From Preservation Issues, Volume 5, Number 2

The Capitol of the Women of America

by Esley Hamilton
University City's City Hall visually dominates the group of buildings clustering around the spacious intersection of Delmar Boulevard and Trinity Avenue in University City. They constitute one of the most remarkable civic centers in the country, an embodiment of the City Beautiful movement that was inspired by the great world's fairs. The Civic Plaza, as it is known, is also a reminder of the vision of University City's colorful founder, E.G. Lewis; it is associated with the women's movement in the years preceding the passage of the 19th Amendment and is a model of adaptive reuse, as most of the buildings have been converted to new functions.

The City Hall embodies all of these themes. An octagonal building 80 feet in diameter, its five tall stories rise 135 feet to a copper-clad dome. It was built in 1903 to be the headquarters of the Lewis Publishing Company. The Woman's Magazine, the company's most successful publication, rivaled the Ladies Home Journal with a circulation of well over a million copies a month. The unusual design by Herbert C. Chivers (1869-1946) made the Magazine Building, as it was originally called, an advertisement not only for Lewis publications but also for the adjacent residential development he was promoting.

Photo by Robert Pettuus. One of a series of female figures that decorate the fifth floor ballroom of the Magazine Building. Now the City Hall of University City.

Lewis had observed how St. Louis was moving westward. and he calculated that this ground, the highest point in the western corridor, would attract upper-class home buyers. His University Heights Subdivision Number One was an innovative development, a private place like the fashionable enclaves in St. Louis but offering building sites to a range of incomes. Minimum construction costs were part of the deed restrictions, with the most expensive near the top of the hill on Delmar and Princeton and the most modest at the bottom on Dartmouth. The streets were all named for Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges with the exception of Trinity, named for Lewis's alma mater in Hartford, Connecticut. "U. Heights One" was listed on the National Register in 1980. The City Hall is part of the private subdivision and must conform to its regulations even today.

Several of the houses in U. Heights One were designed by Chivers, a native of England who came to St. Louis in 1893. A self-promoter rivaling Lewis himself, Chivers published a volume of over a thousand designs, called Artistic Homes. In true Beaux-Arts fashion, he integrated painting and sculpture into the Magazine Building. Flanking the entrances were recumbent lions by sculptor William Bailey (1857-1922) and perched above the arched top windows were pairs of cherubs, each over 10 feet high and weighing more than two tons. These chubby boys were removed in 1945, but the rest ot the building remains nearly unaltered.

Photo not attributed. Complete model of University City Plaza, showing institutions and buildings projected by Lewis. This comprises his ideal conception of the central group of the "City Beautiful" as the capitol of the women in America. Five of these buildings, i.e., the homes of The Woman's Magazine, and of the Woman's National Daily, the Magazine Press Building, the Art Academy of the People's University and the City Hall of University City were built.
The marble and scagliola lobby centers on a curving staircase flanked by Bailey's sculptures of lithe maidens holding torcheres. Ceiling murals by Ralph Chesley Ott (1875-1931) depict aspects of E. G. Lewis's life and character (as he saw it) in highly allegorical form: seller (with a laboratory flask), artist (paintbrush), idler referring to his condition on arrival in St. Louis), publisher (printing press) and inventor (magnifying glass and tape). Other murals on the second floor are believed to represent the arts. Ott was a native of Springfield, MO. Although best known as a portrait painter, he also created murals for the St. Louis City Hall and the State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Photo by Frederick Breme. Civic Plaza as it appears today: (1) the Lion Gates. (2) the Magazine Building now city hall; (3) Magazine Press Building now the police station. (4) Art Institute of the People's University now the Lewis Center.

Photos at right are the courtesy of the University City Public Library Archives to Preservation Issues. The Woman's Magazine published by the Lewis Publishing Company in University City claimed to have "the largest paid subscription . . . in the world."

The fifth floor is devoted to a single room topped by a domed ceiling rising 35 feet from the floor and supported by eight ionic columns. The elaborate plaster decoration includes a series of identical female figures by Bailey, set in niches along the walls and holding concealed lights. Originally called the ballroom, this space now serves as the University City Council Chamber and Municipal Courtroom.

Lewis incorporated University City in 1906, with himself as mayor. Two years later, he founded the American Woman's League, which was to advance, protect and uplift American womanhood. He held a national convention here in 1910, using the Magazine Building and the nearby Art Academy of the People's University, another project of the league. (The building is now the Lewis Center.) The next year, the league established its own republic. Mrs. Lewis was sworn in as president by Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 had been the first woman to run for President of the United States.

The Lewis empire collapsed in bankruptcy and litigation in 1912. The founder moved to Atascadero, Calif., near San Louis Obispo, where he established another visionary community. He declared bankruptcy again in 1924 and four years later began a jail term for mail fraud. He died in 1950. University City, however, survived Lewis's departure and soon prospered. The city hall was used for several years by the Orcutt Moving and Storage Company, which called it "The Most Beautiful Storage Plant in America." In 1930, Mayor Eugene Ruth traded it for the old city hall, then located two blocks east.

Photo by Robert Pettuus. The marble and scagliola lobby of the Magazine Building. the City Hall of University City. centers on a curving staircase flanked by sculptor William Bailey's "lithe maidens."

In its early years, the Magazine Building was visible from Forest Park, and it attracted many visitors from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. At night, a powerful spotlight operated from the dome; it was restored in 1981 and is still used on special occasions. One of them will be Friday, April 21, when University City welcomes participants at Missouri's 10th annual historic preservation conference with a special tour and reception.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Esley Hamilton is a historian/architectural historian employed by the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. He is the co-author, with Julius                                         K. Hunter, of Portland and Westmoreland Places.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.