Old Courthouse – St. Louis, Missouri Scene of the Dred Scott trial. Galleries depict the history of St. Louis from its French and Spanish roots to its role in westward expansion. Trial reenactments.
The original courthouse was constructed of brick in the Federal style of architecture and completed in 1828. the courthouse was outgrown ten years after it opened. A second courthouse was designed by architect Henry Singleton, which incorporated the original courthouse as the east wing of the building.
The second courthouse was designed with four wings and a dome in the center of its axis. The cornerstone was laid in 1839 and within it were placed newspapers of various cities, an assortment of coins, and names of officers of government. Three tiers of balconies or galleries viewed the rotunda floor. Pillars of stone supported the first gallery, while white oak columns supported the upper two galleries. There were offices and courtrooms located throughout the building. The maximum number of courtrooms in use at one time was twelve, although fifteen different rooms were used over the duration of the courthouse’s operations.
The Old Courthouse underwent a second period of construction beginning in 1851. The original brick courthouse was demolished and replaced with a new east wing. Between 1855 and 1858 the west wing was remodeled due to unsound second floor construction. The lower floor was divided into a hallway and two courtrooms to support the floor above.
Throughout the 19th century the Old Courthouse in St. Louis served not only as a house of justice, but also as a public gathering place for pioneers planning their westward trek across the plains. Thirteen courtrooms were in use from 1845 until 1930. The courthouse dominated the city’s skyline until the turn of the 20th century, when skyscrapers rose to challenge it. The iron-framed dome was the forerunner of many similar domes erected on government buildings throughout the country. For many years the courthouse rotunda was one of the largest and most ornate rooms in St. Louis, and it was used for many city activities.
The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the pivotal Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850. It was also where Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote came to trial in the 1870s.
St. Louis’ Old Courthouse is listed in the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom. The Network to Freedom recognizes sites, programs and facilities with verifiable associations to the Underground Railroad.
Slaves were auctioned from its steps in estate settlements, while one man’s suit for freedom helped plunge the country into Civil War. The Old Courthouse was the site of hundreds of suits for freedom, but one gained notoriety. In 1847, Dred Scott, with his wife Harriet, sued for, and were granted, their freedom. After many appeals, the case was decided upon by the Supreme Court. The decision stated that slaves were property, and as such, had no right to sue. The Dred Scott Decision hastened the start of the Civil War.
Exhibits: While visiting the Old Courthouse, be sure to view the unique dioramas, which depict significant events in westward expansion and as examples of early National Park Service exhibit craftsmanship.
The Old Courthouse was abandoned by the City of St. Louis in 1930 because the growth of the city required additional court space and a new structure had been completed a few blocks to the west. During the following ten years the older building was used for an art school and a workshop for a religious organization that refurbished toys for needy children. It also served as offices for two justices of the peace and their constables.
Descendants of the Chouteau and Lucas families filed a lawsuit with the Missouri Supreme Court based upon the original agreement between their ancestors and St. Louis County. They claimed the Old Courthouse and its property should revert back to them because it was no longer used for its original purpose. The court ruled against the families and the courthouse was deeded to the Federal Government in 1940 by St. Louis City.
Location: The Old Courthouse is located two blocks west of the Gateway Arch and Arch grounds. The Old Courthouse is bordered by four streets: 4th Street to the east, Market Street on the south, Broadway on the west, and Chestnut on the north. The building can be entered by either the east entrance fronting 4th Street or the west entrance fronting Broadway. A wheelchair/accessibility lift is located at the Broadway entrance.
Hours: The Old Courthouse is open seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30p.m. The Old Courthouse is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Phone: (314) 655-1600