The oldest house downtown has a fresh new face and a brand-new wing that provides rich context for St. Louis as she emerged as “Queen of the West” and the tumultuous years leading up to and during the Civil War when slavery persisted and the city proved critical to saving the Union.
Just five blocks south of the Old Courthouse and catacorner (a strong arm’s throw) from Busch Stadium on South Broadway, the Field House Museum/aka the Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum) is one of the city’s oft-missed treasures.
Constructed in 1845 it was saved from demolition when the rest of the once-fashionable twelve unit row house constructed by Edward Walsh of which it was a part came down. It opened to the public in 1936 as a museum celebrating the boyhood home of poet and newspaper columnist, Eugene Field.
But in 2007 it gained equal prominence when it was designated a National Historic Landmark as the home of attorney Roswell Field, Eugene’s father, when he represented Dred Scott and his family in their landmark suit for freedom in the St. Louis Courthouse.
Preserved by the St. Louis Board of Education, which owned the land on which it stood and funded in part by the contributions of school children who were reading and reciting Eugene Field’s poetry in class it became not only a repository of his published works but items from his personal collection of toys and furnishings from the home in which he died, generously provided by family members including his wife, Julia Comstock Field.
Among the most precious of these are the handsome desk and book cases in the upstairs library which belonged to Eugene Field. During his boyhood the library served as the family room, hence the hobby horse, child size desk and chair displayed.
Adjacent to the library is the master bedroom, perhaps the most beautiful room in the house with portraits of Field as an infant in the arms of his mother Frances and one of him as an adult, book in hand, fingers marking the place he left off. It contains very personal mementos donated by Julia, who survived him by many years. Great holly trees planted when the museum was new can be seen through the windows.
On December 8, 2016 The Eugene Field House Museum re-opened to the public in grand style almost 80 years to the day of its original opening. A handsome new wing makes the main floor of the three-story house handicap accessible for the first time.
“What’s Past Is Prologue: A House Brimming with Stories” is the title of the introductory exhibit splendidly written and designed by artist and guest curator Barbara Decker with designer Tom Kavanaugh of IU Creative in collaboration with Field Museum Executive Director, Kimberly Larson.
Artifacts discovered during construction of the new wing along with original toys collected by Eugene Field like the Native American family dolls depicted below are displayed in relation to wall-size murals that provide story lines linking them together.
Field was a collector of rare and beautiful books and children’s toys. Most of the latter were lost when the warehouse where he stored them burned. Wind-up toys were among his favorites. A few of these can be seen in the display cases. Even more retro wind-ups can be purchased in the Sugar Plum Tree Gift Shop where many of his published works are also available. The Eugene Field Library in the new wing contains an extensive collection of books written by and about the author and is available for research by appointment.
The Eugene Field House Museum was the first historic house museum in downtown St. Louis and it remains remarkable for its resonance of 19th century family life and for the poignancy of the stories it holds of two generations of the Field family who resided in it.
Attorney Roswell Field and his wife Frances, who died shortly after giving birth to their third child, preside over the parlors on the main floor. Their son Eugene and his wife Julia, who never lived in the house but donated many of the furnishings on the second floor, have a lovely presence there.
To someone who grew up reading and reciting poems like “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” “The Duel” and “Little Boy Blue” as a girl, the upper rooms seem wonderfully full of the writer who could be keenly satirical but retained the heart of a child and whose work remains appealing to children. It will be a wonderful place for school groups to visit.
The house seemed a magical place to me as a child partly because of the whimsical toy collection (which has expanded greatly over time) and it’s become even more so with the new wing filled with stories about the Field family and the St. Louis in which they lived. My favorite mural depicts a cropped photograph of Eugene and his daughter Mary superimposed over a greatly enlarged Maxfield Parrish illustration of one of Field’s Poems of Childhood. The juxtaposition is quite wonderful.
The Field House Museum of St. Louis (http://fieldhousemuseum.org/) at 634 South Broadway is open Wednesday thru Sunday except for major holidays. It’s featured in my Hidden History of Downtown St. Louis which will be released by Arcadia Publishing’s The History Press on January 23, 2017. Special thanks to Liz Steinacker of the Field House Museum for the wonderful tour she gave me in November of 2016.
Photo Credits: all of the photos above were taken by Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.