The Nation’s and The Lou’s Old Courthouse

Only a small percentage of the thousands of people who attend Fair St. Louis this week-end will visit the Old Courthouse. But they will be in for a great surprise – the rotunda splendidly draped with Stars and Stripes for the nation’s birthday and the naturalization ceremonies held annually around Independence Day. The others will miss the free Citizenship Tours, Independent Silver Band Concert, Inalienable Rights and Freedoms Play and Reading of the Declaration of Independence that the Park Service has planned. As well as the small treasure trove of  St. Louis history displayed there after the city deeded the Old Courthouse to the Federal Government for a museum.

Fair St. Louis, with its games, food booths, free concerts, air shows and dazzling fireworks displays takes place mainly on the grounds of the Gateway Arch, in one of the largest Independence Day celebrations in the U.S. But the finest, unobstructed view of the Gateway Arch downtown is from the eastern staircase of the Old Courthouse, a site both famous and infamous in St. Louis history. Famed as the place where “Joseph Pulitzer bought two fledgling newspapers at auction”* and launched a publishing empire; infamous as a stage from which thousands of enslaved human beings were sold at auction, in the resolution of wills.

The west staircase of the Old Courthouse provides the finest unobstructed view of downtown St. Louis from the east: flanked by the Eagleton Federal Courthouse, the Centerre and General American Buildings on the south and Gateway One, the AT&T Tower and the Wainwright Building on the north. Gateway One (a.k.a the Building That Should Not Be) reflects the Arch as it blocks a clear view of the Civil Courts Building to the west. Far in the distance to its left, the pointed, red tile roof of Union Station’s clock tower pierces the sky.

Viewed from the runner fountain in Kiener Plaza (commemorating St. Louis’ hosting the first Olympic games in the U.S. in 1904) the Old Courthouse is handsome and stately; as important an historical anchor as Eero Saarinen’s gleaming arch which frames it. The Old Courthouse beautifully crowns the third natural limestone bluff that fronts the Mississippi River at St. Louis, between Market and Chestnut Streets.

Auguste Chouteau, co-founder of St. Louis at the age of fourteen and Judge Jean Baptiste Lucas of Normandy, France set aside land from their Common Field property for the construction of a courthouse in 1816. Before that, according to the nps.gov website  (http://www.nps.gov/jeff/planyourvisit/och.htm), “official city business had been carried on in a church, a tavern and a fort”.**

Famous in American legal history as the site of the landmark Dred Scott Case (1847 and 1850), the Old Courthouse evolved over four decades from Laveille & Morton’s Federal-style, brick building (that would have fit within the present east wing) to Henry Singleton’s primarily, Greek Revival structure, with four wings emanating from a central rotunda.

There is a marvelous scale model of the courthouse depicting its architectural evolution in the east wing. An enlargement of a spread from Compton & Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis 1875 fills the wall behind it, providing a splendid view of the city when it was deemed The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi River Valley. I’m always amazed at how many Mississippian Mounds could be seen on the Illinois side of the river as late as 1875.

William Rumbold designed the Italian Renaissance dome atop the Old Courthouse, modelling it on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is cast and wrought-iron faced with copper, and the oldest dome of its kind in the nation. Functional and ornamental balconies rise above the floor of the rotunda which 19th century St. Louisans packed for public meetings pertaining to such critical issues as secession and women’s suffrage.

The interior of the dome was designed by Ettore Miragoli in 1880. But the historical lunettes (eye-shaped murals) are the work of Carl Ferdinand Wimar who emigrated to St. Louis with his parents at the age of fifteen from Siegenburg, Germany. Carl Wimar returned to Germany to study art at the Dusseldorf Academy, returning to St. Louis in 1856 and completing the lunettes in 1864.  A copy of his painting, “The Buffalo Hunt” can be found in the south wing of the Old Courthouse.

The same room contains a scale model of the most prevalent type of housing found in Colonial St. Louis, a poteaux-en-terre (vertical post-in-earth) design that originated in Normandy, France. It was constructed under the direction of Charles Emil Peterson, “the godfather of historic preservation” in the U.S. Peterson came to St. Louis in 1936 as senior landscape architect*** on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and directed restoration of Manuel Lisa’s fur warehouse and the initial stage of the “rehabilitation” of the Old Courthouse. His Colonial St. Louis: Building a Creole Capital is a seminal reference for French Colonial architecture in the mid-Mississippi River Valley.

You must walk over to the north wing of the Old Courthouse to view what remains of Manuel Lisa’s fur warehouse today and see an excellent exhibit showing the construction of its limestone walls and its windows, and how it might have looked when it stood at the foot of Chestnut and Front Streets in the early 1800’s; the bundles of fur and the barrels used for transporting goods between St. Louis and New Orleans that would have filled it.

As many as twelve courtrooms once functioned within the Courthouse; two of which have been restored upstairs and are used for re-enactments of the Dred Scott Case. A large section of the west wing holds a permanent exhibit devoted to the Scott family and other St. Louisans like Virginia Minor who notably brought suit here.

The National Park Service has proven to be a wise and steadfast guardian of the Old Courthouse – maintaining, improving and preserving it as the focal point of the St. Louis skyline along the great Mississippi Riverfront – and providing fascinating ways for visitors to experience St. Louis history. If you visit the Old Courthouse this 4th of July weekend you may “vote” in an 1861 election, “pay” your 1861 taxes then cross 4th Street to enlist in the Union Army and view firing demonstrations in Luther Ely Smith Square.

And you will, I assure you, take away an unforgettable image of the replica 36 foot by 20 foot garrison flag adorned with 33 stars, which presently hangs in the rotunda. It’s very like “the first flag raised over the Old Courthouse dome on the Fourth of July, 1860”.**** There is no more spectacular way to celebrate Independence Day in The Lou than by visiting this venerable museum then watching the fireworks explode over the Gateway Arch, spangling and streaming the night sky and the steel legs of Eero Saarinen’s magnificent arch with brilliant lights, while the last of Fair St. Louis‘ open-air concerts builds to a climax.

References:*plaque below the east staircase of the Old Courthouse; **the nps.gov website; ***Colonial St. Louis: Founding a Creole Capital – Charles E. Peterson, The Patrice Press, Tucson, AZ, 2001; “Our Flag With 33 Stars” hand-out at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis

Illustration Credit: Auguste Chouteau – in the public domain at wikipedia.com

Photo Credits: “Old Courthouse Flag With 33 Stars” (fourth photo from the bottom) – used with the kind permission of John Powel Walsh, the photographer; all other photos – Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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