by Aimee Levitt
We uncovered a lot of fascinating stories last summer while we were compiling our Literary St. Louis project, and one of our favorites was that Walt Whitman's brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman (known as Jeff), had designed and built the water tower on North Grand Avenue and 20th Street. Sadly, our bubble has been burst by Jim Steffen, an architectural historian who lives in University City.
"The water tower was actually designed by George I. Barnett, one of the first architects in St. Louis," Steffen says. "He also designed the Shaw House at the Botanical Garden and his sons designed the cathedral on Lindell." Steffen cites the book A Guide to the Architecture of St. Louis by Frank Peters and George McCue as the source of this damning information. Peters and McCue were members of American Institute of Architects, so their word is pretty unimpeachable.
So where did this Jeff Whitman rumor come from?
Steffen blames big brother Walt, who wrote "An Engineer's Obituary" for Jeff, which appeared in the Engineering Record on December 13, 1890. It read, in part:
He married in 1859, and not long after was invited by the Board of Public Works of St. Louis, Missouri, to come there and build a new and fitting water-works for that great city. Whitman accepted the call, and moved and settled there, and had been a resident of St. Louis ever since.
Yesterday Steffen called up Lorin Cuoco, co-author with William Gass of Literary St. Louis: A Guide, the book where we found this water tower story.
"Cuoco said [the obituary] was where she got the information," Steffen informs us. "She knew it was secondhand. She had not been aware of the Barnett connection and thought the designer of the water works probably had a hand in building the tower."
Cuoco promised Steffen there would be an addendum in any future editions of Literary St. Louis.
This is not Steffen's first public attempt to dispel the Whitman water tower myth.
"Six or seven years ago, I was at a St. Louis trivia contest at the Historical Society," he says. "That was one of the questions. I strenuously objected, but no one knew what to do with me."
Steffen admits that Jeff Whitman designing the water tower makes for a better story. But it's time to give credit where credit is due, to George I. Barnett, whose older brother, sadly, was not a great American poet.