Overview – Steps in Time: Northwest Webster

Before You Begin Your Walk

Northwest Webster is a window into the history and culture of this community. Its eclectic neighborhoods represent a convergence of the wealthy and the working class, blacks and whites, farmland and the earliest subdivisions. In many ways, the area is a microcosm of westward expansion. As Americans moved west, development in this region was fueled by the growth of the railroad in the mid - 1850s and the building boom that followed the Civil War.

The oldest streets of Northwest Webster are influenced by its topography. The Rock Hill MIitary Road was laid out along the top of a ridge running south from Manchester Road to Jefferson Barracks. Kirkham Avenue, originally called Shady Avenue, follows Shady Creek, along the base of a steep hill. Gore Avenue, once called Church Street, was originally a path that early settlers blazed as a short cut to Rock Hill Presbyterian Church. 

In 1832 John and James Marshall, brothers from Virginia, bought land along Manchester Road and the Military Road. Together they owned all the land from Bompart Avenue to Berry Road from Litzsinger Road to Lockwood Avenue Their houses and cabins along Manchester Road served as a stage coach stop, a trading post, a post office and a school. Each of the Marshalls owned eight slaves. In 1845 the Marshalls donated land for a Presbyterian church and had their slaves build the church. Reverend Artemus Bullard, minister for the First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, gave the first sermon, and he suggested the church be named Rock Hill Presbyterian Church. He was so taken with the countryside that he decided to establish a boys prep school and college, the Webster College for Boys, beside the Rock Hill Military Road.

At the end of the Civil War, the Marshalls gave land to some of their freed slaves and sold land to others. Black families owned land on Parsons, Slocum and Kirkham avenues, on the bluff above Shady Creek and in the neighborhood called North Webster. In 1866 blacks established the First Baptist Church of Webster Groves and started a school in the church. When the Webster Groves School Board was established in 1868, it took over operation of the school.

After the Civil War, St. Louis businessmen began moving to Webster Groves to escape the heat and dust and cholera epidemics of the city. Alfred Lee was one of those businessmen. Born in New Orleans his stepmother banished him in his youth, so he went to Boston and worked in a hardware store. He married in 1850 and moved to St. Louis in 1859. He started a seed company, but it failed, and he sold it to William Plant. Lee took a position with the Shapleigh Hardware Company, where he soon became a partner. Alfred and Sarah Lee had nine children, and six of them died before they were six years old, one every summer, until they moved to Webster Groves.

In 1865 Lee purchased 48 acres (bounded by Bacon on the north, Rock Hill on the east, Foote on the south and Barron on the west) from John Marshall. Lee moved his family to a little cottage he built in the center of his healthy country property. In 1866 Lee subdivided his 48 acres into four-acre and five-acre lots and sold six of the lots to finance his large Italianate mansion which  stood where Oak Manor Drive is today. 

Most of the large Italianate mansions that were built in Northwest Webster are no longer standing. Some burned, and others, like Alfred Lee’s, were torn down in the 1940s because they lacked indoor plumbing. 

In the 1880s a housing boom began in earnest in Webster Groves. Frame Queen Anne houses for commuters were built throughout the community. In Northwest Webster smaller Victorian vernacular houses were constructed between the larger homes. Most families did a little farming, raising fruit, vegetables and chickens.

The city incorporated in 1896, and the Kirkwood Ferguson Streetcar Line was built along Kirkham Avenue and Shady Creek to Glendale and Kirkwood. It became a popular commuter route to the 1904 World’s Fair and Washington University. When streetcars stopped running in the 1950s, the right-of-way became part of Larson Park and the Algonquin Golf Club. 

This overview of “Steps in Time: Northwest Webster” was compiled and written by Ann Morris.

Sites on the Historic Webster Walks have been selected for their architectural or historical value, and they are identified on this website by the names of the people or businesses that originally occupied them. Distinguished sites have been awarded bronze medallions which are embedded in the sidewalks in front of those sites.