George I. Barnett was born in Nottingham, England in 1815. After completing his classical school education at age 16, Barnett worked for three years with a builder before apprenticeship with a London architectural firm. Barnett left England for the United States in early 1839, remaining in New York City for six months before departing for St. Louis.
By mid century he had acquired a wife (Ann Lewis), three children (Sarah, Emma and Absalom) and an enviable reputation as Missouri's foremost architect. The only extant building from his first decade of practice is St. Vincent de Paul Church in LaSalle Park. Built in 1844-45, just a few years after Barnett's College Church (razed) for St. Louis University, St. Vincent de Paul is one of the oldest churches in Missouri.
St. Vincent de Paul Church in LaSalle Park/Vintage Photo of Henry Shaw's tomb in the Missouri Botanical Gardens
Although Barnett would go on to design other churches, hotels, public buildings, schools, town and country houses, the waterworks and white water tower, a wide assortment of commercial and institutional buildings and the Governor's Mansion, the client most often associated with Barnett's long career was Henry Shaw. Barnett's first building for Shaw was Tower Grove, the 1849 country house that became the nucleus for the Missouri Botanical Garden; one of his last was Shaw's mausoleum, designed five years before Henry Shaw's death in 1889.
In the meantime, Barnett had married Elizabeth Armstrong after his first wife's death in 1855. By the time George I. Barnett died in 1898, their sons George D. And Tom P. had established a lucrative practice on their own with George D.'s brother-in-law, John I. Haynes. All three partners in Barnett, Haynes & Barnett had trained with the elder Barnett as had Absalom, Barnett's son from his first marriage, who left circa 1888 for San Francisco.
George I. Barnett's legacy, however, is much larger than his own works or those created by members of his immediate family. In an era before study at MIT and l'École des Beaux Arts became fashionable, aspiring young architects gained most of their professional training in the office of established practitioners.
One of the first to work with Barnett before forming his own firm was Henry G. Isaacs; Isaacs came to Barnett from the office of Richard Upjohn in New York City.
French-born Icarian Alfred H. Piquenard designed the still-standing Mullanphy Home for Emigrants (1609 North 14th Street) with Barnett and worked on the new Illinois State Capitol before his untimely death in 1876.
Charles F. May, who later designed Grace Lutheran, St. Peter's Evangelical and Trinity Lutheran Churches, worked as a draftsman for Barnett before opening his own office in 1880.
Baltimore-born William Kirchner designed a number of St. Louis school buildings (including the now recycled Blair School) after leaving Barnett's office in 1882.
Isaac Taylor, who with Barnett designed the houses in Shaw Place for Henry Shaw, also left Barnett's office in the 1880s to open what would be one of the most respected and prolific firms in the city.
George Strafford Mills, son of the art critic for the Missouri Republican, combined an education at St. Louis' esteemed Manual Training School with experience in Barnett's office before launching a highly successful practice in Toledo, Ohio.
Mr. Barnett was not only one of the best known architects in St. Louis but he was reputed to be the ablest in the country in the classic school, from which he would not swerve. He had no use for modern innovations and style, such as low ceilings, small windows and dwarfed doorways. His buildings, whether public or private, always showed in their treatment what is characteristic of the educated architect, namely, character, expression and proportion.
Hyde and Conard's Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis (1899).
Source: Landmarks Association St. Louis
first published in Landmarks Letter, May/June1988