Feature Story

Dorothy About Town: 7.25.18

You could travel all over the world and still not see anything like the Campbell House Museum, a remarkable Victorian home at 1508 Locust St. It’s a rare slice of pre-Civil War Americana, an entire estate authentically preserved. Oddly, most St. Louisans are not familiar with it, even though the structure is listed on TripAdvisor as St. Louis’ No. 1 museum attraction! So what is it outsiders know that we don’t?

Turns out, the seven-story structure—five above ground, two below—offers an astounding look into what life was like for the privileged during the second half of the 19th century. We have St. Louisans of the past to thank for that, explains museum director Andy Hahn. Former art museum director Perry Rathbone encouraged city leaders to purchase the home and as many of its contents as possible. This was after the demise of the final Campbell, Hazlett, in 1938. Tragically, only three of patriarch Robert Campbell and his wife Virginia’s 13 children survived to adulthood, and none left heirs.

Robert Campbell emigrated from Ireland and became a wealthy fur trader and prominent member of St. Louis society. Guests at his table included Ulysses S. Grant, who had his own mint julep cup in the Campbell cupboard (on display). The home is filled with remarkable china, silver and crystal from the period, including items from Tiffany and Waterford, and a 350-piece dinner service hand-painted in Paris. Two standing brass candelabra are identical to a pair at Highclere Castle (the setting for Downton Abbey).

Ten servants routinely lived there to run the household. Visitors can see the head cook and housekeeper’s rooms, each outfitted with the actual linens, furniture and accessories of the day: bathing tubs, dressing tables and chamber pots. In 1885, the Campbells commissioned photos of their stunning home, 60 of which are used by the museum to verify placement of furniture, ceiling designs and wall treatments.

Of the home’s 11,000 square feet, about 20 rooms are on display. One highlight is the formal parlor, a 43-foot-long Rococo Revival vision of tufted red and gold furniture. Another is the huge senior Campbells’ bedrooms, divided only by a pocket door. Her side includes a birdcage, one of her gowns and a portrait of Robert; his has a portrait of her. The gardens, too, are stunning, especially since Campbell purchased the lot next door to ensure better air circulation through his windows. Beautifully landscaped and containing a carriage house with the family’s Phaeton and Rockaway buggies, the highlight is a latticed ‘strolling gazebo.’

This is the home’s 75th anniversary as a museum. Thanks to the efforts of supporters and volunteers, tours are free with the $8 admission and are offered Wednesday through Sunday most of the year (by appointment at other times). Campbell House also hosts special events, including a free annual fall garden party and a Victorian Christmas that attracts about 500 visitors, many on tour buses from elsewhere. I was lucky enough to simply drive down to Locust and 15th, park in the adjacent lot and walk into the 19th century.