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  • December 20, 2014

The Campbell House: Life in the Gilded Age - Ladue News: Home

The Campbell House: Life in the Gilded Age

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Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:00 pm

To visit the Campbell House in the Lucas Place neighborhood downtown is to step back in time. The seven-level, 10,500-square-foot house offers a rare glimpse into the privileged lifestyle of the Campbells and families like them who lived in Lucas Place, which for a brief 40-year period, was St. Louis’ premier neighborhood before urban noise and pollution drove residents farther west.

Located at 14th Street, the four-block residential enclave was home to successful merchants, politicians, military officers and physicians; and surrounded by some of the city’s finest institutions, including Washington University, Mary Institute and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Today, the Campbell family home, now a museum and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the only surviving residential building in the neighborhood. Executive director Andrew Hahn and a small cadre of young interns and docents oversee the museum, giving tours, as well as conducting historical research.

Built in 1851, the Campbell house was the first to be erected in the neighborhood. Three years later, the stately brick structure became home to renowned fur trader and entrepreneur Robert Campbell, wife Virginia, and their family, and as many as 150 individuals who provided domestic services from 1854 until 1938.

When the Campbells’ last surviving son passed away in 1938, the home and its contents were inherited by Yale University. Shortly thereafter, a group of St. Louisans formed the Campbell House Foundation to raise funds to preserve the house as a landmark. Key to that effort was local retailer Stix, Baer and Fuller, which purchased the home for the foundation. Donated funds also were used to purchase the Campbell family’s possessions, which were sold at an Ivey-Selkirk auction in 1941. Although the foundation succeeded in purchasing most of the estate lots at auction, many were purchased by individuals. Interestingly, a number of those objects have found their way back to the museum through the years, according to Hahn. Most recently, for example, a set of Mrs. Campbell’s sterling silver goblets was returned to the museum as a donation. The fortunate result of this curious phenomenon is that some 90 percent of the museum’s contents are original Campbell possessions, including furniture, oil paintings, clothing, carriages, photographs and hundreds of letters, which provide detailed insight into the family’s life in both pre- and post-Civil War St. Louis.

In fact, the Campbell house is now among the finest examples of high Victorian style in America following the recent completion of a five-year, $3-million renovation. The painstaking restoration has brought the one-time showpiece back to its original grandeur of the opulent 1880s, when the Campbell home was considered a center of St. Louis society. Graceful proportions, high ceilings, long, narrow windows and large heavily gilded cornices provide a rich backdrop for the elaborately carved Victorian mahogany furniture, heavy drapery and floral carpeting recently recreated for the museum. Indeed, the 162-year-old home looks fresher than ever, as if the elegant Mrs. Campbell herself were still the chatelaine and ready to receive her guests—St. Louis’ very own Gilded Age society.

 

 

The Victorian Parlor Drapery

The design and installation of custom drapery in the Campbell House’s Victorian parlor was the piece de resistance in the museum’s five-year, $3 million restoration. Like everything else involved in the restoration, the new drapery was funded by generous donations from interested and involved St. Louisans.

Campbell House board member and interior designer Tim Rohan, whose firm is well-known for its luxurious custom work, was responsible for the design, sourcing and fabrication of the new drapery, which was essential for both practical, as well as aesthetic, reasons in a city home.

“Window drapery in city mansions was important for privacy and warmth, and to protect the interior from sunlight, which would fade their mahogany furniture,” Rohan explains. “After researching the archives of Campbell House, we found photos of what parlor drapery looked like in 1860 to 1870. From these photos, we copied the opulent look for the elegant Victorian mansion. It was important for us to create and maintain what was existing in the house.”

Ultimately, Rohan selected sumptuous red velvet manufactured in Spain to re-create the drapery in the parlor as it might have looked a century ago. “In the Victorian period, jewel tones were in vogue, especially reds, blues, golds and purples,” he notes. “The Victorians were never afraid of color; and their eyes were used to seeing patterned fabrics, patterned carpets and patterned walls.”

All told, it took more than 100 yards of fabric to create the panels in the parlor, which features four narrow windows, plus an extremely large bay window and a 14-foot-high ceiling.

“The most challenging part of the project was not the production labor,” says Rohan, who relied on a trusted artisan to fabricate the Victorian masterpiece. “The daunting task was installing new drapery rods that could support the 14-foot-long drapery panels and have them fit under the 19th-century, gold-leaf cornices. Our drapery installer took this task in stride and, over the course of two-and-a-half days, helped transform the Campbell House Victorian parlor back to its former glory.”

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