I made a stop in St. Louis on a road trip recently. I’m from there and have many friends and relatives there This happens to be the 250th anniversary of the founding of the City of St. Louis way back in 1764 by Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, and named for Louis IX of France. It was a French town populated by French speaking people along with some Indians, Spaniards and a few Americans. It was sort of a family affair. Chouteau was Laclede’s step-son and the few early families began intermarrying almost immediately. The old French family names remain as names of prominent streets or locations in the city. Although believed to be French territory, the city was founded on land secretly transferred to Spain in 1762 and then later quietly transferred back to France in time for the United States to purchase it from Napoleon. All of this switching back and forth didn’t keep more French folks from coming over and settling in St. Louis…well into the 1800s.
In the southern part of the city, clearly visible from Interstate 55, Is an imposing mansion graced with tall columns spaced across the portico. This is the Chatillon – DeMenil Mansion dating back to the 1840s. What you are seeing from the highway is the actual front of the house….it was designed to face down the slope toward the Mississippi River.
Henri Chatillon, born in 1813, was a well known hunter, translator and guide for the American Fur Company. Chatillon is mostly known as the hunter that accompanied Francis Parkman on his journey west and was immortalized in Parkmans book, The Oregon Trail. As was sometimes the custom, Chatillon had an Indian wife named Bear Robe, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. He lived in two worlds and made frequent journeys between St. Louis and his wife’s people and was very familiar with Indian ways and languages. When Bear Robe died in 1846, Chatillon returned to St. Louis and married Odile Delor Lux. Together, they built the first portion of the house as a sturdy two-story farm house located well outside the city.
In 1856, Chatillon sold the house to Dr. Nicolas DeMenil, a transplant from France married to Emelie Sophie Chouteau, descended from the city’s founding family. This was originally the DeMenil’s country house but they soon greatly enlarged it and it became their primary residence. The house passed to their son, Alexander, and then to other heirs until 1945 when it was sold out of the family. The heirs took a great deal of family and household furnishings at the time of the sale. The house deteriorated and was threatened with demolition when Interstate 55 was being built but it was saved and restored and, in 1965, finally turned over to the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation. The foundation maintains the house and offers guided tours.
Once the house was restored, the DeMenil heirs brought back much of the original furnishings and DeMenil family effects, some dating all the way back to the Chouteau family. Much of the furniture in the house is original to the DeMenils.
In the oldest part of the house, built by Henri Chatillon, the family dining room includes china once belonging to the Chouteau family and passed down through the DeMenils. There is also an enigmatic and abstract painting of Chatillon’s first wife, Bear Robe, painted after her death, which contains various symbolic images reminiscent of a Sioux painting.
The adjoining parlors include a Steinway piano and other original furnishings. There is a painting of Pierre Laclede over one of the fireplaces. Laclede died in 1778 while returning upriver from a trip to New Orleans at the age of 49. He was buried at the mouth of the Arkansas River.
Laclede was the common-law husband to Auguste Chouteau’s mother, Marie Thérèse Bourgeois Chouteau, usually referred to as Madame Chouteau. He was the father of most of her children. It was a complicated relationship because her former husband abandoned her in New Orleans and returned to France. Divorce was not possible in the Catholic church. Auguste Chouteau was about age fourteen or fifteen when he began laying out the street plan for St. Louis.
In one of the rooms there is an interesting spindle device that was used for reading serialized books published in the local newspapers. The column of printed text would be cut from the newspaper and wound on the spindles for later reading as one continuous piece.
Another parlor/ballroom holds a second, larger piano.
Some of the ballroom furniture.
There is a central entry hall including an original gas light (electrified).
Dr. DeMenil’s desk — he was a physician and a pharmacist.
Mrs. DeMenil’s dresser.
Alexander DeMenil was a collector and writer and published a literary journal.
The bed on the right dates to the 17th century and is part of the family furniture brought from France.
Dr. DeMenil’s bedroom includes a concealed bath tub in the corner. It folds down to reveal the tub and was drained out through the window.
The house is now accessed from the rear. The DeMenils added columns to the back of the house to give it a better ‘curb appeal’ from the street.
The house sits next to the equally imposing Lemp Mansion, built by beer barons of a later era.
The foundation runs the house and it serves as a popular venue for garden weddings or other gatherings.