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"Renaissance: A History of the Central West End"

In Candace O'Connor's latest literary offering, the author digs into 140 years of Central West End history, complete with 300 pages of archival photos

"Renaissance: A History of the Central West End," traces the neighborhood's history over the past century — from its stylish start to troubled times to the successes of its current urban renewal. (click for larger version)
August 09, 2017
"The history of the Central West End is a history of St. Louis's place in the world."

Those words by former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay are written in the forward to the new book, "Renaissance: A History of the Central West End," by local author Candace O'Connor.

O'Connor has been writing about St. Louis institutions and icons for more than 15 years, from the history of Washington University in St. Louis to the life of civil rights pioneer Frankie Muse Freeman. Her latest book is 300 pages of fascinating history and archival photos.

"Renaissance" follows a timeline from 1875 to present day. It's ambitious to say the least, with more than 140 years of ground to cover.

Writing a non-fiction book of history has its challenges, said O'Connor, and she was grateful for the resources of Washington University's Becker Medical Library, the Mercantile Library, Missouri Historical Society and more.

"Every project is complicated in its own way," she said. "The history of a neighborhood isn't just sitting there. You really have to dig into the newspapers."

O'Connor was looking to answer several questions: When was the heyday of the Central West End? When did things take a turn for the worse, then back again? What were the factors that caused this?

"Research is a lot of slogging through things not necessarily interesting to read," she said. "Once in awhile things spring out at you."

O'Connor found that real estate ads – which can illustrate a rise or fall in home values – helped paint a picture of the health of the neighborhood.

A Central West End street scene, undated, kicks off Chapter 5, "Upbeat And Vibrant: The Central West End Today." The photograph is from the Becker Medical Archives at the Washington University School of Medicine. (click for larger version)
A Story of Time & Place

The idea for "Renaissance: A History of the Central West End" came out of a meeting for the recently produced documentary "A Place Worth Saving: The Story of the Central West End."

Present at that meeting were some heavy hitters: Nine Network President and CEO Jack Galmiche; William Danforth, Washington University in St. Louis chancellor emeritus; Fran Levine, president of the Missouri History Museum; and John Dubinsky, president and CEO of Westmoreland Associates, LLC, a board member with the Cortex Innovation Community.

"Dr. Danforth had decided, as he looked back over his career, that one of his proudest moments involved the Washington University Medical Center in revitalizing the Central West End," said O'Connor. "We knew we wanted to do the documentary; he said we should have a book to go with it."

Where the documentary focuses on a narrow timeline from the 1970s forward, O'Connor's book is more comprehensive.

"I decided it shouldn't just be a book about the revitalization of the area, but the Central West End as a whole," she said. "The book goes more into the early days of the Central West End when it was a real center for the elite, wealthy of St. Louis."

O'Connor found her starting point after reading a book published in the early 1900s called "A Book of St. Louisans."

"There was this puff piece about wealthy men, and as I went through it I was stunned by the number who lived in the Central West End," she said.

"Pictorial St. Louis" – what O'Connor calls the "bible of St. Louis history" – was also a jumping off point. Written by Camille N. Dry and published in 1876 by Richard Compton, the book was the basis of a recent exhibit at the Missouri History Museum titled "A Walk in 1875 St. Louis."

Unlike the documentary "A Place Worth Saving," which had to be kept short, O'Connor had the freedom of space.

The Colonnade of States at the 1904 World's Fair. From the archives of the Missouri History Museum. (click for larger version)
"I was able to put emphasis on the early days," she said, which includes notables David Francis, promoter of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair; and William K. Bixby, who lived in a palatial mansion where the Chase Park Plaza sits now.

"You think about what St. Louis was like in 1904, 1910, and the common element was wealth," said O'Connor.

"I talk about how the World's Fair really made a huge difference," she said. "I live in Skinker DeBaliviere. All these neighborhoods sprang up in the prosperity after the fair."

There were people of different ethnicities, industries and politics living in close proximity to one another.

"One man, Samuel Kennard, was a Civil War hero on the Confederate side. He lived just blocks away from a Civil War veteran on the Union side," she said.

O'Connor covers the blighting of Mill Creek Valley, located from about 20th Street to Midtown, and the resulting migration of African Americans west. Many relocated to the Central West End, prompting a period of "white flight."

Some of the Central West End's private places didn't welcome those of the Jewish faith, either. Cotton merchant Jacob Goldman didn't let that stop him, O'Connor said. He developed his own private street called Hortense Place, named after his late daughter.

A Love of History

O'Connor and her family settled in St. Louis when her husband, Robert Wiltenburg, took a position as dean of University College at Washington University.

"We've lived in St. Louis for 35 years," she said. "I did a variety of freelance things, but I loved history."

Candance O'Connor (click for larger version)
O'Connor worked at the Missouri History Museum and became the first editor of their book press.

"I learned a lot about St. Louis that way," she said. "When I left the history museum I wanted to do more writing than editing."

Add to her many writing projects the documentary "Oh Freedom After While: The Missouri Sharecroppers Protest of 1939," which O'Connor wrote and co-produced. It aired nationally on PBS in 2000 and earned a regional Emmy.

"I did learn a lot about history," she said. "How important it is to capture history before it disappears. Once somebody is gone their story is gone forever."

O'Connor's goal for all of her books is for them to be a balance of facts and compelling stories, she said.

"You want it to be interesting, but it has to be a book of record, too. On the other hand, you don't want people to be bored out of their minds.

"History is a story – not a recital of dull facts," she added. "It's somebody reading everything they can about a person or place and weaving it together into a story – all true, but giving a feeling of a time and place. Otherwise people aren't going to read it."

Candace O'Connor will sign and discuss "Renaissance: A History of the Central West End" at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave., on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. Visit left-bank.com for details.

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