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Lost City

Two St. Louis women around 1900 take a snooze in one of our city parks.

Some months ago, a friend of mine in Chicago gave me two large boxes of century old glass plate negatives for no other reason than she thought I would appreciate them. She told me that she had them for 25 years and “hadn’t yet done anything with them,” so she wanted me to have them. I was obviously very appreciative and thanked her for the treasure. She knew the images were of St. Louis, but also had the foresight to know that with each passing year deterioration of the emulsion was taking its toll.

Indeed, most of the glass plates have severe losses to the emulsion edges and other areas, but thankfully most of the important parts of the images are in fine shape. Some images show impressive detail, so sharp that even street signs can be read from a distance.

Not only was the gift incredibly generous, it was a significant trove of never before seen glimpses of our city by an anonymous photographer—most of the images from around 1895 to 1910. Standout images include several believed to be of Forest Park as they began clearing trees for the construction of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the international event we call the Saint Louis World’s Fair. In fact, many images show the construction of well-known city landmarks, including parts of the World’s Fair grand exposition halls. Neighborhood views, like an immensely rare shot of the actual construction of the Compton Hill Water Tower in 1899, a 179-foot French Romanesque structure that proudly stands today. Other images appear to be shot in and around nearby Tower Grove Park, of Washington University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Many shots were of busy city intersections and dozens of images of everyday life. It seems our anonymous photographer was intent on capturing a city undergoing a Renaissance of change, and construction scaffolding is visible in the majority of the 100+ images I received.

The fashions of the day, big hats and long skirts, give away that the time period was that of the early part of the Edwardian era (1901 – 1919), featuring parades and other outdoor activities, from foot races to picnicking, to just napping in the great outdoors.

While not all of the images are scanned and ready to share, here are some views of our city that haven’t seen the light of day for over a century.

All images © John Foster, and may not be reproduced in any manner without permission.

A father and his two little girls observe the massive clearing that was taking place for the upcoming World's Fair. This would have been about 1899. Washington University is to the right.

A woman takes in a view of Forest Park during early construction set-up for the World's Fair, c. 1898.

Looking a lot like the launchpad of the NASA Space Shuttle 100 years later, this image from 1899 may be the only existing photograph of the construction of the Compton Hill Water Tower off Grand Avenue.

The old City Art Museum on the corner of 19th Street and Locust.

From the steps of the old City Art Museum was this restaurant, which stands yet today as Jim Edmond's "15 Restaurant."

A rare view of our Missouri Botanical Garden c. 1900.

Two girls in long white dresses, who look as if they could be extra's in the film "Meet Me in St. Louis" run a footrace in a city park.