Overview of the architectural history of Main Street in Saint Charles.
The author is unknown, but it is assumed that this document is a copy
from one of the files at the St. Charles County Historical Society.
As a result of its role in the early history of the region, the City of St. Charles,
Missouri possesses a wealth of 18th and 19th century American architecture.
The City as a whole is fortunate in having a large number of historically
significant structures as well as a variety of architectural styles, building types
and methods of construction. Within the Historic District there are a great
variety and number of these structures in a more concentrated area than in any
other city in Missouri. This, of course, led to the placement of the District on the
National Register of Historic Places as described earlier.
Distinct variation in architectural detail resulting from many influences is the rule
rather than the exception in the buildings of the District. Certain basic
architectural forms are common to many of the structures in the District and
definitely created a recognizable architectural pattern. Other features are largely
the result of the experience, training, need and personal preferences of individual
owners or builders.
Among the commonly recognized elements that contribute to the selection of
design and construction features are: availability of materials and the ease of
their utilization, experience and skill of designers and builders, intended use of
the structure, economic capacity of the owner, requirement for protection against
weather, existence of nearby facilities that encourage or discourage certain
projects, and the experience, desire and personality of the owner.
The overall character of notable features of many buildings in St. Charles stem
from the fact that the city was, for decades, a jumping-off place or way station
for explorers, traders, emigrants and tourists going west. Taverns, stables,
blacksmith and wheelwright shops, storage facilities, and general outfitting
establishments were much more numerous than in an ordinary frontier town. In
the Historic District there are design and structural features, some of them
unusual for a frontier town, that are found often enough to be considered
typical. A knowledge of the influences that developed these typical features is
essential to preservation, renovation and restoration work.
There is little in the community to indicate any important Spanish influence
inspite of their rule of the area from 1762 [sic] to 1804 [sic].
[Before I continue, the Spanish ruled over present-day St. Charles from 1763 to
1800. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Louisiana.--Justin Watkins]
The Old Spanish Fort which is no longer in existence, but which is thought to
have been located at Third and Adams Street, was undoubtedly built under
Spanish direction, but even so may have been of French or French-Canadian
design. There is, however, marked evidence of French and French-Canadian
contributions to the design of early buildings with American and German
influences becoming prominent in the later structures. The French colonial
officials assigned a sizable homestead plot to each householder in the
settlement. These village plots faced the river and the residents usually enclosed
them in a stockade of close-spaced vertical posts. In the enclosure of a well-todo
pioneer were often found, in addition to the dwelling, a garden plot, a small
orchard, a chicken yard, and various outbuildings. Among the latter, one might
find a cook-house, a well-house, barns and stables, doghouses, a granary, a
chicken house, sometimes a summer arbor, a smokehouse, a cellar for food
storage, and perhaps a private boat landing and boathouse. Since St. Charles
had no thoroughfare along the riverfront, each property holder left a passageway
at the western boundary of his plot to provide access to the common pasture
and woodlot known as the Commons.
Some of the finer properties may have had all or most of the above attributes,
although little remains today to definitely establish their former existence. Early
travelers to St. Charles almost universally agreed that the French pioneers were
not the most industrious souls and were little given to sustained agricultural
pursuits. Their major interests centered on hunting, trapping, trading, and
socializing when in the village. The latter included some rather rough, ribald
pastimes common in the frontier settlements of that day.
In addition to the homestead plot, the householder had the privilege of using the
common pasture and woodlot for his needs. He was also assigned one or more
strips in the Big Common Field. These strips were one arpent (about 190') in
width and forty arpents in length, with a single fence around the entire field.
Each citizen was responsible for maintaining his section of the common fence
and was severely censured when he failed to do so.
In spite of the lack of affluent settlers, St. Charles quickly assumed an air of
permanence, although the population growth was quite slow until the time of
American acquisition [1803--Justin Watkins]. There were, of course, many
temporary structures, but the Historic District has a large number of structures
that have demonstrated their permanence and are still basically sound after a
century or more. The boom days of St. Charles during the great westward
migrations provided opportunities for enterprising citizens to amass a fortune in a
short time. As a result, large, substantial business buildings were erected and
soon paid for themselves.
In common with almost all of the earliest settlements, St. Charles was riveroriented.
The first houses were placed in a long row, facing the river, and each
had to be reoriented when St. Charles was chartered [1809--Justin Watkins] and
Main Street established behind them. Several of the homeowners operated
ferries and practically all of them had boats and canoes for personal or business
use. The river was the highway if one wished to cover any distance, particularly
for transportation of goods of any kind.
Materials and Methods
Timber was abundant nearby and was of excellent quality, though restrictions
were soon placed on its reckless removal from the Commons. Good and plentiful
timber made possible houses built entirely of logs and provided excellent framing
and surfacing materials for houses of other types.
Burlington limestone was present and easily accessible. This provided material
for foundations, walls, basements, walks, and boat landings. Availability of stone
made basements and semi-basements possible for trading stations, fur storage,
and other commercial operations. Stone foundations also withstood the effects
of floodwaters better than other types of foundations available at that time.
Burlington limestone was easily "worked" into roughly rectangular units suitable
for construction, but did not lend itself easily to units of exact dimensions and
smooth surfaces. Consequently, it was usually laid in slightly irregular courses in
thin layers. The limestone also provided the quicklime needed for mortar, plaster
All the ingredients necessary for brick-making--suitable clay, wood (later coal was
used) for firing, and stone for kilns--were present. The brick was hand-molded
and fired at relatively low temperatures. As a consequence, they were
lightweight, porous and soft, and in many cases, were stuccoed with a more
weatherproof surface. Thousands of these bricks, however, are still sound and
are giving good service after long exposure.
Least available, as in most frontier areas, were nails and hardware, glass,
decorations, and other refinements. These types of items were often added to
the buildings as they became available.
Most of the early pioneers were skilled ax-men and could build a cabin in short
order. Many of them were capable of substantial construction efforts. After the
first trickle of trappers, traders, and renegades, a considerable number of
craftsmen settled in the area, particularly those who emigrated from Germany
after 1820. Late comers from Germany and elsewhere included coppersmiths,
tanners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, cobblers, millwrights, gunsmiths, carpenters,
masons, and tinsmiths. Affluent citizens often hired workmen from the East or
from Europe, sometimes under the indenture system in which passage could be
paid for after arrival. Even in territorial Missouri, expert craftsmen could be hired
by those able to pay.
Typical Architectural Details
Undoubtedly many of the late 18th century structures in the original section of
St. Charles were of French-Canadian, closely-spaced vertical-log type
construction. The stockades around the homesteads were made in the same
way. Because a portion of the log was buried in the earth, these buildings were
subjected to rapid decay at ground level. It naturally followed that the
substantial structures which were to follow used stone foundations to overcome
this difficulty. Although no examples remain in the District, there is reason to
believe that the earliest of the French-Canadian inspired homes had full-length
porches. Usually, they were elevated enough that the space below was usable
for certain kinds of storage and for sheltering dogs, hogs and chickens and, on
occasion, children. The porch proper provided space for firewood storage, had
hooks for hanging garments, traps, harness, and other accoutrements, and
became a workshop in bad weather. Another important function was protection
from the hot summer sun of mid-west America and a partial barrier against
wintry winds. The porch roof was usually an extension of that on the main
house, but often had a lesser slope.
Most of the early 19th century buildings were of masonry (predominantly brick)
construction and were simple in design. The main house was usually rectangular
and porches and lean-tos were added as needed. Decoration was simple or, at
times, entirely lacking. As prosperity blossomed, more pretentious houses were
built, but even these were basically functional with a minimum of ornamentation.
There was a high proportion of one-and-a-half, two, and two-and-a-half story
buildings. The walls extended above the ceiling enough to allow a low window
for light and ventilation. These, with appropriate dormers, added full-sized floors
for sleeping or storage purposes. Records and the nature of the buildings
indicate the prevalence of the practice of devoting the lower floor to commercial
activity and utilizing the upper level for residential purposes.
Many of the buildings had wide entrances, indicating probable commercial uses.
Men carrying a large bale of furs or rolling a large butt or hogshead or
merchandise needed for such openings. Many doorways have been narrowed in
recent years with added masonry or sidelights. Most of the entrances had
rectangular transoms with small panes of molded glass as an additional light
source. Frequently, the original small panes were later converted to large single
For a frontier town, there seems to have been an unusual number of buildings
with basements. The ready availability of stone is one likely reason for this, but
commercial utilization of the space is possibly more significant. Many basements
are known to have been used in this manner. The frequently found outside
entrances to these lower levels supports this supposition; for example, the First
State Capitol Buildings and Stone Row structures.
[Another reason for basements in St. Charles not discussed in this section would
be the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. See
would imagine that the Missourian would also have coverage of these events. A
microfilm role of issues of the Missourian can be found at the St. Charles County
Historical Society, Kathryn Linneman Library, the Missouri Historical Society in St.
Louis, or at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.--Justin Watkins]
After the early 1830s, many buildings with German architectural influence were
constructed. They were by no means identical, but as a rule they were of
painted or stuccoed brick, stood very near the street, were two-and-a-half stories
in height, and had a narrow frontage in proportion to their depth. The roof ridge
paralleled the street and, often, a longer roof slope existed to the rear than to
the front. There was usually a central entrance with one bay on each side.
Wooden porches and rooms were frequently added at the rear and outside stairs
Many of the early brick buildings of this period had corbelled cornices, sometimes
with the first row in set to form dentils. It was quite common to extend the end
walls beyond the roof-line, usually with a distinctive protective coping. This may
have come about because the chimneys had to be carried above the roof-line,
and it was little more trouble to extend the whole wall. Where two chimneys
were placed in the same wall, they were frequently "joined," that is, the wall
between them was carried to the top of the chimney or nearly so, for additional
bracing, resulting in a distinctive and attractive feature reminiscent of medieval
Not unusual for the period were windows with six or more small panes of molded
glass in each sash. The origin of the glass is unknown at this time, but it is
interesting to note that all the ingredients necessary for the manufacture of
crown glass are present in the general area. Possibly a glass-maker from Europe
or Pittsburgh could have been among the early settlers of St. Charles.
It is noticeable that lintels over openings of the oldest buildings were usually
stone slabs which, for the most part, are still sound, while those of slightly later
date had relieving arches which are also remarkably sound. This shift may be
indicative of the change from the earliest French to American or German
methods. The arches may simply have been necessary to make use of brick in
the absence of structural iron or steel.
Balconies and porches of wood construction were common with access to second
floor areas being obtained from the rear of the early buildings, occasionally
exposed to the elements, but normally roofed. Later balconies of iron and
combinations of iron and wood, sometimes quite ornate, were constructed on
the street side of the buildings.