Preservation and Progress: Exploring the History of Shaw and Botanical Heights
When 18-year-old Henry Shaw left his native England, his initial landing point wasn’t St. Louis. Instead, it was eastern Canada, where he accompanied his father, Joseph, on a business trip to Quebec in 1818. Evidently impressing with his business acumen, the senior Shaw sent his son on a solo business trip to Louisiana later the same year, with an eye on setting up a long-term business in the state. But Henry Shaw didn’t stick around in Louisiana; it’s understood he disliked the humid climate and thought little of the state’s economic prospects.
Seeing opportunity at a then-small and remote but well-situated trading post at the edge of the New Frontier, Shaw departed for St. Louis in 1819, arriving via the Maid of New Orleans on May 3. With the town’s built environment reportedly just three blocks deep at the time, a curious Shaw set out via horseback for a half-day voyage westward out of town. Riding past the sinkholes and marsh, Shaw soon found himself taken aback by the beauty of elevated land overlooking a prairie. “Covered with tall luxuriant grass, undulated by the gentle breeze of spring,” Shaw would write about the untouched area.
Shaw opened a hardware and cutlery store in the city, offering high-quality goods often imported from his uncle James Hoole in Sheffield, England. The store proved to be an absolute boon for Shaw, as St. Louis’ role in the developing nation was multifaceted; not only was St. Louis a bustling, developing city of its own, but it was also the last stop for caravans heading out West. As the business grew, Shaw used profits to buy some thousand acres of land on the city’s outskirts, including the plot of land he first fell for on horseback in 1819.
Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park
By 1840, Shaw’s business had done well enough that he took the opportunity to retire at the age of 40, freeing up time for his interests of traveling and botany. Shaw made three extended stays abroad over the next decade, his last including a trip to London’s Great Expedition of 1851. While there, Shaw was struck by the magnificence of the private gardens at Chatsworth House, and it dawned on him that he possessed the resources to build something similar on the land surrounding his country home, Tower Grove House, in his adopted city of St. Louis.
In the latter half of the 1850s, Shaw worked with leading botanists on the planning, funding and development of the land around Tower Grove House to create a garden that rivaled the ones he’d seen in Asia and Europe. As the garden grew, Shaw decided to turn the private garden into a public one, and, in 1859—40 years after his arrival in St. Louis—he founded the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Today, the garden is a center for botanical research, conservation and science education. It’s also the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation. The National Historic Landmark features 79 acres of beautiful horticultural displays, including a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden and the largest Japanese garden in North America. Its herbarium is the continent’s second largest. And, each October, the garden is the site of the Best of Missouri Market, featuring the goods of more than 120 regional food producers and artisans.
Shaw also owned a 289-acre parcel of land adjacent to the garden. In 1868, he approached St. Louis Mayor James S. Thomas with the offer to donate this even-larger chunk of land to the city as a public park, on the belief that parks are “conducive to the health and happiness of [a city’s] inhabitants and to the advancement of refinement and culture.” Shaw further protected the vision for what is today Tower Grove Park by mandating that the land “shall be used as a park forever” and that an “annual appropriation” be made by the city for the park’s maintenance.
The influence from Shaw’s time spent abroad is illustrated by the park’s Victorian architecture. In addition to countless picnics, parties, soccer matches and kickball games, the park has been host to the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market—featuring more than 60 weekly vendors—since 2006.
The garden and park, as well as the surrounding Shaw neighborhood, are home to a number of St. Louis’ finest cultural events, such as the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park, the Historic Shaw Art Fair on Flora Place and the Botanical Garden’s Japanese Festival, as well as numerous restaurants and shops including SweetArt, Future Ancestor and Fiddlehead Fern Café.
First secured by the French as a settlement known as “Prairie des Noyers,” the area today known as Botanical Heights saw rapid expansion in the latter half of the 19th century due to the advent of the cable car, increasing the speed of travel between the community and the city.
Decades after being distributed from the French, large sections of the area’s land were sold to a subdivision developer in 1888, and 400-plus homes begin to fill in the space shortly thereafter, building up the area until roughly 1930. These homes set the foundation for what would become the culturally diverse McRee Town neighborhood. The variety of housing options available drew a large mix of St. Louisans to the community.
Unlike many areas of St. Louis, McRee Town initially resisted the rapid changes of suburbanization and urban population loss of the 1950s and ‘60s, but the neighborhood would largely fall victim to urban decay and dilapidation in the 1970s and ‘80s, especially after the construction of Interstate 44 in 1973 cut it off from the Shaw neighborhood to the south. By the early 2000s, over half of the area’s original housing stock was vacant or deemed uninhabitable, and the city’s most extensive land-clearance project in decades was completed there in 2005. Around 240 homes, mainly the east side of McRee Town, were demolished.
In the years following, the neighborhood’s revitalization has included the construction of nearly 150 single-family, market-rate homes and townhomes, while the remaining pre-war homes remain one of the neighborhood’s strongest assets. With the new homes came a new name for the neighborhood: Botanical Heights.
The area includes residents of various nationalities, races and incomes, just as it did in Henry Shaw’s heyday, and it boasts a real urban feel thanks to the walkable proximity of homes to businesses like Union Studio, Olio and Elaia.
Images courtesy of Carmen Troesser.
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