Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding a new home for the estate of Kirkwood's Henry Shaw

Most St. Louisans know the story of Henry Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Shaw moved to St. Louis from England in the early-19th century, making a fortune selling hardware in the growing city of St. Louis and outfitting travelers headed west. Shaw then shared his wealth with his adopted home town, endowing St. Louis with Tower Grove Park and the world famous Missouri Botanical Garden.

On the other hand, most St. Louisans do not know the story of Daniel Sidney Brown. Brown was a cooper (barrel maker), supplying barrels used at the Cupples Warehouses in downtown St. Louis. Like Shaw, Brown's passion was horticulture.

Brown traveled the world collecting rare species of orchids. Much of his collection became the growing stock supplying the beautiful and rare orchids we all enjoy today at the Missouri Botanical Garden. But Brown was more than just a plant fancier. Because of his work, at least one rare species of orchid was saved from extinction.

Today, Brown's historic home, "Brownhurst" in Kirkwood, sits vacant and deteriorated on the campus of Vianney High School. The building has suffered a lot of deferred maintenance, but is overall in very good condition. Buildings in far worse shape have been preserved in St.Louis. Nonetheless, Vianney is pushing for its demolition to free the site for other uses.

There is a slim hope the building might be saved. Vianney has offered $30,000 to anyone willing to relocate it to a new site. Moving large historic buildings might seem an overwhelming task, but it is becoming more of a common practice. As you might imagine, there are lots of logistics involved to make it happen, requiring a coordinated community effort.

There is one big catch. Vianney is requiring that the building be moved by October 9, 2011 in order to take advantage of the $30,000 offer. Also the owners are selling it for $1 to a buyer who can move it and prove financing.

The question is, where would be a good site for the building, and who would cover the cost? Here's a long shot idea: Perhaps the building could be moved to a site on or near the Botanical Garden and preserved in the city of St. Louis?

With the connection between Brown and Shaw's Garden, and the historic significance of both, perhaps a new home for Brownhurst could be along Shaw Avenue near the Garden?

The move would add another interesting chapter to Brown and Shaw's story. With the help of Brown, the Garden saved a rare plant species for the world, and with the help of the Garden, the legacy of Brown's historic home might be saved.

In one other interesting twist, unlike many wealthy industrialists of his time, Brown did not choose to live out his final years in the peace and quiet of the lush suburbs of St. Louis County. Instead, Brown moved back to the City of St. Louis, moving into a home on Washington Avenue.

So maybe, about a hundred years later, his Kirkwood mansion might follow him back to the city?

(Note: Thanks to Matt Bivens for the historical details of this story. Matt is a Kirkwood resident and expert on St. Louis history and architecture.)

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