Chatillon-DeMenil: Grande Dame of The Lou’s Great Houses

It’s not the oldest house in St. Louis. Nor the most prestigious. But the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion (http://www.demenil.org/ ) is the last of the great Creole houses – front and back – and it resonates St. Louis history from our founding through the Civil War and the World’s Fair of 1904 – in a way that no other place does, which makes it the treasure it was so worth fighting to save.

And it has been a long, hard fight since the early 1960s when the newly incorporated Landmarks Association of St. Louis (http://www.landmarks-stl.org/about/about_landmarks_association_of_st_louis) adopted the failing house as one of its earliest missions, allowing it to stay alive and retain its secrets.

That the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion is considered one of the finest examples of late Greek Revival architecture in the mid-Mississippi River Valley was of course a consideration.

The struggle continued even after the Union Electric Company made a significant enough contribution to preserve the house when the Ozark Expressway (Interstate 55) threatened its demolition and the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation was established in 1965 to govern it.* For old houses, particularly big, old houses are costly to maintain.

Why all the bother and expense when there are so many great, old houses in St. Louis?

Old houses can be valuable repositories of history. They help to sustain a community’s roots and provide a perspective on life in other eras that is important to reflect upon while shaping the present and the future.

The Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation is especially good at providing 19th century perspectives with events like their October Month of Mourning, presenting learning opportunities in a highly engaging way. In this instance the mourning rituals of earlier generations and the insights they impart.

Throughout October all of the mirrors in the house are draped with black crepe, along with portraits, preventing (according to Victorian tradition) the spirit of one who has recently died from taking up residence in a mirror or a portrait. Caskets are brought into the mansion and displayed, a child-size casket among them. Toys are covered, fancy china is replaced with mourning china, and black clothing worn by the women of the family is displayed.

The DeMenil Craft Guild that meets monthly throughout the year with an emphasis on 19th century hand crafting and decorative art techniques**is an ongoing educational program that deepens understanding and preserves artistic traditions.

Many old houses have very distinct personalities, crafted by their architects and the artisans who embellished them from the outside in, developing these personalities. Old houses are further defined by the people who lived in them – laughed, danced and mourned in them.

Unlike the Campbell House Museum at 1510 Locust Street, that is overflowing with everything from furniture and crystal to clothing that actually belonged to the Campbell family, the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion is less a family museum than the decorative arts museum that the Landmarks Foundation conceived for its rescue; and in particular a repository of the French and Creole cultures that shaped St. Louis from the beginning. However it does contain personal artifacts that belonged to the two distinct families that most powerfully impacted it, the Chatillons and the DeMenils.

The Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion shares a block (DeMenil Place) with one of the most famously most haunted houses in America (the Lemp Mansion next door). And although it has gone through periods when from Hiway 55 it looked like a haunted house on a hill, I have never sensed anything haunting about it, over many visits.

It does however contain an aura of mystery that draws visitors like myself back, time and again. It is a house to which many people have become devoted like Facilities Director, Kevin O’Neill and Katherine Patterson, Board of Directors Member, who have diligently presided over it for fourteen years.

From whence does this aura of mystery emanate? From the DeMenils certainly – who lived in the house the longest, over three generations. Dr. Nicholas DeMenil, a native of Foug, France and his wife Emilie Sophie Chouteau, native St. Louisan and descendant of the  city’s founding family, enlarged it from a modest farmhouse to an elegant mansion. Emilie borrowed the concept for the front of the mansion from her cousin Henry Chouteau’s mansion that once stood beside Chouteau’s Pond.

In fact Emilie may have borrowed more than a concept. Docents Katherine Patterson and Lynn Josse (Director of the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation), who kindly gave me a private tour last Saturday morning told me that it’s now believed the columns that support the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion’s handsome portico actually came from her cousin Henry Chouteau’s mansion at Clark and 12th Streets, after it was demolished.

Photographs and paintings of Emilie and Nicholas De Menil and their son Alexander hang inside the mansion along with copies of paintings of Emilie’s great-uncle, Auguste Chouteau and her great-grandmother, Marie Bourgeois Chouteau, la mere de Saint Louis (the mother of St. Louis).

In a twist of irony which I find delightful, a commemorative portrait of Emilie’s great-grandfather, Pierre Laclede Liguest (founder of St. Louis in 1764) hangs in the drawing room. Ironic because, according to the museum’s docents, the scholarly Alexander De Menil, who inherited the house from his parents “fiercely denied his great-great grandmother’s relationship to Laclede.”***

But the house’s mystery may even more powerfully emanate from Henri Chatillon, who built the original farmhouse, the one visible from DeMenil Place.

A hunter and guide for the American Fur Company, Chatillon guided Francis Parkman along the Oregon Trail in 1846, a journey that Parkman immortalized in a book by that title.

After the death of his first wife, an Oglala Sioux woman named She Who Wears a Bear Robe, Henri Chatillon married his first cousin, Odile Delor Lux in 1848, and built this house for her on land she owned that had been part of the St. Louis Common Fields.

Sometime between 1846 and 1848 Chatillon is believed to have commissioned the oil painting of Bear Robe that hangs in a hallway of the mansion. Whether his second wife ever saw it is unknown. It is unlikely that it hung in the house while she was living there. But in 1967 an electrician working in the house found it under the floorboards of an unfinished attic room. The canvas was wrapped in leather around a Hawken rifle.

Did Henri Chatillon forget about the painting when he and Odile sold the house in 1856? Or did he purposely leave it behind for someone to uncover in the future?

Closing the book on a chapter of his life but perhaps hoping that it would eventually be discovered and be forever associated with him and the house he built at the top of Arsenal Hill?

The painting is unsigned and the artist unknown. Yet another mystery. Was it painted here in St. Louis? Did the artist leave it unsigned because it was such an unusual commission?

A  spirit painting as opposed to the sort of classical portrait fashionable St. Louisans hung in their parlors?

In this enigmatic painting Bear Robe is depicted twice against the background of a bearskin. Both images of her are in profile. In the larger image her head is bowed. The suggestion of a white horse is painted in front of her. Bear Robe was lame and is said to have ridden a white horse. According to the burial customs of her tribe, her horse was sent to the afterlife with her.*****

Below the larger image of Bear Robe is the image of a bearded man believed to be Henri Chatillon. She appears to be watching over him. His eyes are open and he looks sad. In the upper left corner of the painting is a softer, almost dreamlike image of what may be a younger Bear Robe. Or perhaps her spirit?

Katherine Patterson explained that the pine tree in the painting is believed to be a reference to a Native American tradition “that the spirit stays on the earth for a while before going to the land beyond the pines”.***

According to Irma R. Miller, author of French-Indian Families in America’s West, Bear Robe bore Henri Chatillon two daughters, one named Emilie and the other, unnamed. She quotes Francis Parkman’s having recorded in The Oregon Trail that Chatillon left the expedition briefly upon learning that his wife and one of his children was very ill. He arrived at the Indian encampment “only to find a child dead and Bear Robe, his wife, near death.” She rallied upon seeing him and they talked through the night but in the morning she died.****

Henri left his five year old daughter, Emilie, in the care of his close friend Joseph Bissonette, whose wife belonged to the same nation as Bear Robe. As an old woman, Emilie Chatillon Lessert, fondly recalled her father, Henri’s visits.*****

When she  was seventeen years old, Henri bright Emilie to Carondelet, Missouri where she was baptized on December 31, 1858 at Saints Mary and Joseph Catholic Church. Three days later in the same church, January 3, 1859 she married Benjamin Lessert, whom her father had introduced to her in Wyoming.***** Theirs was a happy marriage.

Two French-Creole families – the Chatillons and the DeMenils – and one great house. A beautiful restoration of the exterior of the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion has recently been completed, with work to resume on the interior. The old manse looks really glorious.

Since Halloween approaches and the house is creped for its Month of Mourning, this is an especially atmospheric time to pay a visit. Special activities are planned for this Sunday, October 14, 2012: A Death in the Family – Death and Mourning in the 19th Century – from 12:00 noon until 5:00 pm.

Admission to the event is $10 per guest and $5 for children under 12. Tarot card readings will be given for $5.

All proceeds from this event will contribute to the care and restoration of the lovely Greek Revival mansion that was once home to Henri Chatillon and the DeMenil family.

If the mourning event is not quite spooky enough for you, Paranormal Investigation Tours will also be offered in the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion on October 12th, 19th and 26th. (For the uninitiated – that’s ghost-hunting!)

References: *St. Louis: Landmarks & Historic Districts – Carolyn Hewes Toft with Lynn Josse, Copyright 2002, Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc.; **Chatillon-DeMenil House Brochure;***Katherine Patterson – Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation; ****The Oregon Trail – Francis Parkman, Knickerbocker’s Magazine, 1847-1849, published as a book 1849;*****French-Indian Families in America’s West – Irma R. Miller, Copyright 1988, Irma R. Miller, Parkville, Missouri, then Trafford Publishing, Victoria, BC.

Illustrations & Paintings: Victorian Fashions – in the public domain at karenswhimsey.com; Portrait of Emilie Sophie Chouteau – the Chatillon-DeMenil Museum; Bear Robe Painting – artist unknown, circa 1846-1848, oil on canvas the Chatillon-DeMenil Museum.

Photographs: DeMenil Family Photographs – the Chatillon-DeMenil Museum; Francis Parkman, Jr. – author unknown, in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion Circa 1938 – in the public domain an wilikpedia.org; Oglala Sioux Child, Pine Ridge Reservation – author John C. Grabill, in the public domain at wikipedia.org. All other photographs – Maureen O’Connor 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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