The History of University City

The Early Years

In the late 1800’s, the area that is now University City, Missouri was primarily farms and small farming communities like Mount Olive and Sutter Valley. Olive Street Road was a main route from the Missouri River to downtown St. Louis. Delmar Boulevard, originally called Bonhomme, was a dirt road that turned southwest east of Hanley Road and then turned northwest to join Olive.

Just after the turn of the century, All Saints Church opened north of Olive, and new homes were constructed in the surrounding area. On Delmar Boulevard, just west of the St. Louis city limit, the Delmar Race Track and the Delmar Garden Amusement Park were major attractions. Located on the south side of Delmar Boulevard were taverns, roadhouses and the occasional home. The Delmar streetcar “looped” through the southwest corner of the Delmar Garden Amusement Park before returning to downtown St. Louis.

© University City Public Library

In 1902, Edward Gardner Lewis purchased 85 acres just northwest of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Forest Park construction site. Lewis was the publisher of the Womans’ Magazine and the Woman’s Farm Journal, which had outgrown two locations in downtown St. Louis. The 85-acre area would be the headquarters for the Lewis Publishing Company, as well the site for a “high-class residential district.” Lewis decided to develop the area as a model city, a real “City Beautiful.”
Lewis broke ground for the publishing company’s headquarters in 1903. The Magazine Building (now City Hall), an ornate octagonal tower standing 135 feet tall, dominated the view of the area. An eight ton beacon beamed from atop the building. Soon, other architecturally significant structures and developments were erected — an austere Egyptian temple, the Lion Gates and the Art Academy.

Lewis’ idea for a residential community with comfortable homes for people of an upper middle class background was realized with the development of University Heights One. University Heights One was carefully designed around the landscape park and private place movements. Varying lot sizes, a great mix of architectural style and size and price of houses were represented. Before the subdivision was fully developed, it was important to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Instead of letting the acres stand idle, Lewis built a tent city to house families visiting the Fair. The popular “Camp Lewis” offered comfortable and convenient accommodations and catered meals.

A City Realized

The City of University City was formally incorporated in September 1906 and Lewis became the first mayor. The city’s name reflected the community’s proximity to Washington University, and Lewis’ hope that it would become a center of learning and culture.

Over the next few years with Lewis’ guidance, subdivisions developed, banks opened, and commercial activity prospered. The University City School District formed and in 1915, University City was one of the first cities in the country to develop a junior high school system.

During the 1920s, thousands of people resettled to less populated communities to the west of St. Louis. The 1920 Census revealed that University City had a population of 6,702, an increase of 177% — the largest percent increase recorded during that decade in any Missouri town. Between 1920 and 1930 more than 19,000 people moved to the City, bringing its population to 25,809. Many of the residents were foreign-born.

During the Great Depression, University City suffered with the rest of the country. No new subdivisions were platted between 1930 and 1935, improvements were put on hold and the salaries of city employees were reduced. The Board of Alderman adopted three revenue proposals that provided funds to assist unemployed citizens until the enactment of federal programs. However, by the 1940s construction boomed again as new schools, public buildings, and street improvements were developed throughout the City with the help of the Works Progress Administration. The population had increased significantly as well, and included a growing Jewish population.

On February 4, 1947, University City voters adopted home rule charter and firmly established a new Council-Manager form of municipal government. The city expanded to its current boundaries by the 1960s and comprised 5.8 square miles. During the decades following final annexation, the City has seen much population change, development and redevelopment, and political controversy and stability. Robert H. Salisbury, in an introduction to Legacy of the Lions wrote the following:

How has University City (or U City as the locals say) maintained this distinctiveness? One factor has been the early realization by Lewis and his successors that housing development would be more interesting, attractive and stable if the bulldozer were restrained, the contours of the land respected, and the residential areas made into viable neighborhoods rather than mere housing tracts. A second force of great importance was (and is) the schools. Early on U. City created a school system, made it a high priority item on the civic agenda, and recognized that excellent schools helped build a first class community. Third, there were some remarkable men and women who gave enormously of themselves to build and sustain a community that they and their children could live in proudly and happily. U City has been, above all, a community of devoted citizens…”

Sources

  • Tim Fox, editor, Where We Live: A Guide to St. Louis Communities (Missouri Historical Society Press, 1995) 162-164.
  • NiNi Harris. Legacy of Lions. The Historical Society of University City, University City, Missouri, 1981.
  • The Historical Society of University City, University City, Missouri. University City, Missouri: History in
  • Photographs, University City Public Library.