Ruth Graham for the Boston Globe said, “House museums can seem like the sleepiest corner of the museum world: They tend to be small spaces with small budgets, elderly volunteers, and even older furnishings.” I put off writing about Chatillon-DeMenil, a house/museum in St. Louis, for a long time because Graham is pretty much describing it. But then The Revenant won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Chatillon-DeMenil House was built in the 18th century about the time that gold was discovered in California. A revolution in Germany caused many citizens, including some of my ancestors, to emigrate to the United States. Many of them eventually ended up in St. Louis, a growing city that already had a population approaching 80,000 by 1850. St. Louis had been settled by the French in 1764.
Born in 1813, Henri Chatillon was both French and a mountain man like the Leonardo DiCaprio character, Hugh Glass, in The Revenant. Henri and his 2nd wife, who had a wonderfully exotic name, Odile Delor Lux, decided to build a modest brick house in south St. Louis on a bluff near the Mississippi River. In 1849 a young Boston writer named Francis Parkman had his first book published. The Oregon Trail was a hit. Henri Chatillon, a hunter for the American Fur Company, was in it as a guide who spoke both French and Sioux. He knew Sioux because his first wife, Bear Robe, was a chief’s daughter.
The Chatillons only lived in their new house for a short time before selling it to Doctor Nicolas DeMenil in 1856. His wife Emelie was related to St. Louis’ founding French family. Instead of tearing it down, they added a Greek Revival facade and many rooms. The humble abode became a mansion. The DeMenil’s son Alexander became one of the directors of the 1904 World’s Fair that put St. Louis on the international map and gave the ice cream cone to the world. The house remained in the DeMenil family until 1945.
The next owner, Lee Hess, developed the caves under it into a tourist attraction. The Anheuser-Busch brewery nearby used the same cave system to refrigerate beer that became a global product after this brewery learned to pasteurize it. The Chatillon-DeMenil was almost torn down when I-55 was built, but preservationists saved it to open as a historic property in 1965.
The house still looks pretty much like it did when the DeMenils lived in it, which is both a plus and a minus. On our house tour Ruth & I saw a curious 19th century reading wheel, a table set with French Haviland china, diamond dust mirrors, Victorian Era wallpaper, etc. These features and others, of course, gave the house an old appearance. Upstairs was a notable collection of World’s Fair memorabilia that was hard to appreciate because the volunteer tour guide had seen it so often that we felt uncomfortable browsing. When he began to tell us about the house’s current money woes, it was time to leave.