Schankman’s St. Louis: What’s Inside the Campbell House Museum?

    By Paul Schankman

    In the 1500 block of Locust Street in Downtown St. Louis, a three-story, single-family home sits all alone, frozen in time, the last artifact of a once great neighborhood.

    From the 1850s to the 1880s, Lucas Place was St. Louis’ first private neighborhood, where the city’s wealthiest residents lived during the Gilded Age.

    But, only one of those homes remains today. It’s the Campbell House at 1508 Locust. It was the first one built in the neighborhood. Robert and Virginia Campbell moved into it in 1854.

    When it was built in 1851, it was the smallest house in the neighborhood; about half the size of the behemoths around it. And yet, it was big enough to hold eight bedrooms for the family, and nine more for the domestic staff.

    The Campbell’s gave their modest mansion the look of a palace, covering almost every inch of its 10,000 square feet with Gilded Age extravagance.

    “They paid about $12,000 for this structure, but within six months they spent about $40,000 furnishing this house,” said Andrew Hahn, the Executive Director of the Campbell House Museum. “We really think that was a sign that they had arrived.”

    When the last Campbell departed in 1938, a few civic minded citizens were worried about the fate of the house, so they banded together and raised enough money to buy most of the Campbell’s possessions. A large donation from the Stix, Baer, and Fuller department store was used to buy the building. In 1943, it was turned into a museum and The Campbell House Foundation has run it ever since.

    “(Visitors say) I had no idea, this was so fascinating. When they walk into the parlor they are gob smacked,” Hahn said. “The pocket doors open and this double parlor with all its Rococo Revival furniture and carving and gilding is revealed and people say ‘how can you live in this room? It looks so cluttered, it looks so crazy.’”

    While the house is the main attraction, the story of the Campbell family is also pretty spectacular.

    Robert Campbell came to America from Ireland when he was just 19. A bookkeeping job with a fur trading company brought him to St. Louis, but it wasn’t long before Campbell became a trapper himself, spending ten years living in the rugged Rocky Mountains.

    Campbell would go on to become a leading citizen of St. Louis, moving from selling furs to selling dry goods. He was also involved in shipping, banking, real estate, and politics.

    But despite their great wealth, the Campbell’s also suffered great tragedies.

    “(They had) 13 children, but there was never more than four of their children living at any one time. Scourges like cholera, measles, and diphtheria took ten of those little ones who died before the age of eight,” Hahn said.

    Only three lived to adulthood. All men and all bachelors.

    “They refused offers to sell. They had enough money to maintain the building and so they did,” Hahn said. “It must have been a very weird feeling for them to grow up in this neighborhood, (because) in that Civil War era, it was leafy green and kind of very quiet and elegant, and by the 1920s it was hustle and bustle and they were the only ones left.”

    Thanks to extraordinarily positive reviews on Trip Advisor, this past year the museum saw a 40 percent increase in visitors.

    But what has not changed is that most of them are from out of town.

    What Hahn would really like to see here is more people visiting from St. Louis, to learn the story of this remarkable family, and how civic leaders saved their glorious home.