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Exploring Nineteenth Century Church Architecture in Saint Louis, Missouri: 1870-1900

Rebecca Pressimone
BlueBoat International, Saint Louis, Missouri;

Architecture is a binding principle in many fields of study. This presentation uses a prominent architectural detail – the steeple – to focus on how culture and doctrine defined the built environment of Saint Louis, Missouri, “Gateway to the West.”[1] Through the use of historical and architectural analyses, I developed an understanding of the city’s growth, in both settlement and diversity. 

In sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Ireland, steeples were the most prominent and easily recognizable architectural features; they largely aided the geographical location of churches throughout the English and Irish countrysides.[2] Over time, churches around the world have adopted the steeple into their architectural design, exhibiting dimension and distinction throughout cities and neighborhoods. As steeples of greater prominence became more easily recognizable in various skylines, they have simultaneously aided in distinguishing one church or community from another. 

Saint Louis, Missouri has such a skyline. Though not as prominent as the steeples and churches that can be found throughout Europe, the steeples and their associated church buildings have stood as symbols and icons for the community – inclusive of both parishioners and residents. Serving as an architectural symbol throughout history, the steeple was something held in common between different religions, as they were incorporated into architectural designs by many religious groups.[3] 

The construction of churches in Saint Louis began in 1770, five years after the Saint Louis trading post was established.4 Although Catholicism was the dominant religion through the end of the eighteenth century, in the 1800s Saint Louis saw a dramatic increase of religious diversity and doctrinal discovery. The influx began with Protestantism from the eastern United States, and continued with Catholic and reformed populations from Europe.[4] The people of Saint Louis were open to all faiths and had a fairly lax approach to how religion should be practiced or recognized within a specific denomination.6 Settlers saw Saint Louis as a home where they could practice their faith without the strict doctrinal boundaries set by their countries of origin, which led to a population boom throughout the early- and mid-nineteenth century. It became evident that as parishes and congregations grew, they were in need of larger houses of worship. Churches built between 1870 and 1900 epitomize the growth and expansion of denominations and religious populations throughout Saint Louis, both pre-existing and newly developed.

Saint John Nepomuk Chapel

Established as the first Czech church outside of the Czech Republic, Saint John Nepomuk

Church was home to the Bohemians fleeing their homeland in the mid-nineteenth century.[5] Located in LaSalle Park, across the interstate from the popular Soulard neighborhood, the church represents the obstacles overcome by the earliest parishioners. It stands as a symbol of the Bohemian culture and their Catholic faith and spirituality. The exterior of the church is a simple Gothic Revival design with subtle ornamentation enhancing the red brick design, and accented limestone and yellow bricks. The interior of the church encapsulates the Bohemian beliefs and values, which are expressed through iconography, stained glass windows and expressive Gothic Revival design elements.8 The structure’s adorning steeple serves as a beacon both in history and religious recognition—a trait shared in all three case studies.            

Figure 1.1. Saint John Nepomuk Chapel: Church View. View of Saint John Nepomuk Chapel from the southeast corner of Lafayette Avenue and Eleventh Street. April 18, 2015. Image Credit, Rebecca Pressimone.

Trinity Lutheran Church

Located in Soulard, Trinity Lutheran Church was established as the first Lutheran parish in Saint Louis in 1839. The Germany Saxons left their repressed homeland to find a place to worship and express their religious beliefs. Welcomed to the area by the Episcopal Christ Church, the new Lutheran congregation was able to expand their community, eventually branching out to a number of churches in different locations.[6][7] The church building, used today by its active parish, stands as an historic symbol and remembrance of the difficulty they faced in searching for a home free from disparity and religious repression. The church’s exterior consists of limestone details and decorations embellishing a red brick façade. The interior of the church is designed as one, unified space, uninterrupted by columns and arcades, which are common of the Gothic Revival style; The walls are adorned with elaborate stained glass windows. The steeple serves as a commemoration of the religious freedom and recognition of the Lutheran faith practiced throughout Saint Louis and the United States.[8] 

Figure 1.2. Trinity Lutheran Church: Church View. View of Trinity Lutheran from across South Eighth Street. February 27, 2015. Image Credit, Rebecca Pressimone.

Saints Peter and Paul Church

Founded in 1849, Saints Peter and Paul church was home to the German community located in the South Soulard neighborhood. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were only two German parishes in the city. Though other parishes administered to the German immigrant population, the South Soulard community preferred to have a parish home that represented their heritage and personal religious doctrine.[9] Saints Peter and Paul Church answered that need, and stands proudly in the South Soulard neighborhood, a few blocks south of Trinity Lutheran. The church exterior is built entirely of black and yellow limestone – the black stone used as a means of accentuating the elaborate façade. The interior of the church is a strong representation of the Gothic Revival style, incorporating the Gothic pointed arch, a vaulted ceiling, arcades, and German and Catholic iconography represented in statues and stained glass windows. The church is adorned with a towering 214-foot steeple, standing high above the Soulard skyline, serving as a symbol to the German community, and beckoning to the surrounding community to come and worship.[10]

Figure 1.3. Saints Peter and Paul Church: Church View. View of Saints Peter and Paul from the southwest corner of Eighth and Allen Streets. February 25, 2015. Image Credit, Rebecca Pressimone.

An initial study of ten churches, which summarized the growth and expansion of religion, culture, and architecture in Saint Louis in the 1800s, was conducted in 2015. Architectural and historical analyses provided insights into the settlement of Saint Louis, regarding cultural and religious settlement. Each individual study presented a connection or relationship to at least one other church, and contributed to the unexpected pattern, or rhythm, of the city’s development which came to light. This presentation focuses on three churches located in close proximity to one another. Consisting of two denominations and two European origins, the history of Saint John Nepomuk Chapel, Trinity Lutheran Church, and Saints Peter and Paul Church succinctly illustrate the culture, architecture, and religious belief systems that were a result of exponential population growth in the early- to mid-nineteenth century—especially in the history rich neighborhoods found south of Downtown Saint Louis.

[1] H. Paul Douglass, The St. Louis Church Survey, (New York: George H, Doran Company, 1924) 29.

[2] William Blew, A History of Steeplechasing (Boston: Page and Co., 1901), 4.

[3] Ibid 4  Ibid, 55

[4] Ibid, 29 6  James Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, (Boulder: Pruett Publishing Company, 1981), 31; Douglass, Church Survey, 173

[5] Nini Harris, Bohemian Hill: An American Story, (Saint Louis: Saint John Nepomuk Parish, 2004) 3. 8


[6] Dennis Rathert, Trinity Lutheran Church: A Pictorial Souvenir, (Saint Louis: Trinity Lutheran Church, 2000)

[7] .

[8] Ibid       

[9] Jose Sanchez and Hilda Willman, Sanctuary in Soulard: the First 150 Years of Saints Peter and Paul Parish, (Saint Louis: Saints Peter and Paul Parish, 1999) 8. The German population of Saint Louis had grown 400 percent in the previous decade.

[10] Ibid, 10.

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