St. Louis has statues or street names for everybody from Alexander von Humboldt to cool Papa Bell. Where are the Eliots?
By Aaron Belz
It seems that St. Louisans have all but forgotten T.S. Eliot’s legacy in our city. You know, T.S. Eliot—author of “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” winner of the Nobel Prize, the Dante Medal and the British Order of Merit, not to mention a couple of posthumous Tony Awards for the use of his poetry in the Broadway musical Cats. We forget that the notorious father of literary Modernism was born here (on September 26, 1888), grew up on Locust Street and went to Smith Academy (now known as MICDS). He took the name “Prufrock” from a St. Louis furniture store; the poem’s yellow fog came from factories across the river.
Yet St. Louis boasts neither memorials nor museums to T.S. Eliot—not even a souvenir shop—only a plaque in the AT&T parking lot in the 2600 block of Locust, marking the site of Eliot’s boyhood home. In fact, even to speak of Eliot publicly might be to admit a certain shame that he left the farm and went on to Harvard University, to the Sorbonne, to England, to bigger and better things.
Or perhaps it is to reveal that we don’t really get his poetry.
But however strenuously we ignore Eliot, we walk on his family legacy all the time. Henry Ware Eliot, T.S.’ father, worked for the Hydraulic Press Brick Co. for 40 years, spending most of that time as its CEO and chairman of the board. The company’s output was prolifi c. It is hard to walk anywhere in Soulard without spotting an old sidewalk paver stamped “HYDRAULIC.” When we drive in the city, Hydraulic brick forms the substratum beneath layers of cracking asphalt. The Eads Bridge is constructed of Hydraulic brick, as is the Anheuser-Busch Brew House; in fact, so is the Chrysler Building in New York City.
Back in the day, Hydraulic manufactured 642,000 bricks daily, almost 200 million per year, and shipped them all over the country. Its plant sprawled west of the intersection of Kingshighway (then spelled “King’s Highway”), making use of several clay mines a short train ride away. Hydraulic produced a range of colors and styles, from street pavers to decorative architectural bricks. The hardness of dry-pressed brick combined with the lightness of aggregate materials made these bricks an important factor in engineering progress. “This is, without doubt, a great enterprise,” reported the trade journal Brick in May 1904.
One might observe that the very bricks we and many other Americans have depended on for more than a century were bought with money that ended up in the bursar’s office at Harvard in the fall of 1906, in support of T.S.’ undergraduate education. One might picture the stylish, skeptical young intellectual in a blazer and tie and think of the hundreds of thousands of bricks being pressed every day by St. Louis laborers.
Whenever I see the “HYDRAULIC” stamp, I picture Henry Eliot nearing retirement, reclining behind a desk in a posh office on the 12th floor of the old Missouri Trust Building, maybe getting ready to head home for the evening. He must have worried about his precocious son back in Boston, seat of the Eliots’ American heritage, as he oversaw the massive brick-making operation on the frontier. Young Tom, in turn, might have explained to his Harvard friends, among them Conrad Aiken, that his father was in the construction business in St. Louis but the family’s roots were in the East. At that point he was not the T.S. Eliot we know, not the elder statesman, but a boy in college.
I sometimes wonder who played the more important role in culture: Tom or his father. As far as St. Louis is concerned, it was certainly his father. This is true not only in terms of the material environment he helped create, the one in which we still live, but also in terms of his position as the archetypal St. Louis tradesman. Henry stood prominently in a line of great St. Louis entrepreneurs, industrialists, hard-goods manufacturers, shoe moguls, beer brewers, machinists, union laborers, carpenters and metalworkers. Tom may have stood more prominently, but he stood in a lineage less relevant to our lives in this river city, a line of great poets. So why is there no Henry Ware Eliot statue? He’s our Paul Bunyan, after all.
It’s a shame that Hydraulic wasn’t yet doing business in 1853 when Henry’s father, the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, founded Eliot Seminary, which would later become Washington University, or in 1859, when he founded the first girls’ school west of the Appalachians—Mary Institute. He also opened the doors of the aforementioned Smith Academy, helped form the Saint Louis Art Museum, was instrumental in starting the St. Louis Public Schools, all without the benefit of his son’s harder, lighter brick.
The Eliots gave us the building materials for our city—and for our souls, our minds, our hearts. Yet we haven’t even named a street after them.