Ask your average St. Louisan, says resident Frank Rolfe, and they’ll tell you that Ste. Genevieve is a day’s drive from the city. As Rolfe explains though, they’re missing out on a rich culture of history and architecture – all within an hour commute of St. Louis.
“It’s a cultural oasis,” he says. “Beautiful scenery and architecture, and no crime. I’ve visited other towns that are historically important or have a lot of charm – but they’re in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never seen any place that has as much to offer as Ste. Genevieve.”
Surrounded by state parks and wine country, the picturesque community recently received National Park status.
“My house, called The Academy, serves as two firsts in American history,” Rolfe notes. “It was the first public school west of the Mississippi and the first Christian Brothers School in North America.”
Ste. Genevieve lays claim to the largest number of vertical log structures in the United States, rivaling the living-history museum of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Rolfe’s property, the Ste. Genevieve Academy, first became a school in the early 1800s. General Firmin Rozier took over the property and reopened it as a private boys’ school in 1854, building an additional wing and enlarging the structure to 7,500 square feet.
“The walls of the house, which are two-feet thick, are the original walls of Fort de Chartres,” Rolfe details. “The town took stones from the French fort, [abandoned in 1772,] put them on rafts and crashed them on the shore down the river. They hauled these heavy stones up to the highest point in Ste. Genevieve County to build it.”
The Academy closed in 1861 and was refitted as the Rozier’s family mansion, which stayed in the family for the next 74 years. Historic preservationist Timothy Conley restored the property in 1994 over the course of several years. The Rolfe’s made it their family home in 2005.
“It has all of the attributes, from a living perspective, of a new home,” Rolfe describes. “Heat, modern air conditioning, energy efficiency considerations. The kitchen and baths are fully remodeled. We’ve maintained the history of the home; my wife and I collect antiques [and] we’ve filled the place with mostly things from the early 1800s, some the 1700s, [that] tie to Missouri.”
The first floor houses a small museum that features such
noteworthy items as a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s shirt, which he wore the night of his assassination; a document from George Washington; and a dining table, purchased from Conley, where David Francis, the former mayor of St. Louis and later governor of Missouri, is rumored to have worked on the 1904 World’s Fair.
Conley restored an additional property of importance in Ste. Genevieve, the home in which he currently resides, and the antique furniture of the completely remodeled Hotel Audubon. As he describes, three families founded the charming town.
“The Aubuchons owned this property and were the neighbor of my previous residence, which belonged to Commandant Jean-Baptiste Vallé,” Conley says. “Mary Pillsbury bought it and it is now owned by the National Park Service. My idea of philanthropy is restoring houses to their tiptop shape.”
Conley is this year’s recipient of Missouri Preservation’s highest award, the Rozier Award, a statewide honor that recognizes his lifetime achievement made in the field of historic preservation. Witnessing Ste. Genevieve become a National Historic Park is another feather in his cap for which he credits Senator Blunt.
“[Ste. Genevieve] is Brigadoon for me,” Conley says, referring to the mythical, idyllic Scottish town that appears for only one day each year in the self-named musical. “The people are all genuine – a breath of fresh air. I’ve never seen a neighborhood in all my travels to match that.”
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