St. Louis’ Other Historic Jewel Beyond the Arch: The Old Courthouse

Friday November 27, 2015

By Explore St. Louis Guest

It’s been a monumental year for the National Parks Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Gateway Arch celebrated fifty years on October 28, and its extensive grounds expansion and renovation is moving along with landscaping scheduled for competition this summer.

With the massive redo visitors might think there’s nothing to see. They would be wrong. In spite of construction visitors can still enjoy rides to the top of the Arch though the park’s other iconic site, The historic Old Courthouse.

“The Old Courthouse is serving as the welcome center for the Arch during renovation and construction,” said Interpretive Specialist Rick Ziino who quickly explained how the Courthouse, which is a part of the JNEM is itself a stand alone historic treasure to explore. “The Old Courthouse was the site of two landmark cases - the Dred Scott case, the slave who sued for his freedom and suffragist Virginia Minor who brought suit for her right to vote.”

The Courthouse dates to 1839. In1851 reconstruction began on the building, which continued from 1855 and 1858 when the west wing was remodeled and lower floor was divided into a hallway and two courtrooms. The Dred Scott trial occurred in the original lower west courtroom before it was remodeled. Due to the then extensive remodeling, the original dome was replaced. The new dome, molded after the dome in St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome, was created of wrought and cast iron with a copper exterior in an Italian Renaissance style.

The dome became and remains a marvel, originally decorated by renowned frontier artist Carl Wimar who was commissioned to paint murals featuring benchmarks of St. Louis history. Redecoration of Wimar's work occurred in 1880 by Ettore Miragoli with his own paintings, however, in 1888 August Becker restored the original Wimar paintings.

Today Courthouse visitors can explore the multi-levels that rings the rotunda, which features exhibit galleries and restored courtrooms along with special exhibits on westward expansion and St. Louis history. A special exhibit, Dred Scott, Slavery and The Struggle to Be Free, is currently on display in the Rotunda. The exhibit describes several aspects of African-American society and culture, from slavery to free black business owners to the "colored aristocracy" of rich landowners.

Throughout the year the Old Courthouse sponsors a variety special events and programs. From now until January 2 the Courthouse will be dressed for the holidays, draped with garland and festooned gilded frosted leaves. This year’s holiday programs include Wednesday noontime Holiday Concerts, featuring a diverse group of performers from the U.S. Air Force of Mid-American Freedom Winds to the Mehlville High School Madrigal Ensemble.

The Twelfth Night (Afternoon) Ball, the signature event of the holiday season, wraps up the holidays at the Old Courthouse. The ball is a free event and recreates the French Colonial tradition of Twelfth Night with authentic period music by Dennis Stroughmatt et L'Esprit Creole. Dance instruction on the popular dance steps of the 1770s are taught for 12:00 to 4:00 pm, enabling all to join the costumed reenactors on the dance floor. The highpoint of the afternoon, the serving of the King’s Cake, which has a bean baked inside. As the tradition goes, the gentleman that gets he bean in his slice of cake is proclaimed king of the ball.

The Old Courthouse is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is free.

Guest Blogger Suzanne Corbett contributed to this blog.