Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Big Old Houses: Now it's Interstate 80

Big Old Houses: Now it's Interstate 80
by John Foreman


Before Interstate 80, there was U.S. 66, now called "Historic 66." It was the road my glamorous (and unemployed) father followed, en famille in 1958, when he (very briefly) considered taking a job in L.A. A century earlier, an adventurer like Harrison would have trekked the Oregon Trail, compared to which the trip in our 1953 Cadillac was the stuff of science fiction.

From 1836 to 1869, depending on the source one consults, 280,000 to half a million westbound emigrants departed Independence, MO. on the Oregon Trail. By 1843 the initial trickle had become a torrent. America's westbound frenzy was further fanned by the 1847 serialization in Knickerbocker's Magazine of "The Oregon Trail," by Francis Parkman (1823-1893). The pioneers he wrote about were brave, tough people; the trail they followed was 2000 miles long; their wagons sometimes had to be disassembled and carried; 10% who started never finished. One band, calling itself the Oregon Dragoons, carried a banner that said "Oregon or the Grave." The largest cause of mortality (surprisingly) wasn't Indian attack but accidental gunshot.
N.C. Wyeth, Francis Parkman, ca. 1925
Henri Chatillon (1813-1873).
Here's N.C. Wyeth's painting of Francis Parkman, commissioned for a 1925 reissue of "The Oregon Trail." I don't know if Parkman was really that good looking, but the outfit is legit.

Parkman's praise of his wilderness guide, a Frenchman named Henri Chatillon (1813-1873), included a description of the latter's "trousers of deer-skin, ornamented along the seams with rows of long fringes ... his bullet pouch and powderhorn hung at his side ..." Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, not the less so when it's such a good look. Parkman's published odes to his "true-hearted friend" made Chatillon famous.

Uber-guide Chatillon, seen here on a bad hair day, enabled his 23-year-old Boston Brahmin employer to produce a singularly readable travelogue containing episodes like "A Mountain Hunt," "The War Parties," "Scenes at Fort Laramie," "Indian Alarms," "The Lonely Journey," etc., etc. The public ate it up, even after 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad enabled anyone with $65 to make the same trip in 7 days.

The Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, seen below from Demenil Place in South St. Louis, MO, started out as a 4-room farmhouse. While off in the wilderness with Parkman, Chatillon's Sioux wife, Bear Robe, unexpectedly died. In 1848 he married again, this time to an heiress named Odile Lux, who also happened to be his cousin.

By 1850 the newlyweds had finished a 4-room farmhouse on land the new Mrs. C owned south of the (originally French colonial) city of St. Louis. The wing on the right in the image below is the original Chatillon house.
They weren't there long, however, selling the place in 6 years to Dr. Nicolas DeMenil (1812-1882), whose wife, Emelie Chouteau, belonged to one of St. Louis' founding families. In 1861, evidently in an "Old South" frame of mind, the DeMenils tripled the size of their house with a large eastern addition, whose imposing columned porch overlooked the Mississippi. The property remained in the family until 1945. The 1861 addition is clearly identifiable on the right side of the image below.
Before it was engulfed by urban St. Louis, you entered this house from the river side.
The neighborhood hasn't been rural, or even suburban, for a long time.
In the early 1960s, construction of Interstate 55, which connects to I-80 at Joliet, very nearly consigned Chatillon-DeMenil to demolition. The house is at the far left of the image below, perilously close to grading for a new on-ramp.
After the fin de siecle glories of Portland and Westmoreland Place (last week's post), Dr. DeMenil's house strikes a comparatively domestic note. It is a charming antique, owned since the 1960s by a non-profit foundation which depends on memberships and weddings, tours and donations, events and gift shop revenues to keep the rain out and the interiors polished.
I'm a front door kind of a guy, so in deference to that, and to Dr. DeMenil's original intent, that's where the Foundation's Lynn Josse is starting our tour.
The interior has a typical center hall layout, furnished as it would have been at the high water mark of the DeMenil period.
Three main rooms run along the south side of the house. Although there's nary a book in sight today, the family used the first as a library.
I'm told the middle room was intended to be the library, but became instead a family parlor. From a plan perspective, the original arrangement made more sense.
The dining room extends into the original farmhouse. An adjacent vintage kitchen was replaced in the '60s with a small catering kitchen (not shown, currently full of storage) and a pair of public restrooms.
There is a back stair and a back hall, but let's turn around and return to the front door.
Flanking the north side of the hall is a double parlor with double fireplaces and a comfortable air of 19th century gentility, unsullied by excessive funds.
Upstairs in the new wing are three principal bedrooms. Before vising them, however, let's take a look at the columned gallery from which, alas, you can no longer see the river.
The three bedrooms are beautifully furnished.
A small suite of rooms located off the back hall was intended originally for children. It has at different times been a caretaker's apartment, foundation office and more recently a "Bride's Suite" for weddings downstairs.
The third floor has two attics, featuring period displays and antique graffiti respectively.
Would I leave without seeing the basement? Not likely.
This is a good place to say goodbye, figuratively anyway, to Dr. DeMenil and his wife Emelie, who gaze at us from the wall of their double parlor. Even if Mrs. D. were the soul of patience and understanding — and I don't know that she was — no one would blame her for suing that portrait painter.
You can imagine the Mississippi glittering beyond the columns, but really it's Interstate 55. Chatillon-DeMenil is absolutely worth a visit, either just to see the house, or to attend some of the many year 'round events held there. The link is www.demenil.org.
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