.
They gave their support, gave us advice, and counseled us on what to expect for the journey on “preservation road.” To our delight, several residents of the area had been researching and collecting information on the house for years and were willing to share all of it with us. I may have not shown it, but my heart leaped.
After the meeting, information started rolling in from the neighborhood. Although I had been skeptical that the little house was built by Joseph Motard, I was surprised to find that the building was not of French influence but of German.
Its first residents were Peter Becker, a cooper, and his wife, Mary, who were German immigrants. They purchased the property in 1844, built the stone house and settled in. After living there for five years, they sold it in 1850 to another family of German immigrants, George and Margaret Anthes and their five children. The Anthes family resided in the little stone house for 56 years, adding a rear brick addition and doubling the living space. They also constructed three more buildings, two next door to the south, and one to the north. As of this day, the two buildings to the south stand and are private residences, the building to the north is gone; but the little stone house, a bit dilapidated, still stands.
This is not a story about the French, this is a story about the German immigrants whose influence played a large part in making St. Louis what it is today. This great migration forced the state of Missouri to order St. Louis to take the common ground just south and west of the city, divide it in parcels and begin selling it to these new Americans for homesteading. I learned that this was the beginning of Lafayette Square. Before the Victorian mansions, it was the common grounds, a prairie. The first houses were built of the limestone mined just yards away. All but two of these original stone houses are gone, our stone house being one of the survivors.
If there is anything we could ever do to give back to this city, I believe this is it. We can help save a little part of its soul and we can do it as a family. We have gotten to know many of the people who live in the area and are so grateful for their guidance and support. This little stone house is more than rock and mortar, it is a jewel box and it keeps revealing its historical gems to all of us as we dig to find its story.
Follow progress at www.beckerantheshouse.org and check back for more of the Stone House Diary, which will have new installments from time to time.