Commons Neighborhood Historic District
The Commons Neighborhood Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.
The Commons Neighborhood Historic District is located in St. Charles, Missouri, which was founded in 1769 and today boasts more than 68,000 residents. Situated on the west bank of the Missouri River near its confluence with the Mississippi River, the city is approximately 20 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis. The district is located about one-third of a mile west of the Missouri River and about 4-1/2 blocks northwest of the St. Charles Historic District, which is the city's historic downtown commercial area concentrated on Main Street. The commercial and residential Frenchtown Historic District is adjacent to the district's eastern boundary and the Midtown Neighborhood Historic District is adjacent to its southern boundary.
Primarily a blue-collar residential neighborhood, the 48.0-acre district contains 241 contributing buildings. Eighty percent (80%) of the primary buildings are contributing. Resources are located within portions of 18 blocks that are roughly bounded by Clark Street on the south, Fifth Street on the east, Randolph Street on the north and Kingshighway, Seventh and Sixth Streets and Benton Avenue on the west. Although the Commons Neighborhood extends west to Kingshighway, all but two of the buildings facing this street were excluded from the district's boundaries because the majority has undergone extensive alterations. Other concentrations of noncontributing buildings immediately east of Kingshighway were also excluded from the boundaries.
Although the district is predominantly residential, two churches and a few commercial buildings are also located within its boundaries. The buildings in the district represent the architectural trends that were popular nationally from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Residences range from small vernacular cottages to large, high style houses. Contributing buildings date from circa 1850-1963, which is the period of significance for the district, and include examples of the Federal, Second Empire, Queen Anne and Queen Anne Free Classic, Folk Victorian, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Minimal Traditional styles; however, many residential buildings are vernacular designs that either display no architectural influences or minimal detailing typical of architectural styles that were popular during the period they were built. The following folk forms or building types are common in the district: Gable Front, Gable-Front-and-Wing, Pyramidal (including American Foursquare), Bungaloid and Ranch. Although most streets within the district contain a mixture, a few areas have concentrations of a particular architectural style or form, such as the Second Empire style buildings in the 500 and 600 blocks of North Fifth Street and the five Federal style residences located at 546 through 560-62 Morgan Street.
The district is laid out in a grid pattern, with the numbered streets and Benton Avenue (formerly 5-1/2 Street) running north-south and the named streets east-west, except for Kingshighway, which runs diagonally northeast-southwest. Although most of the streets in the district are fairly quiet residential streets, Fifth Street is busier because it serves as an artery connecting to Interstate 70 on the south and the Little Hills Expressway, near Highway 94 and Highway 370, on the north. Public sidewalks of both concrete and brick span the front boundary of most, but not all, of the properties. For example, Benton Avenue north of Morgan Street is narrow and does not have public sidewalks and in some instances there are no curbs. Lots range from flat to significantly elevated, some have masonry or wood retaining walls along their front property lines and many have mature trees and plantings. The lot sizes are not uniform, but most are small. Setbacks are not uniform and range from shallow to deep, but most of the houses have only moderately sized front yards and are built close together with small side yards. There are only two vacant lots, which are not contributing because they historically held buildings. Outbuildings such as garages are located near the rear lot line of slightly more than half of the properties, and most are accessed from the alleys although some have driveways that provide access from the street.
Most (96%) of the buildings in the district were constructed for residential use. Residential buildings range from 1- to 3-stories and are, for the most part, brick or frame, although there are a few finished with stucco. Of these residential buildings, 178 (89%) were built as single-family dwellings and 22 (11%) were built as multi-family dwellings. In addition, the 3-story, brick Second Empire style building at 631 North Fifth Street was built as a combination commercial/residential building. Constructed circa 1895, it had a grocery on the north half of the first floor while the remainder was in rental residential use. The two other buildings that were constructed for commercial purposes were built as gasoline stations: 512 Clark Street (1963) and 816 North Kingshighway (circa 1936). Two originally served as secondary buildings or garages but were later converted to other uses. The former garage at 518 North Eighth Street has been converted into a residence, while the building behind 528 North Benton Avenue has served as a warehouse since 1955 for products ranging from beer and frozen meat to furniture. Two church buildings are located in the district: the Old Assembly of God Gospel Mission (now the St. Charles Pentecostal Church of God) at 801 North Sixth Street (1929) and the Old Trinity Episcopal Church (now First Capitol Lions Club) at 520 North Benton Avenue (1900).
The Commons Neighborhood Historic District is known locally as the Commons Neighborhood because it was once part of the St. Charles Common Field. Although the neighborhood extends westward to Kingshighway, the district's boundaries were drawn to exclude most of the properties along that street and some areas immediately to its east due to the large number of noncontributing buildings. The period of significance extends from circa 1850, the date of construction of the earliest extant building, to circa 1963, the year the latest contributing resource was built. Only 11 buildings were built in 1950 and after, but the period of significance extends to 1963 to include buildings that were built in the ranch form, a significant form that dominated American domestic building through the 1960s. The ranch houses in the district, although few in number, represent a local shift in building preferences after World War II. Few were built in the district because only a few empty lots were available. Only four buildings were constructed in the district after 1970.
The area was mainly a blue-collar neighborhood, and a large number of the employees of the city's major industries—the American Car and Foundry Co. (ACF) and the International Shoe Company (ISC)—lived here, as did business owners, grocers, clerks, laborers and men involved in the building trades. Although established as a residential neighborhood, the district also contains two churches, two gasoline stations, two small warehouses and a building that was originally a combination grocery store and apartment building. There are 241 contributing buildings.
Composed of part of four subdivisions that were created prior to 1875, the 48.0-acre district boasts a significant collection of buildings of the various architectural styles and types popular during its 113-year period of significance. Representative examples of the Federal, Second Empire, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Minimal Traditional styles can be found here. Second Empire style houses appear in other neighborhoods throughout the city, but the Commons Neighborhood contains one of the largest concentrations and some of the best examples of the style. Although there are examples of various architectural styles, many residential structures are vernacular designs that merely reflect the influence of these popular styles, with decorative features limited to detailing on the porches or along the cornice lines. However, 40% of the residential resources are folk forms that display little or no architectural detailing and can best be described by their plan shape or roof type. Nevertheless, these vernacular designs are important because they reflect the local building traditions of the community. Overall, the Commons Neighborhood Historic District retains integrity, keeping its distinct sense of time and place.
In 1849 St. Charles was incorporated as a city and, with the influx of settlers, a large area was annexed. Part of this annexation area is in the Commons Neighborhood Historic District between Fifth and Sixth Streets and includes Benton Avenue, which was originally named 5-1/2 Street. In the 1850s a second heavy wave of German immigration to the area occurred as a result of the political unrest surrounding the Revolution of 1848 in Germany. The city's population increased 116% between 1850 and 1860 and 72% between 1860 and 1870. St. Charles was the second largest town of German-settled Missouri, with only St. Louis being larger, and was part of the "German belt" that extended up both sides of the Missouri River. In 1870, when the city's population reached 5,570, it was estimated that 75% of the community was either German-born or first generation German-American.
The portion of the district that is west of Sixth Street was annexed in 1869. The 1869 Bird's Eye View of Saint Charles shows that the neighborhood was sparsely populated at that time, and it appears that only 10 of the houses shown are extant. These include 800 North Seventh Street; 535, 912, 915, 923 and 1003 North Benton Avenue; 622, 626 and 706 Clark Street; and 554 Morgan Street. The house at 535 North Benton is in the Second Empire style and the house at 912 North Benton is a side-gabled structure that is reportedly built of logs, but it is now clad with vinyl. The remainder is in the Federal style. Because of the irregular terrain and use of property for farming, development was scattered. In the Commons neighborhood space was sufficient to allow the houses to have yards and be set back from the street, unlike the lots on South Main Street, where the buildings were typically constructed up to the front lot line.
By 1875, four subdivisions had been created in the Commons Neighborhood, as shown on Brink's plat map of the city. Unfortunately, plats could not be located for any of these subdivisions at City Hall or the County Courthouse, so the exact dates they were created could not be determined. The four include Rigg's Subdivision, Wilson's Subdivision, Pallardie's Subdivision and McKnight's Partition.
Rigg's Subdivision is a triangular area bounded by Clark Street on the south, Kingshighway on the west and Sixth Street on the east. Although the subdivision contains 118 properties, only 77 are within the district's boundaries due to alterations and new construction. The earliest extant house in the subdivision and district appears to be 800 North Seventh, which was built circa 1850. Three other existing houses were built by the time the Bird's Eye View of the City was prepared in 1869: 622, 626 and 706 Clark Street. All four are side-gabled brick Federal style buildings. By the time the 1917 Sanborn Insurance Map was published, many houses in Rigg's Subdivision had been built, but there were still large areas that were vacant: there were only three buildings in the block bounded by Sixth, Morgan, Seventh and Franklin Streets; no buildings had been built on the north side of the 600 block of Lewis Street; and only one (823 Lewis) had been built on the south side of the 700 and 800 blocks of Lewis Street. Franklin and Seventh Streets were still unpaved in 1929.
In addition to owner-occupied dwellings, some of the homes in the subdivision were built as rental housing. For example, the houses at 633 and 635 Decatur Street were built around 1917 for rental residential use. The builder of the Gable Front house at 633 Decatur is unknown, but the builder of the Dutch Colonial Revival style house at 635 Decatur was John Platte, a local builder and architect. Platte was one of the first builders in town to make his own decorative concrete blocks, and he likely made the house's decorative concrete porch columns and the rusticated concrete block piers on which they rest. In 1918 the occupants of 635 Decatur were Fred and Margaret Schlemmer and he was a machinist for ACF. Platte sold the property in 1921 to Frank Bizzelli, another ACF employee, who used it as his own residence.
The buildings in the Commons Neighborhood Historic District form a cohesive grouping of intact historic residential resources that reflect the local building traditions as well as the building styles that were popular from circa 1850 to circa 1963. The district was mainly a blue-collar neighborhood with a large number of residents employed by the city's major industries. As a result, the buildings here are simpler than those in the adjacent Midtown Neighborhood Historic District, which was the most fashionable neighborhood in the city during the same period and contains some of the most elaborate high style residences in the city. Nevertheless, the buildings in the Commons are important representations of the type of houses being built by the working class residents of this prosperous industrial community from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Furthermore, while there is only one Second Empire style house in Midtown, the Commons district contains a small but significant collection. The evolution of building types and styles from the earliest Federal residences built in the 1850s to the Minimal Traditional style houses built in the mid-twentieth century characterizes the neighborhood. Half of the primary buildings are constructed of brick, reflecting the influence of the German settlers. The district retains integrity, keeping its distinct sense of time and place.
† Brenda Rubach Thurmer, City of St. Charles, Commons Neighborhood Historic District, St. Charles County, MO, nomination document, 2016, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.