A Historical Trifecta in Downtown St. Louis

Wednesday January 29, 2020

By Mark

Quickly -- from a tourist’s perspective  — tell me what the Campbell House Museum, Central Library and Soldiers Memorial Military Museum all have in common?

Say, what?

I, too, was a bit perplexed. As a lifelong St. Louisan and experienced traveler, I was scratching my head as to the commonalities among the trifecta of historical edifices that stand within three blocks of one another at the western edge of downtown St. Louis. My assignment? Identify them — tout their specialness. Tell the tourists and residents alike why they should grace their presence at these incredibly significant buildings that are just walking minutes apart.

After an extensive day of interviews and tours with their various curators and docents, it dawned on me that the Gateway to the West has a new triangle of tourism gems waiting to WOW you. Trust  me — if you are under any pretense that these are just an old home, an antiquated library with dusty books and a resting place for some rusty field weapons, think again.

Their location, architecture, recent multi-million dollar renovations and their content within — as well as who they honor — all combine to provide a refreshingly vigorous take on the city’s history. Another overlooked, and yet enviable attribute, is space. Space to move about, absorb the displays, wander through treasured nooks and crannies, take photos – all without the added detriment of a large mass of people Snap Chatting away right next to you. So, join me as we leisurely work our way OFF the beaten path into a treasured triangle filled with history, beauty, sacrifice and a touch of quirkiness. Oh, and did I say two of these tours are completely free, and the other one a mere $10.

Exit Metro Link at the Civic Center stop, drive or walk this easily navigable three-block site bordered by Chestnut, Olive and Locust streets. Be prepared to wander, wind and wonder -- through and about -- one of America’s most dynamic periods of history.

Architecturally speaking, you will be in heaven with separate masterpiece shout-outs to the city’s Federal and Greek revival Style of the 1800s (Campbell House), the Beaux-Arts and Neo-Classical stint from the early 1900s (Central Library) and the Art Deco Classical style of the late 1930s (Soldiers Memorial). Step inside any of these buildings and be amazed.

Campbell House Museum

First, let’s meet Irish-immigrant Robert Campbell, of Campbell House fame, who helped blaze the Oregon trail, shape the fur trade in the Rockies, establish two cities called El Paso and Kansas City, and change a little frontier town on the Mississippi into an industrial metropolis. Busy guy.

His family’s home for 85 years, located at 1508 Locust, is the last of the original houses that once lined this formerly decadent street. Once part of a wealthy enclave named Lucas Place (now Locust Street) the area originally sat one block east of the city’s edge.  Constructed in 1854, it features the signature roofline found on most houses in St. Louis built before the Civil War. Today, the three-story red brick, stucco-front house with its wrought iron balcony, sits frozen in time, surrounded by concrete parking lots and several office buildings.

Quirky fact: Its sideyard is the only original piece of land in downtown St. Louis that has never had a structure built on it. Ever. A carriage house, complete with the Campbell’s two coaches, and an exquisite rose garden, border this precious piece of soil.

Ring the doorbell upon your arrival and enter the 1800 Victorian era -- St. Louis’ Gilded Age. Meet several well-informed docents – one, a famous local author -- who will take you through Campbell’s elaborate double parlor, morning room, dining room, kitchen, bird room, servant quarters and multiple bedrooms. The 10,800-square foot house has 30 rooms, including eight bedrooms for the family and nine for the staff (yep, nine). Make sure to check out his mother-in-law’s large metal basin that served as her bathtub before an actual bathroom was added to the home in later years. Be grateful you have a real tub.

View the actual receipts from his wife’s splurge on $50,000 (roughly $1.1 million today) worth of gorgeous Victorian furniture, fixtures, and the piano she purchased in Philadelphia before the Civil War. And yes, 90 percent of it’s still all there. Placed in exactly the same spot as reflected in the myriad of photos taken by Campbell’s son in 1885. (For posterity sake, it makes you want to hit Print on all your iPhone photos to “freeze time” for future generations who might want to tour YOUR house someday).

The docent will point out the pair of candelabras in the parlor, one of only three in the world — the others can be found in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace and, for all you Downton Abbey fans, in the Great Hall at Highclere Castle.

But there’s so much more – Campbell’s buckskin coat – an extremely rare brain-tanned elk hide decorated with porcupine quills, mechanical servant bells that still ding, photos of many of his 13 children (only three lived to adulthood), a rare and famous lithophane light the size of a basketball, and the family’s china – set for dinner. Don’t visit when you’re hungry, because the fake plastic food on the table looks delicious and real. I even touched the faux apple pie to make sure.

Look out the second story window and see the initial trappings of a $1.8 million expansion project underway to provide a new accessible entrance, lobby area, elevator and program space.

Best part of the tour? It’s not just about the stuff – but the people who lived there. Plus, no tour is exactly the same – each docent tailors the tour to fit your timetable and interests. Questions are encouraged. Tours are $10.

Central Library

Moving on within this historical triangle is the Central Library, located one block east from the Campbell House, and built on the former site of Missouri Park, the green space that once marked the entrance to the Lucas Park neighborhood.

The library, designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert and dedicated in 1912, brings the Italian Renaissance to life with its exquisitely replicated features from the Pantheon, Vatican and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. Occupying an entire city block, this historic treasure recently underwent an extensive $70 million renovation that won more than a dozen awards, including some of the highest honors in architecture. The tip of its adjacent office building can be seen from the second floor of Campbell’s house.

Your footsteps will echo in the cavernous Great Hall, one of the grand spaces in the country and an icon for St. Louisans. Look up. You’ll be mesmerized by the craftsmanship of the intricately designed ceilings. The enormous stained glass windows on the Grand Stairs landings are so carefully placed that at certain times of the day they catch full light and explode into vibrant colors. Huge Venetian lanterns hang over these stairs. Afraid you’re going to miss something? Take one of the regularly scheduled docent-led architectural tours.

The library houses more than four million items. The Media Collection alone includes newspapers that date back to Robert Campbell’s days prior to the Civil War. It’s not hard to imagine his sons frequenting the library. Browse the Genealogy collection visited by researchers nationwide. As you know, much of the Westward Expansion movement flowed through St. Louis and many families around the world have a connection here -- discover YOUR crazy cousins, all without a library card. Visit the St. Louis Room, filled with a historical trove of riches, including cholera and zoning maps, photos galore -- including some of the riverfront during the heyday of Campbell’s fur trading escapades.

The library hosts an extensive year-round calendar of plays, concerts and lectures, several of them in tandem with the Campbell House Museum.

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum

Grab a bite to eat at Café Central before heading across the street to Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, where the words honor and bravery permeate every fiber of the building. Visitors here can travel through war’s jarring history from the American Revolution, the World Wars and Vietnam to the Gulf War and today’s current conflicts. The difference between this and other military museums? Soldiers Memorial tells the story of these wars through the lens of St. Louis.

Fact: Robert Campbell, who held the title of colonel in the Missouri State militia, served as an advisor to the Missouri governor during the Mexican-American War (1846-47) and raised a regiment of soldiers, the Laclede’s Rangers, which fought in it.

Meet the St. Louis soldiers and learn about the city’s contributions to these wars through interactive media elements, oral histories, innovative display kiosks and a rotating supply of more than 300 artifacts.

Highlights include: Uniforms worn by locals from every major conflict including one from Tuskegee Airman Wendell Pruitt, a pioneering African-American military pilot; the diary of Iranian hostage and former U.S. Marine Rocky Sickmann; the brass indicator from the USS St. Louis, “Lucky Lou,” one of the few ships that survived the Pearl Harbor bombing; St. Louis WWI chapter banners from the Red Cross and YMCA; bullets and an employee’s uniform from a former munitions manufacturing plant located just outside of the downtown area; and LOTS of guns. Even the thousands of artifacts not on actual display can be pulled up on the interactive kiosks located in the St. Louis in Service interior west gallery.

The museum’s crown jewel, however, is located on the ceiling of the museum’s outdoor entrance, or loggia. It’s a six-pointed gold star surrounded by dark red mosaic tiles that represents the ultimate sacrifice — a life lost. Military buffs know the Gold Star made its first appearance during WWI when it was placed over the service flag’s blue star whenever a soldier was killed. Beneath it, lies the cenotaph monument with the names of St. Louis soldiers who perished during WWI carved into its sides, including that of Edith Ferguson, a local nurse,

From the front line to the home front, this is a place where service comes to life.

So…commonalities within this wonderful little triangular slice of St. Louis life?

Let me try again: This historical trifecta represents the legacy of a city founded on Westward Expansion, enhanced by a progression of innovative architects and city planners, and honored by those who sacrificed their lives in so many ways -- definitely worth a tour.

Written by Freelance Writer Mary McHugh