Note: This essay is from the book Southampton St. Louis: An Unconventional History. For ordering information, go to tp://www.southamptonstl.org/history.
Ellen and I moved into our Southampton house on Neosho Street in April 1999. She was about seven months pregnant with Maggie, and we feared the two-bedroom condo we were renting on Nottingham, across from Francis Park, would be too small for the three of us. Besides, we were both in our thirties; it seemed like time to grow up, settle down, and become homeowners.
Our real estate agent drove us all over south St. Louis and St. Louis County looking for our first home. We saw a house with big cracks in its plaster walls, a house with a heavy mold infestation in the attic, a few houses that would have been candidates for the television show Hoarders, and several houses with no air conditioning—a virtual necessity these days for anyone preparing to face the hottest part of a St. Louis summer with a newborn baby in the house.
We made offers on a couple of houses, but the market was hot. Before the economic crash and mortgage crisis of 2008, homes were selling at or above asking price. We got used to being outbid.
Finally, one day our agent called to tell us of a house that had just become available but hadn’t been officially listed yet—a two-bedroom, story-and-a-half brick house in Southampton, across the street and few houses east from his own. He gave us the address, and we eagerly drove by to check out the house’s “curb appeal.” It had plenty: stained-glass windows, multicolored brick, a large awning over the front door, and a generous front porch. The house faced south, but a huge oak tree, at least 100 years old, was in the city’s easement between the sidewalk and the street, providing shade from the summer sun.
We immediately called him back and said yes, let’s see it. The the interior lived up to the exterior’s promises. Because the house’s original woodwork had not been painted, dark wood framed all that stained glass. The living room featured a custom stone fireplace. Dramatic archways separated the living room from the front hall, the dining room from the living room, and the kitchen from the dining room. The floors were dark hardwood, too, with the original baseboards and a beautiful, one-inch inlay of lighter-colored wood running around the perimeter of the first floor; at the corners, it doubled back on itself, forming a square before continuing along the wall. The doors, which were also original, had glass doorknobs. In addition to the two bedrooms on the first floor, the half-story had been remodeled into two more bedrooms and a second bathroom with a shower.
Most importantly, however, the seller was eager; a family health crisis was forcing her to move to Texas. We sat down at the dining room table and wrote up the offer—$500 below asking price. The next day, our agent called with the good news: the house was ours.
What we did not know at that time was the quality of the neighborhood we were about to move into. We knew what St. Louis Hills was like—fantastic, but too rich for our blood—and we had lived a few years in Tower Grove Heights, but Southampton was a mystery to us as we started moving our belongings the four or five blocks from our Nottingham condo. But it would not be a mystery for long. Some of the first people we met were a couple a few houses to the west had lived in their house for about forty years. They were eager to tell us the history of our house, now our home. One of the most interesting things we learned was that for years it had been owned by the Lubeleys, of Lubeley’s Bakery & Deli fame. In fact, the Lubeleys had remodeled the half story and made other updates. Eight years prior, we had bought our wedding cake from Lubeley’s.
Such is life in St. Louis, a big city that feels like a small town, and as we came to know our neighborhood better, that small-town feeling grew.
After Maggie was born toward the end of June, I would walk with her at the end of the workday up and down our block of Neosho, holding her in what we called “the headlight position”—flat on her stomach, her little rump and legs against my torso, my left hand supporting her body, and my right hand cradling her head so that she could look out like a headlight. It was the only way she would stop crying at that time of the day when she was tired, cranky, and ready to get out of the house. She looked with rapt attention at the cars, the trees, the squirrels, and the other houses, each with its own unique architectural details. Often people would be out on their front porches, and of course they had to gush over the tiny newborn. As a new dad, I happily obliged.
We began to meet our other neighbors and realize that we had moved onto a block that featured not only neighborhood historians but also young families, like ours. Some had babies and some had school-aged children, many of them going to St. Gabriel School across Hampton Avenue in St. Louis Hills. (Our block, the first block east of Hampton, is in St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish, or “St. Gabe’s.” The rest of Southampton is in St. Mary Magdalen Parish.)
In the fall, most of the neighbors came out for the annual block party, when our one-way-east street was closed at Hampton and turned over to the kids and their bikes, skateboards, tricycles, and wagons. As the air cooled in the evening, firepits came out and burned brightly long into the night, the smell of burning wood mingling with the subtle but unmistakable scent of fallen leaves.
The highlight of the year for neighborhood kids, though, turned out to be Halloween. Again, the street was closed to vehicular traffic, but now it was overrun by little ghouls and goblins, many of them ready with a joke in exchange for a treat (“Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine”). That first year, we gave out all the candy we had bought and were forced to dip into our private stash to appease the horde. Now we know to plan on at least 150 trick-or-treaters.
A few years later, I became acquainted with the neighborhood’s commercial side by writing articles about local businesses for the Southampton Neighborhood Association Newsletter. It was an exciting time. The Macklind Avenue Business District was starting to bustle, and I wrote articles about Manzo’s Sausage Kitchen and Market; Home Eco Green General Store; the late, great Murdoch Perk (now the fabulous Russell’s on Macklind); and Macklind Avenue Deli, which carries a selection of wine and craft and import beers that rivals any store in the city or county.
However, I didn't limit myself to Macklind—I also wrote up Dippel Plumbing on Hampton, Bloomers Florist & Gifts on Chippewa, and other neighborhood establishments. What I discovered through my research and talks with residents and business owners was that Southampton—now rebranded as SoHa—shares characteristics with all of St. Louis’s great neighborhoods.
For example, as this book documents, Southampton’s early days are steeped in the history of St. Louis’s westward expansion, a process accelerated in the early part of the 20th century by the street car and later, of course, the automobile. The streetcar fueled the development of many St. Louis neighborhoods, from the Midtown area of Grand Avenue to University City with its famous Delmar Loop, named for the streetcar turnaround.
Like those neighborhoods, Southampton brought urban order to what had previously been farmland, woods, and swamps. Scholars, urban planners, and others can disagree on whether development has been for the better or not, but the fact remains that these neighborhoods have altered the landscape and left their own impressions on St. Louis, and the natural landscape has left its mark on the neighborhoods. For example, in Southampton you won’t find Wherry Creek any longer, but you can walk along Wherry Avenue, which cuts a diagonal swath across the neighborhood’s traditional grid pattern to follow and cover Wherry Creek’s old path.
I have already hinted at a second characteristic Southampton shares with other neighborhoods—the critical role churches of many denominations have played in its development. Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Christian Scientists have been part of life in Southampton over the past century. Yes, St. Louisans are a faithful lot in the skeptical “Show-Me State,” and maybe that is why so many people have the faith and courage to invest in new businesses, rehab homes, and take other personal and financial risks for the benefit of future generations. If people didn’t believe the neighborhood had a future, they have plenty of options in St. Louis—like my wife and I did—yet they choose to stake their claim here.
Southampton has also been developed over a long period of time, giving it a diverse housing stock. Our house is in a style that a Missouri Historical Society colleague once described, not entirely positively or accurately, as “cuckoo clock”; we prefer the term “gingerbread.” Walking a block or two east on Neosho you’ll find frame houses and Hill-style “shotgun” houses to add to the mix. Going north reveals 1950s- and 1960s-era ranch houses. And scattered throughout Southampton are stately two-story houses that would be at home in St. Louis Hills, but at half the price. A similar variation in housing can be found in other areas of the city, like Dogtown, Florissant, or Skinker-DeBaliviere.
Finally, like so many parts of the St. Louis region, Southampton has seen its share of change. We lost the beloved Southtown Famous-Barr store when the mall-with-department-store-“anchors” concept replaced free-standing department stores in the 1970s. The Avalon and Roxy Theatres are gone, victims of the suburbanization of entertainment dollars and options in the 1970s on into the 2000s.
Other losses, while not as dramatic, do mark changing times—for example, while many Southampton houses have “fruit cellars,” a room in the basement where fruit was stored before refrigeration became available, no one uses it for storing fruit; ours is full of empty boxes from our move. Near the fruit cellar was often a coal bin, used for storing coal when it was the main fuel for heating homes in the winter. Leading to the coal bin was the coal chute, with its heavy, often ornate metal door to the outside where “coalmen” deposited the dusty fuel. And in the back yard sat an ash pit to store the byproduct of all that coal. Some ash pits still stand, but again, no one uses them for ashes any more, as electricity and natural gas have become the predominant (and much safer, cleaner, and more convenient) heating methods.
So what sets Southampton apart? That is a difficult question. One could claim that while people (mostly white people, it must be admitted) have “fled” from other St. Louis areas for the western suburbs, people have tended to “stay” in Southampton. The long memories of my older neighbors and the people who have assembled this book offer abundant evidence to support that claim. However, the same can be said of other South St. Louis neighborhoods, like Holly Hills and St. Louis Hills. In contrast,Tower Grove Heights, Soulard, Shaw, the Central West End, Lafayette Square, and now The Grove and Downtown have gone through periods of population loss but have made (or are making) comebacks at the hands of “urban pioneers.”
Perhaps the story of Macklind Avenue offers a clue. Though it may not be on the same scale as Euclid Avenue or the Victorian “painted ladies” of Lafayette Square, the Macklind Avenue Business District represents a significant comeback for the Southampton community—but without the “trendiness” felt in more gentrified neighborhoods. And while houses in Holly Hills and St. Louis Hills are often priced in the $500,000 range or above, houses in Southampton are priced within the means of that disappearing American breed, the middle class. Put another way, Southampton offers the best of both worlds without the drawbacks of either. Buying a home or locating a business in Southampton is, has been, and will continue to be, a solid investment in a modest but stable neighborhood.
In 2003, Kate was born. We talk about moving now and then, but only in the way you might talk about wanting to see the Pyramids someday, or to be a concert pianist. I like the idea that Southampton might be the only neighborhood our girls will know. They have friends all over the city and county, so they are aware of what other neighborhoods have to offer—for better or for worse—but they love it here. We love it here. Our girls may never play on a big clay hill, go “clubbing” for rabbits, or know what a “clinker” is (other than something from the movie A Christmas Story), but in this little pocket of South St. Louis, in this neighborhood, we are at home.
I can’t think of a better thing to say about a place than that.