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Old Courthouse to undergo second major renovation in its history

Old Courthouse to undergo second major renovation in its history

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The landmark Old Courthouse, a staple of the downtown St. Louis landscape for nearly 200 years, will undergo its second significant renovation in its history, officials announced Wednesday.

It’s the last major part of the $380 million CityArchRiver project, which resulted in the renovations of the Gateway Arch park grounds, museum, visitor center, riverfront, Kiener Plaza and Luther Ely Smith Square. A price tag for this project has not yet been set.

The improvements include renovated exhibit galleries, an elevator and other updates such as a fire suppression system and a new heating and cooling system.

Gone will be the air conditioning units that jut from the courthouse windows, as well as its finicky radiator heating.

“There are frequent times when we have no heat,” said Pam Sanfilippo, chief of museum services and interpretation at Gateway Arch National Park, who was sporting a forest green National Park Service cardigan during a walk through the building Monday. “Hence, the sweater.”

The building has been closed since March because of the coronavirus. Construction will start this year. The work is expected to take about two years, which means it will not reopen until late 2023 or early 2024.

Workers recently completed $3 million in foundation work and exterior and interior ramps to improve accessibility.

Historical perspective

The courthouse gets about 60,000 to 70,000 visitors every year and is the site of naturalization ceremonies, weddings and school field trips. It’s often framed under the legs of the Gateway Arch in postcards and fireworks and wedding shots.

“I think a lot of folks feel like they’re not allowed to come in the building,” said Ryan McClure, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, which is funding and leading the project with the National Park Service. “Like they don’t really know that it’s a public space, and there are exhibits here, and there are things to experience that are really important to our story as a city and as a country.”

Old Courthouse getting a facelift

Hooks on an informational display sit empty as exhibits are taken down in the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. The National Park Service and the Gateway Arch Park Foundation are undertaking a remodel inside the historic structure which will add accessibility, including an elevator, a HVAC system and new exhibits the will look at the history of the courthouse and some of the historic decisions and events that happened there. (Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com)

Harriet and Dred Scott sued for their freedom here, and their case led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that was a major factor in the start of the Civil War. Virginia Minor sued here for her right to vote in the 1870s, and her case led to women’s voting rights. The courthouse also was the origin spot of 300 more suits from enslaved people seeking their freedom. Some enslaved people were sold on the courthouse’s outside steps as part of estate sales.

Lynne Jackson is the president of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. She also is the great-great-granddaughter of the Scotts. She has worked with the courthouse for years to help tell their story and is “totally excited” about the renovations and improved exhibits, she said.

The gallery telling the Scotts’ story will have windows facing east, toward the Arch and Illinois, which was a free state.

“That is going to be fabulous,” she said of the symbolism of the gallery’s placement.

She said she hopes the exhibit will set straight some misconceptions about the Scotts’ story and hopes the renovations will help draw more people to the courthouse. She’s talked to people who never have visited or didn’t know about its connections to the Scott case.

“We need to toot that horn a little more,” she said.

Other improvements

In addition to the Dred and Harriet Scott gallery, the courthouse will renovate three more main gallery spaces. The gallery across from the Scott gallery, called "Pathways to Freedom," will explore African American life in St. Louis, including slavery and the civil rights movements.

The gallery on the southeast side, “Designed for Justice,” will explore the architectural features of the courthouse, including the wrought iron dome designed by William Rumbold, a consultant for the design of the U.S. Capitol dome. The original courthouse building was brick and completed in 1828. The additional wings were built around it in the following decades; the present-day dome was completed in 1862.

The southwest gallery, “See You in Court,” will explore the daily activities in the courthouse from 1839 to 1930. Visitors will be able to reenact mock trials and learn more about the role of the courts.

The gallery spaces will be designed by Haley Sharpe Design with the help of park staff. The firm designed the exhibits in the Gateway Arch museum, which reopened in 2018.

The courthouse hasn’t undergone a major renovation since 1972 but is otherwise structurally sound and well-maintained, Sanfilippo said.

“It’s been a while,” she said. “We’re way overdue.”

The new exhibits will be more interactive and have multimedia elements. Now, the gallery spaces hold exhibits that focus more on western expansion and served as temporary museum space while the Arch museum was renovated.

The courthouse windows, some of which will have to be replaced and most of which cannot be opened, will allow in more natural light and help people see outside and orient themselves downtown.

The bigger construction challenge will be making the HVAC and building upgrades without compromising the historic and structural integrity of the building itself.

“We’re being very careful,” Sanfilippo said. “You know, where are they going to put the pipes? How are they going to come through so they’re not damaging the historic structure and fabric?”

The elevator shaft, for example, will go in a conference room space. That makes a huge difference for people who might have been unable to see the historic courtrooms on the second floor, she pointed out.

Sanfilippo and McClure hope that the renovations will draw more visitors, and they point out the courthouse is a common backdrop or starting or ending point for protests and rallies.

“It’s such an important space for so many reasons, whether it’s celebrating, protesting, making your voice heard. These spaces are sacred and important,” McClure said.

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