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Landmarks Association preserves one of St. Louis' oldest buildings to use as its own

Jun 13, 2023

Nearly 200 years ago, workers gathered flat pieces of limestone, likely from the bluffs of the Mississippi River or a nearby creek bed. They stacked them up and built a little stone cottage, and added a single door and a window.

Maybe they used the home as a place to rest and eat while working in the surrounding fields owned by the Soulard family.

Andrew Weil, director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, poses in the doorway of the Soulard house' s original facade. The association, which is in the business of preserving historic buildings, has acquired and renovated one of the oldest in St. Louis for its own offices.

Over the years, a stone wing was added to the cottage. Then a brick second story. Then a brick building in front and another in back.

The building deteriorated. The crumbling, brick front wall nearly fell down. The sides bowed out. The last tenant moved out in 1980.

And now, the Landmarks Association, a longtime St. Louis nonprofit in the business of saving and preserving historic buildings, is moving in.

The cottage at the center of the complex, believed to be built sometime in the 1830s, is among the oldest in St. Louis. The association has spent the past three years preserving the property.

"It kind of fell in our lap. We weren't really knowing what we wanted to do," says association director Andrew Weil. "What we got was an opportunity to save a building that nobody else was going to save."

The original facade of the Soulard house once faced what is now Soulard Street.

The complex, at 1805 South Ninth Street within view of the historic Soulard Market, will serve as offices for Weil and his staff of two and a base for its 20-odd volunteers. It has a library for researchers, a classroom for presentations and field trips, and four refurbished apartments to add rental income. It also has a small courtyard that can be used for receptions or as a gathering spot before walking tours. The project cost nearly $1 million, a big lift for the small organization.

Landmarks has been homeless, so to speak, since 2019. For 10 years the organization had rented office space in the Lammert building downtown, Weil and his staff in windowless offices, but its lease ran out. They weren't sure where they wanted to move and ended up working at home before the pandemic made that the norm.

Then, they heard about this piece of property, owned by the group Youth Education & Health in Soulard. The group donated the property to Landmarks. It had owned the house since the early ’80s, when it was previously owned by generations of the Hesch family. Francis Hesch, a German immigrant who was a stonemason and bricklayer, had bought it from the Soulards in 1847. The building is referenced in the deed signed by Henry Soulard, the son of Marie Julia Cerre Soulard and Antoine Soulard.

The Ninth Street facade of the Soulard house, photographed on Feb. 22, is the new offices of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis in the Soulard neighborhood.

The Soulards lived nearby at the turn of the 19th century, before the neighborhood was laid out. A widowed Marie Julia Cerre Soulard donated the land now used for Soulard Market, as well as St. Vincent de Paul parish nearby, one of the oldest churches in the city. The cottage's front door faces north, not present-day Ninth Street that runs north and south.

"That means this building was here before the neighborhood was subdivided," says Weil. "So that's why I think it was built by the Soulards, or to be honest possibly their slaves or their agricultural workers. They had a shelter out in their rural lands so that the guys out there working, keeping track of the hogs or gathering hickory nuts or firewood or whatever, they didn't have to go back and forth and back and forth."

The property triangulates with two grander homes built by Henry Soulard and his parents, making Weil believe it served as a shelter in their fields.

Jordan Jones, a laborer with E.M. Harris Construction, scrapes residual paint from second-floor windows of the Soulard house on Feb. 22. This room will serve as the library for the Landmarks Association. Photo by Christian Gooden, [email protected]

Clues show the stone shelter's age: the smooth rock building, the oldest part, is surface limestone that appears more rounded and weather-worn. Quarried limestone is denser and angular — a stone addition to the original shelter is made of it, and you can see the difference.

Other details show its age. Wood is nailed by blacksmith-made forged nails instead of square cut nails made by machine starting in the 1870s. Sheeting boards in the attic are up to 28 inches wide, made from huge, dense, old-growth wood.

Gaps between the sheeting boards are there by design — when the wood shingles over them get wet, they expand, but the sun and the gaps in the boards help the air circulate and the shingles dry and contract. Now, there's modern roof paper in between, but the sheeting boards remain, along with a new shingled roof.

The thick wood beams show vertical kerf marks left by a reciprocating saw rather than a circular saw, which was used later in the 19th century. Landmarks left some of the beams exposed in a dormer so visitors can see them. They had a few historic photos of the building–rare and lucky finds–and referred to them to re-create window frames and shutters.

The original facade of the Soulard house, right, is attached to its newer portion, left, of the 1800 block of Ninth Street. The original section, built in the 1830s once faced what is now Soulard Street.

There are about eight fireplaces in the complex, all of them wide and wood-burning, built at a time when wood was plentiful. They did a bit of archaeological digging in the fireplace in the stone building, and found pieces of lamp glass, fragments of white clay pipes, oyster shells and bones from the wrist and feet of a pig, showing that the people who sat around the hearth and discarded the bones were likely working-class people who ate cheaper cuts of meat.

The complex and building itself is a "Frankenstein," but it works for Landmarks, says Weil. The location is good for groups who may come in buses and want to do a walking tour or visit Soulard Market, just steps away. And while the Landmarks board initially wanted to install a catering kitchen, Weil balked — he can hit 10 restaurants with a baseball from the front door, he says. "You’ve got the market, the bakery, the brewery," he says. "You’ve got the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. I think this is really good for us."

This home, shown in a photo likely from the 1890s, has been restored into the new headquarters of the Landmarks Association. The home is part of a complex at 1805 South Ninth Street in Soulard, and includes a stone building believed to be built in the 1830s. The group used this photo to re-create the windows and shutters.

Neil Putz, a longtime member of the Soulard Restoration Group who has researched several Soulard homes with his wife, Veronica, is thrilled by their new neighbor. He points out that the neighborhood has experienced a few ups and downs since the time of the Soulards, and that it was a run-down place in the 1970s before people moved in to renovate its stately mansions and working-class homes — an effort the Landmarks Association supported.

"They’ve done amazing things to bring it back," Putz says of the new headquarters. "It looks gorgeous, and I just can't wait until they open it. That places has seen better days, and really, its best days are ahead of it."

Weil adds that the building is sustainable for the organization in more ways than one — its parts won't go into a landfill, and the money made from the rental apartments will serve as an income stream.

"We’ve put our money where our mouth has been for a really long time," says Weil, "and kept this building alive."

"Soulard Settler's Cottage - Journey from Ruin to Renewal for an Abandoned Antebellum Home" presented by Landmarks’ Association of St. Louis Executive Director Andrew Weil.

He discusses the history of the property and the many fascinating things the buildings revealed during what can only be described as a transformational rehabilitation process.

This program is sponsored by the St. Louis Public Library's Steedman Architectural Library and the SAH-St. Louis and Missouri Valley Chapters.

This program was held on Nov. 15, 2022.

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Valerie Schremp Hahn is a features writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She has worked at the newspaper since 1997 as an education reporter, a courts reporter, and a police reporter.

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