Welcome to “You Should Move To…”, in which Lindsay travels the country scoping out beautiful, under-the-radar old house-filled cities and towns where big charm can be had for little cost. Have a city, town or neighborhood to recommend? Send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Welcome to December, a month of festivities and excitement! Be it the hustle-and-bustle of a local holiday market or the jovial chitter-chatter of get-togethers with friends and family: merriment abounds. Storefronts fill with cheery scenes of the season and lights seem to twinkle just about everywhere. If you’re lucky, you even get a magical snow-filled day or two. It’s the one month of the year that makes me love home like no other, and I relish the days I get to take a break from the busy world and cozy up inside, baking cookies, wrapping presents, or decorating the tree. This week, in honor of the season and, let’s face it, one of the best Christmas movies ever, I invite you to meet me in St. Louis — where the holiday home of your dreams awaits!
Some things just never get old.
Welcome to St. Louis, by far my favorite under-the-radar Christmas city. As my mom would say, I get “festive just thinking about it.” She happens to be the Queen of Christmas (she’s been listening to “Sleigh Ride” since August) so I don’t use those words lightly. I know, you’re thinking it hardly gets more festive than the Smith Family and Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in front of a frosted window, but the holiday spirit lives on in St. Louis today. I recommend attending the Historic Holiday Ball at the Old Courthouse where you’ll travel to Christmases past, dancing and sipping cider (so fill in your dance card early!), all while pretending to be Esther or Rose Smith, of course. If you’re into something a little more modern, cozy up to “Elf” at the dazzling 1929 Fabulous Fox Theatre, or head about an hour out of town to Kristkindl Markt, an authentic German Christmas market in the lovely historic town of Hermann. Better yet, stay close to home: grab your skates, and head over to Forest Park for some wintery outdoor skating.
The Lemp Mansion, all dressed up for the holidays. Image courtesy of LempMansion.com
Attend a Christmas ball under the rotunda in the Old Courthouse.
Of course, St. Louis is much more than a holiday wonderland. The city goes way, way back and has a captivating history. There’s no way I can do full justice to it here; I’ll leave that to the aficionados at the State Historical Society of Missouri, founded in 1899, and the Missouri History Museum, where you just can’t miss the exhibit on the 1904 World’s Fair. Here’s the long and the short of it: the area of present day St. Louis was inhabited as early as the ninth century and featured mound architecture so unique that it is preserved today as a world heritage site. In the seventeenth century French explorers began settling the area and by the mid eighteenth century a trading post–St. Louis–was established along the Mississippi River. Control of the settlement went back and forth between Spain and France for about half a century, but by the early nineteenth century St. Louis was a proud American city. With the arrival of the steamboat in the early 1800s (to this day still loyally huffing and puffing up the Mississippi) came a boom in population, and although the Civil War brought hard times on St. Louis, it was by the end of the century the fourth largest city in the country. St. Louis reached its peak population in the 1950s, but even so it wasn’t safe from the American Dream that lived in the suburbs. Decades of depopulation and disinvestment followed, and top down urban renewal projects threatened to destroy the once majestic city. By the 1980s the Gateway to the West had been described as a “premier example of urban abandonment…a ghost of its former self.” But we’re talking about a seventeenth-century city that lived through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There was no way suburbanization was going to be the end of a legacy.
The painted ladies of Lafayette Square. Image courtesy of theCity of St. Louis.
Does St. Louis have more mansard roofs than Paris? It’s a close call. Image courtesy of city-data.
Surely enough it wasn’t, thanks to folks that know how an old house can zing zing zing on the heartstrings. Groups like Old North Saint Louis Restoration Group, RISE, and St. Louis Rehabbers Club have been focused on the revitalization of St. Louis through the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings. Thanks to them, hundreds of affordable and beautiful old houses and apartments have made their way to the market in recent years. And their work has not gone unnoticed. In 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency awarded St. Louis the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the top category of Overall Excellence. Not only are these groups making a huge impact on neighborhoods throughout the city, they’re selling the pants off of St. Louis in general, with some areas seeing population increases of more than 20% in the last decade.
911 Soulard St, c. 1895. For sale for $149,900.
3826 Hartford St, c. 1904. For sale for $160,000.
What’s behind it all? Could it be the insanely inexpensive real estate available all over the city? Maybe. No doubt St. Louis is full of stellar deals (if you’ve got money for a new car consider yourself an old-house owner), but a good deal is nothing without atmosphere. Thanks to our hard working friends that love the city as much as we do, buyers get the best pick of nabes full of gorgeous old houses with a real sense of place and community. Love parks, gardens, farmers markets, food co-ops, art galleries? They know the revitalizing power of such amenities and have worked hard to integrate them into different neighborhoods throughout the city. Oh, and there’s an initiative with federal funding underway to bring back the Loop Trolley. I am a sucker for trolleys and I know that as an old house lover you are too. Soon enough we can all roll along Delmar Boulevard to over 140 boutiques, restaurants, and galleries singing “clang, clang, clang” and “ding, ding, ding,” I can hardly wait!
7016 Michigan Ave, c. 1860. $185,000.
Here’s the part where I’m really going to sell you on St. Louis, though I can’t imagine I haven’t already. Anyhoo, in case you’re still quavery-wavery about the big move, hear this: there are nineteenth century houses going for $1,000 at auction! How’s that for a dynamite deal? Prefer to steer clear of that whirlwind? Breathe easy: there are numerous other options for landing a deal, and with a typical going rate of under $100k, your mortgage will be about equal to a seventeenth-century peasant’s wage. St. Louis sounds like a good place to start saving for that summer cottage you’ve always wanted, right? Get packing! You’re almost neighbors with the world’s tallest arch.
4200 W Page Blvd, c. 1890. $35,000.
It’s hard to believe but the good tidings don’t stop there. (Do they ever?) For just about every rehabbed or cheap old house there’s something interesting to do to match, no matter what the time of year. Usually it’s easy to pick out the top-notch places to eat and drink, the must do activities, the can’t miss galleries and events, or the best place to find that one-of-a-kind thank you gift for your sister for watching your cat, but in St. Louis the choices are seemingly endless, which is confirmed by Amanda Doyle in her most recent book 100 Things to Do in St Louis Before You Die. If you don’t get your copy before you arrive I recommend picking one up from St. Louis’ very own independent bookstore, Left Bank Books, which I love to visit when I head to the historical Central West End ‘hood. When you’re done book shopping pop down the street to Bowood Farms and fill up at Cafe Osage. It won’t disappoint and you’re going to need lots of energy for your next stop south of downtown in the Cherokee Lemp Historic District. Welcome to Antique Row, six blocks full of more than 30 independently owned antique shops. That old house you just bought needs period furniture doesn’t it?! Not sure what to buy? Make your way to the Cass Gilbert-designed St. Louis Art Museum and get some inspiration from their Decorative Arts and Design Collection. And since you’re there you might as well check out the rest of the museum, including a fine collection of French Impressionist and German Expressionist paintings. I mean, you’re already there, right?
4126 Russell Blvd, c. 1904. $185,000.
Today possibility feels a bit unlimited in St. Louis, but its comeback has been slow and steady and owes to the dedicated souls that have fought for America’s first Olympic City come (as the Mississippi steamboat captain of yesteryear would say) hell or high water. Although its time as the fourth largest city in the country might be past, it’s headed for a new era of greatness, and I’d say now is as good a time as any to be a part of an impressive revival. In the words of Jane Jacobs (the Queen of Cities the way my mother is the Queen of Christmas): “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Is that not just the sort of reciprocity that screams Christmas spirit? Go get something and give something in St. Louis—you don’t want to be the person wishing you’d met me there!
OLD HOUSES FOR SALE IN ST LOUIS:
1229 Allen Market Ln, c. 1885. $154,900 (foreclosure).
2808 Arsenal St, c. 1883. $189,900.
2746 Miami St, c. 1883. $189,000.
4366 Vista Ave, c. 1884. $117,500.
2215 Menard St, c. 1885. $339,000.
3001 Rauschenbach Ave, c. 1890. $299,000.
2910 McNair Ave, c. 1892. $207,000.
3940 Nebraska Ave, c. 1896. $40,000.
937 Morrison Ave, c. 1880. $169,000.
2305 Saint Louis Ave, c. 1887. $250,000.
930 Morrison Ave, c. 1890. $225,000.
3701 Texas Ave, c. 1883. $125,000.
3142 Texas Ave, c. 1883. $169,900.
3220 Shenandoah Ave, c. 1894. $299,000.
3528 Pestalozzi St, c. 1904. $385,000.
2047 Geyer Ave, c. 1890. $322,500.
2723 Russell Blvd, c. 1891. $325,000.
1938 E Adelaide Ave, c. 1901. $129,900.
2036 Sidney St, c. 1890. $269,900.
1909 Virginia Ave, c. 1891. $115,000.
3715 Humphrey St, c. 1905. $337,000.
2628 Arsenal St, c. 1886. $174,900.
3806 Wyoming St, c. 1901. $335,000.
http://listings.listhub.net/pages/RMLSOR/12023913/?channel=zillow/“>5342 Reber Pl, c. 1910. $238,000.
AUTHOR LINDSAY RIDDELL
Lindsay is a Brooklyn, NY-based architectural historian with a soft spot for all things Victorian. Her obsession with beautiful houses began when she discovered her dad’s collection of house plan and construction books as a child, to which she attributes her enthusiasm for hunting down the most perfect wooden windows, most over-the-top gingerbread, and the most impressive arrangement of Minton Tiles.