Who Stayed at 2316 Pine Street?

27, October 2016

As a cataloger of urban architecture photos, I spend my days looking at pictures of old buildings—lots of them. That may sound boring, but when you consider the intriguing stories tucked away inside St. Louis’s historic structures, you realize it’s anything but.

Photo of abandoned building at 2316 Pine Street2316 Pine Street, former home of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, poet Walt's brother. Missouri History Museum.

Consider the four-story abandoned brick building featured in this photo from our Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection. The floral-patterned sign above the double door marks it as 2316, one of five matching residences in this row on Pine Street. Windows from the first level to the shingled roof have been shattered to reveal the remnants of patterned wallpaper, a torn curtain hangs in the dormer window on the roof, and KEEP OUT signs are posted on the remaining slivers of intact windows. Now imagine the building in its time of splendor, the undamaged windows framed by curtains and possibly a carriage waiting out front. The time is September 1879, and the residence is that of St. Louis’s water commissioner and his daughters. The commissioner, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, is awaiting the arrival of his brother, who will stay with him for the next few months. That brother? Famed American poet Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman arrived in St. Louis on September 12, 1879, and stayed one night at the Planter’s House Hotel before departing for Kansas. From there he ventured to Colorado to explore Pike’s Peak and Pueblo. He fell ill sometime during his travels and returned to St. Louis in early October, where he remained until January 1880, living with his brother all the while. During his stay in St. Louis, Whitman marveled at the Gateway to the West. The greatest wonder he encountered was the Mississippi River, which he writes about as “Earth’s Most Important Stream” in his work Specimen Days, where he described the contributions of the river to the fertile plains of the west. 

In addition to admiring the natural phenomena of St. Louis, Whitman took time to stroll the city’s streets and interact with the general public. In the "St. Louis Memoranda" section of his complete works, he described the streets of St. Louis as “showy, modern, metropolitan with hurrying crowds, vehicles, horse-cars, hubbub.” St. Louis, in turn, described him this way in a September 13, 1879, edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

“a man well advanced in years and his snow-white hair and the long white beard which grows upon a large portion of his face give him a decidedly venerable appearance…he walks with a cane, using considerable care, as he has not fully recovered from a paralytic stroke.”

Painting of Walt WhitmanThis late-1880s painting of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins resembles the 1879 Globe-Democrat description. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This illustration of Whitman supports his kindly character, which was readily apparent to the people of St. Louis—especially the city’s schoolchildren. Before Whitman became an accomplished writer, he was a schoolteacher. This experience fostered a deep passion for education and an interest in improving the school system. Twice a week, Whitman visited the classrooms of St. Louis to spin fantastic tales for the kindergartners, earning the nicknames Kris Kringle and Father Christmas due to his white beard and cane.

Although this post shares just a few examples of Whitman’s time here, it’s hard not to imagine him exploring every inch of the city donned in what the Globe-Democrat described as a “gray traveling suit...something after the fashion of the Goddess of Liberty as shown on a fifty-cent piece” with cane in hand, smiling and greeting the people of St. Louis.

I hope this story inspires you to dig a little deeper the next time you find a photo of an old building in our collections. After all, you never know what stories await!

—Michelle Setzer, Elkington Urban Architecture Photo Cataloger

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