You couldn’t tell to look at it now but the crumbling mansion at 1849 Cass Avenue is one of the most romantic houses ever built in St. Louis. Local cemeteries abound with remarkable funerary art dedicated to lost sweethearts and children but the old Clemens mansion is the only funerary residence that I know of in St. Louis.
It may not be the most haunted house in St. Louis (the Lemp Mansion retains that title) but it is surely the most haunting. Once you’ve seen the dream house that James Clemens, Jr. built for his wife Eliza six years after her death, you will never forget it.
Cast-iron miniatures of Eliza Clemens’ death mask mounted on the lintel of every window on three sides of the mansion assured passers-by that her husband had not forgotten her and all but guaranteed that no one else would either.
It was as if the house was perpetually in mourning. Romantic? Very, yet a grim reminder of the risks attached to married life and motherhood in 19th century St. Louis.
One can only imagine the misgivings of Patrick Walsh, who was commissioned to design the Greek Revival, Palladian Villa with cast-iron, cameo window lintels and Porter White, who was commissioned to reproduce Eliza’s image in the ornamental plaster ceiling molding on the first floor per her grieving husband’s instructions. The Carrara marble mantle in the front parlor was to be carved with a rendering of a young, smiling Eliza with flowing curls.
The effect might have been quite morbid had Walsh and White been lesser artists. The result was instead astonishing, sobering and mysterious. Neglect and water damage have laid waste to Porter White’s plaster work but other examples of his artistry may be seen in three of the city’s most impressive landmarks: the Old Courthouse, Union Station and the Wainwright Building.
Like Patrick Walsh and Eliza Clemens’ parents, Porter White was a native of Ireland and James Clemens’ massive architectural Valentine went up on the northern boundary of an area of St. Louis prairie that would become infamous as The Kerry Patch.
Elinor Matineau Coyle, who featured Clemens House in Old St. Louis Homes 1764 – 1865 and the Stories They Tell, referenced it as “the only house in St. Louis with a built-in ghost”. “A pioneer in the St. Louis Renaissance Movement of the 1950s – 1970s”* Coyle did priceless work researching, photographing and writing about local landmarks that paved the way to the rescue of many, and the cataloging of other lost, architectural treasures.
Patrick Walsh succeeded magnificently in meeting his demands with what is said to be the first significant use of cast-iron on a residential building outside of New York: cast-iron columns supporting a cast-iron trimmed portico, cast-iron ballustrades, cornices and the cast-iron miniatures of Eliza’s death mask.
How often James’ later-famous, younger cousin, Sam visited the house on Cass Avenue no one now knows. But in his early years in St. Louis, Sam Clemens would have been a frequent visitor to James’ and Eliza’s home on Third Street (where Eliza died in 1853) for it was within two blocks of the boarding house where Sam lived while working here as a printer’s apprentice and the store James owned at Main and Market Streets. According to one Clemens Genealogy, James had given a lot of help to Sam’s struggling family.
Thanks in great part to the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, photographs of Clemens House when it was still grand, survive: the bricks neatly tuck pointed, the walls sound and its lovely plasterwork and sculptured mantles intact. But by 1960 when these photographs were taken Clemens House had evolved from an elegant residence into a convent, then a mission house; hence the cross then visible atop the portico.
When Camille Dry sketched James Clemens’ residence on Cass Avenue for Pictorial St. Louis 1875 (Plate 52, #2) James was still living. There was no exterior cross and the trees that stood on either side of his property (land Eliza inherited from her father, John Mullanphy, the first millionaire in St. Louis) and a circular carriage drive in front of the mansion were clearly in evidence.
During the 1980s Clemens House served as a Catholic Worker homeless shelter. But it has stood empty long since, while one investor or contractor after another attempted to restore and bring it back to life. And little wonder. Many a heart has been captured with one glance at Clemens House. The most recent plans of which I am aware involve its renovation into Senior apartments.
Elizabeth Brown Mullanphy married James Clemens, Jr. on January 10, 1833 when she was twenty-one years of age, in one of the most celebrated weddings of the season – a love match between a highly successful merchant (the wealthiest and most eligible bachelor in St. Louis) and the shyest, gentlest of the Mullanphy girls.
They were in some ways polar opposites – James, known for having collected taxes at the point of a gun in Kentucky, where he was raised; Eliza, gracious and soft-spoken, having been educated in a convent school in France. He was twice her age. He would outlive Eliza by a quarter of a century.
Eliza gave birth to twelve children in twenty years, the second and third to last, twin daughters – Alice, who lived to be sixty-two and Frances, whom Eliza lost six months before her own death, as one writer put it, of no apparent reason. There was reason enough. Eliza and James Clemens buried five of their twelve children before the age of three. In all they would lose five, heartbreaking losses.
Eliza had a stoic model in her mother, Elizabeth Brown Mullanphy, for whom she was named. A native of County Waterford, Ireland, Elizabeth Brown gave birth to fifteen children, eight of whom survived infancy.
The painting of Elizabeth that sold in March of 2011 at O’Gallerie Fine Arts, Antiques and Estate Auctioneers in Portland, Oregon reveals a petite, determined woman, with the personal resources to get on in the world. She lived to be seventy-three years of age.
Eliza was not so fortunate. Beginning in the early 1830s cholera, which has it origins in the Indian sub-continent, spread inside the U.S. from ocean ports and by steamboats traveling up the the Mississippi River. The Great Cholera Epidemic of 1849 was the worst in this city’s history.
Over 4,500 St. Louisans died of the highly contagious disease within a six month period of time, approximately one eighth of the population. A third of these were children, who were especially susceptible to cholera which can kill within hours.
Pregnant with her twins in 1849 Eliza must have had her hands full, caring for six children. Anyone who has nursed a family through the flu knows how exhausting it can be. And cholera in 1849 was so very much worse. Two year old Jeremiah succumbed to it in August of that year. But the Clemens’ had a lot of company in their grief for city streets were clogged with death wagons making their way to overflowing cemeteries.
Eliza’s death in 1853 left James a widower with seven children, the youngest nineteen months old. But he never remarried. Instead he commissioned a house where he would be able to see images of Eliza every day of his life.
On April 16, 1863 their daughter Catherine (at left) escaped that house and eloped with Joseph Bryan Cates, marrying him at St. Bridget of Erin Catholic Church, over the objections of her father. Catherine smuggled her clothing out of the house, wearing two dresses at a time and leaving them with the Sisters at the Visitation Convent nearby until her wedding. The stories that house could tell if walls could speak!
Happily Kate (Catherine Jane) Clemens followed her heart. I’ve been chatting online with Jay Seeley. Catherine’s first child, John Mullanphy Cates was the father of Jay’s Grandmother, Kathleen Cates Tilton and his Great-Aunt, Harriet Cates Hardaway. So the Clemens/Mullanphy line continues to this day.
James Clemens, Jr. was as staunchly Protestant as Eliza was Catholic. His was a deathbed conversion to ensure that he could spend eternity with Eliza. Art glass windows from the private chapel he had designed for the house on Cass Avenue are divided between mortuary chapels in Resurrection Cemetery and Calvary Cemetery, where he and Eliza are buried.
Theirs is an elegant monument in the classical style, a stone’s throw from that of the Mullanphys. But the most lasting and poignant memorial to their love valiantly attempts to remain standing at 1849 Cass Avenue until a financier with a small fortune and a sentimental heart can set it to rights.
References: City of St. Louis Historic Preservation Website; * Find a Grave: Elinor Martineau Coyle ( http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11452 ); Old St. Louis Homes and the Stories They Tell – Elinor Martineau Coyle, Folkstone Press, 1979. Jay Seeley, descendant of James and Eliza Clemens, from whom I hope to learn much more in the future. Cynthia Millar of the St. Louis Public Library who kindly assisted me in accessing passages of Saga of an Irish Immigrant Family: The Descendants of John Mullanphy by Alice Lida Cochran, Arno Press, NY, 1973.
Photo Credits: Special thanks to Peter O’Grady of O’Gallerie Fine Arts, Antiques and Estate Auctioneers of Portland, Oregon (http://www.ogallerie.com/auctions/2011-03/) for permission to use images of the paintings of Elizabeth Brown Mullanphy and Catherine Mullanphy (later Cates, then Frost) from the company’s 2011 Catalog, and to Ruth Keenoy of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis (http://landmarks-stl.org/) for permission to use the black and white images of Clemens House captured circa 1960.
Victorian Cupid – in the public domain from http://www.karenswhimsey.com; Cholera Bill and The Levee or Landing, St. Louis, Missouri – 1857 illustration from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, Boston, Massachusetts in the public domain at wikipedia.org. Special thanks also to my husband, Thomas Kavanaugh, for his color photographs of Clemens House, St. Louis, MO and the James Clemens, Jr. monument in Calvary Cemetery.