I live in what is called the “Queen of the St. Louis suburbs,” the city of Kirkwood, population 27,540. Kirkwood is the oldest planned suburb west of the Mississippi River, founded in 1853 and named after the engineer who built the railroad west from St. Louis. James Pugh Kirkwood isn’t buried here; he made his fortune and returned to New York, his home state. But we still have the train station, and it still functions as one, serving the Amtrak line from St. Louis to Kansas City.
I live in the northeast quadrant of the town; the city center is 1.1 miles from my house. In nice weather, which we have generally not had this winter, I can walk to the library, the YMCA, the downtown business district, the farmer’s market, and the train station in under 20 minutes. For three years, I had an office in downtown Kirkwood, and it truly seemed like I was living and working in a small town.
Kirkwood is a walking kind of city. When I take walks, I think about writers and poets known for their walking, like Charles Dickens (up to 20 miles a day) and the Romantic poets, or the 17th century poet Thomas Traherne, whose poem “Walking” is one of the best known of the poems about the subject.
On Saturday, I managed to slip a walk in between winter storms (the temperature actually reached the 40s before the next storm hit Saturday night). Unexpectedly, my one-hour walk became a journey into architecture, history, imagination, and poetry. I was hoping for some exercise, and discovered much more.
I started north, passing frame ranch homes from the early 1950s and bungalows built in the post-World War II building boom. This area had been mostly dairy farms until the demand for housing after the war gobbled them up. It’s also hilly, seemingly more so when you’re walking than driving. The houses are well maintained, largely two-bedroom frame construction with occasional remodeled variations boasting an extra bedroom or a den.
I’m aiming for what we call “the cut-through,” a side-walked alley that extends behind houses to the next major north-south street. It meanders behind backyards, and I note a large tree has been uprooted. I reach the street and turn south, first passing a small subdivision (one short street) of almost identical ranch homes with roofs sloping down over carports. These starkly modern ranches were built in the late 1950s, and I’ve heard the homeowners have applied for historical status, which makes me feel historical myself.
And then the unexpected—a farmhouse, an old farmhouse set well back from the street, a remnant of what the area must have looked like 100 years ago. It sits quietly and modestly, as if to avoid calling attention to itself. It’s easy to miss—right nearby is a rather opulent three-story Victorian, or actually a contemporary version of what we think a Victorian house should look like (Kirkwood has a number of these kinds of homes). The green and red colors nearly shout for attention, and I look back at the quiet little farmhouse. I imagine the kinds of families living in each.
Then it’s an eclectic line of ranches, Dutch colonials, barn-like houses, more ranches, a contemporary arts-and-craft-style home, a large colonial next to a small stucco bungalow (if this sounds like a mish-mash, it is; but it’s actually what gives Kirkwood a lot of its architectural character). And then comes the crescent.
The crescent is more of a wishbone, a one-lane street forming a “U” with an exit street in the middle. There are some 10 houses in all, one brick ranch and the rest frame homes from the 1930s. It’s a quiet street, heavily wooded, and the people who live here like their privacy and seclusion. I walk on.
I manage to get to my favorite street. It isn’t precisely in Kirkwood, but in the adjacent community of Glendale. Highland Avenue is a one-block private street, usually chained off at the back end, five houses on each side of the street, almost all of them built between 1910 and 1930.
They are solid, brick and stucco, except for the street’s one exception—a one-story frame home that is more “1940s California” than anything else. This is the house where I imagine this poem by W.D. Snodgrass:
A Locked House
As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.
I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?
Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such
Idea. We said as much.
We’d watched friends driven to betray;
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.
The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.
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