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This house needs help: Fundraiser aims to give life to historic Lyle House in Carondelet Park

This house needs help: Fundraiser aims to give life to historic Lyle House in Carondelet Park

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For about 150 years, the imposing, white frame house has sat atop a slight rise of a hill in what is now Carondelet Park, greeting visitors to the park and the surrounding neighborhoods of Holly Hills, Carondelet and Boulevard Heights.

But the house, built by carpenter Alexander Lacy Lyle likely around the early 1860s, needs some help. Windows are boarded up and broken. Black shutters are falling off or coming loose. Raccoons are getting inside and waddling up the grand central staircase. People seeking shelter are leaving blankets, sleeping bags and trash under the back porch.

Holly Hills Improvement Association President Christa Edelen and St. Louis alderwomen Sarah Wood Martin and Anne Schweitzer talk about the historic Lyle House in Carondelet Park. A fundraising walk-run event will be held Nov. 13 to help fix up the house, which they would love used as a restaurant, event space, or store.

The Holly Hills Improvement Association and the Carondelet Community Betterment Association are hosting a fundraiser Nov. 13 called the “Lyle Mile,” a walk-run, silent auction and concert in the park. Their goal is to raise $50,000 toward getting the house “user ready,” for a tenant such as a restaurant, cafe, retail store or caterer. The home is owned by the city.

“You drive into the neighborhood, and this is like our grand entrance,” said Christa Edelen, president of the Holly Hills Improvement Association and organizer of the event. “You see this and it’s sitting here, and you can’t help but notice that it just doesn’t look healthy.”

Carondelet historian Nini Harris says the house is the oldest high-style wooden frame house standing in the city of St. Louis. (There are older ones that are smaller and simpler.) Lyle, born in 1804, came to the city from Virginia as a young man and quickly found business in the booming river town.

He eventually got into the white lead and oil manufacturing business with Henry Taylor Blow, who later became a U.S. representative. Though some sources say the house was built before 1850, Lyle retired in 1858 and records show he bought a 4 ⅓ acre tract of land from Blow the next year, and he likely built the house before the Civil War began, Harris says.

Lyle and his wife, Caroline, had 14 children, but many of them died in childhood or as young adults.

There are stories that the Lyle family was forced to leave the home in the middle of the night because they supported the Confederacy, but Harris has found no evidence to back that. She hasn’t found records that any of the children served in the war, and his son, Oscar, wrote that his father died in the house in 1874. He and his family are buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Harris figures Lyle had a crew build the house but was very hands-on as a carpenter. “The woodwork in the place is wonderful,” she said. “One of the things that makes it special is we don’t have many structures that are public that have Greek revival woodwork. That’s just another thing that makes this house special. He built it well. And the size of the rooms, the proportions, they are so gracious.”

The Lyle family sold the property to the city in 1875 for $15,000. That and other surrounding pieces of land became Carondelet Park, which was dedicated on July 4, 1876, the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

For years, the house served as a home for the park superintendent. Sometime in the 1960s, a group of men began regularly meeting in the house to play pinochle. Some of them met there several days a week up until the past decade, when they could literally not get up the steps by themselves. Harris remembers seeing one family drop their elderly relative off by lifting him up the stairs and placing him there with his walker.

“That club kept more marriages together after retirement,” said Harris. “There were guys who were there five and six days a week. I think it was the only peace their wives ever had. And they were outrageous; when you’d walk in the door and you’d hear this call: ‘Woman in the house!’”

The club eventually accepted women, but the club’s numbers dwindled as members died. One club member reportedly slumped over in his chair and died shortly after another player asked if he had the jack of diamonds.

Carondelet Park pinochle club

Larry Vollertsen, left, Rudy Knollman, center, and Orville Vogel, right, and Bob Vick, not pictured holding the cards, play pinochle at the Lyle House in Carondelet Park in 2011.

David Carson dcarson@post-dispatch.com

“So at the wake they put the jack of diamonds in his casket, and they buried him with it,” Cliff Portell of Mehlville, then 82, told the Post-Dispatch in 2011, the last story the paper wrote about the group.

The players kept an eye on the house, and kept it lively and functioning until a few years ago.

One recent morning, organizer Edelen and alderwomen Sarah Martin and Anne Schweitzer toured the house, where plaster and broken glass and animal droppings littered the floors and stairs. Water-stained pinochle scoring sheets and member names and phone numbers sat framed on a mantel, along with a framed certificate from Mayor Vince Schoemehl proclaiming Dec. 15, 1987, as Carondolet Park Pinochle Players and Senior Citizens Day.

Lyle House in Carondelet Park

From left: St. Louis Alderwomen Sarah Martin and Anne Schweitzer, and Christa Edelen, president of the Holly Hills Improvement Association, stand in front of the Lyle House in Carondelet Park. The women are leading an effort to raise money with the goal of $50,000 toward getting the house “user ready,” for a tenant like a restaurant, cafe, retail store or caterer.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

“Sarah, I’ve seen a lot worse, OK?” Edelen, a real estate agent, assured.

Martin remembered the house was in much better shape in 2018, when she helped run a Valentine’s Day beignets and espresso fundraising event. People happily came out during an ice storm to give them money for sweet treats and a chance to poke around inside.

The house has four main rooms on the first floor, four on the second, with a kitchen equipped with metal midcentury era cabinets off the back.

Schweitzer said the layout reminds her of a restaurant in Nashville she enjoys called Husk. “It’s just so exciting to think, walking around this place, thinking of what it could be,” she said.

“You can almost hear the laughter,” said Martin.

Since the house belongs to the city, they have more control over what happens to it and how to fix it up, the women said. They haven’t had a formal estimate done about what the home needs, but believe most work would be cosmetic. Parking could be available at a nearby maintenance building.

Fixing up the house would bring more people to an underutilized part of the park, which is already attracting players at nearby pickleball courts, they said. Those players would walk over to the house if a vendor offered drinks and sandwiches, they figure.

“We had somebody in a neighborhood meeting be like, ‘Why are you spending money on that when there’s so much crime?’” said Schweitzer. “I’m like, we have a giant vacant house in the middle of a park. This is a crime prevention strategy. This is a liability right now. This could be an asset. This is so much of a St. Louis problem. So many of our liabilities could be assets with a little creativity and some money.”

“The woodwork in the place is wonderful. One of the things that makes it special is we don’t have many structures that are public that have Greek revival woodwork. That’s just another thing that makes this house special."

Carondelet historian Nini Harris

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