The Old Courthouse in St. Louis reflects the events that defined and divided Missouri and the nation during the 19th through early 20th centuries. It stands as an iconic architectural landmark and historic museum with exhibits, sculpture and paintings showing the growth of St. Louis from a small trading post to a vibrant city of international prominence. Together with the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion, the Old Courthouse is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and part of the story of the westward movement.
St. Louis was founded in February 1764 as a French trading post by Pierre Laclede and his stepson, Auguste Chouteau. Its riverfront location on the west side of the Mississippi made it ideal for shipping supplies to and from other outposts on the river’s east side, as well as establishing trade agreements with Native Americans near the mouth of the Missouri River. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the growing city was soon a major river crossing and market center for pioneers heading west.
The land designated for the courthouse site was donated by Chouteau and Judge John B.C. Lucas in 1816, five years before Missouri became a state. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821 as the 24th state, the first state west of the Mississippi, and a slave state as part of the Missouri Compromise. The first courthouse on the site was a Federal style brick building completed in 1828 by the architectural firm of Lavielle and Morton. Less than 10 years later, it had already become too small to handle the city’s rapidly growing population and expanding fur trade.
Construction began on a second courthouse in 1839 designed by Henry Singleton in a Greek Revival style. It had four wings in a cruciform plan with the original courthouse incorporated into the east wing and a three-story cupola dome. The rotunda floor could be seen from three levels of balconies. Stone pillars supported the first balcony and white oak columns supported the two upper balconies.
One of the most famous and divisive trials to take place in the Old Courthouse was that of Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his and his wife’s freedom in 1847. Scott had been born a slave in Virginia but when that family moved to St. Louis, he was sold to a military surgeon, John Emerson. Scott would accompany the surgeon to posts where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. Following Emerson’s death in St. Louis, his wife did not grant Scott or his family their freedom. Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued.
The trial was held in one of the large courtrooms that took up the entire west wing. Missouri courts supported the belief that “once free, always free.” Scott had many people encouraging him including his original owners. He had spent nine years living in areas where slavery was not allowed. However, the Scotts lost their first trial. The Missouri Supreme Court granted them a second trial which took place in the Old Courthouse in 1850. They won but Emerson’s widow appealed. Not only did the she win the appeal in 1852 but the Missouri Supreme Court no longer enforced the laws of free states and territories. They claimed that times were not what they used to be and defended slavery.
Scott filed a new case in Federal Court where a jury acknowledged that he had the right to sue but he and his family were still slaves. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1857 decision was that Scott had no right to sue because, as an African-American, he was not considered a citizen and the years he lived in the Wisconsin Territory did not change his status because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was invalid. Four years later, in 1861, the U.S. was embroiled in the Civil War.
The courthouse underwent additional remodeling in the 1850s. The original brick courthouse that had been part of the east wing was torn down and a new east wing was added. The courtroom used for Dred Scott’s trial had to be remodeled in the mid-1850s due to unstable floor construction and was made into two smaller courtrooms. The dome was also replaced with one modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was done in the Italian Renaissance style and made of wrought iron and cast iron with a copper exterior. Four paintings, called “lunettes” because of their half-moon shape, were commissioned for the interior of the dome. These works by Carl Wimar were of major events in St. Louis history. The Old Courthouse stood as an architectural landmark at 192 feet tall, making it the tallest habitable building in Missouri until 1894. Its historic significance as a museum was also growing based on real-life events and works of art.
St. Louis stopped using the Old Courthouse in 1930. The National Park Service took it over as part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and was responsible for structural restoration and museum exhibits. Two courtrooms out of 12 have been recreated to reflect a set time period, one in the mid-1800s and the other in 1910.
The building is part of the National Park Serivce’s Network to Freedom which recognizes sites linked to the Underground Railroad. The courthouse was a place where legal challenges were made against slavery. As a public forum, slaves were auctioned on the steps outside as part of estate settlements. The exhibit, Legacy of Courage: Dred Scott & the Quest for Freedom, and the accompanying video, Slavery on Trial: The Dred Scott Decision, explore what he and his family experienced. For more information about the early days of St. Louis and the Old Courthouse as an architectural landmark and historic museum, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
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