In the late 1800s, word of St. Louis hosting an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 1904 was sweeping through the city. By 1888, preparation for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or St. Louis World’s Fair, was in full swing. Improvements were made to the city’s water supply, parkland was cleared, and surrounding neighborhoods were built. Portland and Westmoreland Places became popular locations for wealthy residents to build homes.
In 1897, George Warren Brown, the founder of Brown Shoe Company, participated in the development boom by building his dream home at 40 Portland Place.
E.R. Lerwick, the current homeowner of the property, has extensively researched the home and collected memorabilia related to the property. Lerwick’s late husband purchased the estate in 1961, and her family is the fourth to own the estate during its 120-year history. She provided us with some insights into the home’s history.
“Our family has spent 56 years at 40 Portland Place, and we have treasured all the history and the wonderful privilege it is to live in such an historic and unique place,” says E.R. Lerwick.
Brown, along with two other investors, Alvin Bryan and Jerome Desnoyers, founded Bryan, Brown & Company in 1878. At that time, most shoes sold in St. Louis had been shipped from manufacturers located in eastern United States. Brown, Bryan, and Desnoyers started the first St. Louis shoe factory so they could sell shoes locally at a lower cost. The factory was successful, and the company rapidly expanded to western parts of the country.
By 1881, the company incorporated as Bryan-Brown Shoe Company. After Desnoyers retired, the name was changed to Brown Shoe Company.
George Warren Brown hired notable architect Frederick Bonsack to build his Richardson Romanesque Revival–style home. Bonsack had earned his reputation after working as the general contractor for the Bell Telephone Building on Olive Street. He would later build many St. Louis buildings, including churches and homes.
When the Brown home was being built in 1897, the Richardson Romanesque Revival look was going out of style. It was a conservative choice, says E.R. Lerwick, especially compared to newer styles being built in the area. For example, around the same time as the Browns’ home was built, architect Theodore Link—who also designed Union Station—built a home in the newer French Renaissance–style just east of Portland Place.
At first, just George Warren Brown, his wife Bettie Bofinger Brown, and George’s mother lived in the six-bed, eight-bath limestone home. But in 1899, says E.R. Lerwick, the Browns took in a two-year-old foster son who they later adopted.
Lerwick notes that despite the large square-footage of the house, it is obvious it was constructed for a childless family. “The second floor layout contains a very small bedroom with a connected bath and then two enormous suites of rooms, which include separate bedrooms, baths, dressing rooms, and sitting rooms,” Lerwick says. “The third floor was built for the live-in staff to occupy.”
One of the biggest highlights of the property is the solarium with the large art-glass skylight. This room was part of a large addition attached to the east side of the house in 1908. It was designed by architect Albert Groves, the same architect who built the Brown Shoe Company’s headquarters in 1907. “The addition, which included the basement, first, second, and third floors was so seamless, it’s barely detectable today,” Lerwick says.
The addition was built around the same time Brown’s line of children’s shoes, “Buster Brown Shoes,” were taking off. Brown Shoe Company debuted these shoes at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair with the help of their mascot—a boy named “Buster Brown” and his dog “Tige.”
Today, 40 Portland Place is once again on the market. “Our family has spent 56 years at 40 Portland Place, and we have treasured all the history and the wonderful privilege it is to live in such an historic and unique place,” E.R. Lerwick says. “We feel a tremendous responsibility to ensure the next family will love and care for it as much as the Browns did and we have.”
Photos by Reed Radcliffe