The Old Courthouse in St. Louis: Yesterday & Today (Teaching with Historic Places)

This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.

Throughout the 19th century the Old Courthouse in St. Louis served not only as a house of justice, but also as a public gathering place for pioneers planning their westward trek across the plains. Thirteen courtrooms were in use from 1845 until 1930. The courthouse dominated the city's skyline until the turn of the 20th century, when skyscrapers rose to challenge it. The iron-framed dome was the forerunner of many similar domes erected on government buildings throughout the country. For many years the courthouse rotunda was one of the largest and most ornate rooms in St. Louis, and it was used for many city activities.

An editorial in the Missouri Republican of May 2, 1855 read, "the well adapted to popular assemblies. No room of the same dimensions in the city is better suited to the voice. In the upper tiers every word uttered with common force is plainly distinguishable." At a time when commercial amusement was limited, public events held at the courthouse were well attended. Debates, speeches, and even court proceedings were considered forms of entertainment. This 19th-century courthouse brought national concerns to the people and provided a forum where they could actively participate in the shaping of their country's future.

Essential Question

What happens in a courthouse?


1. To explain why St. Louis was founded on the Mississippi River and the important role the city and its courthouse played in the westward expansion movement;
2. To identify and discuss issues significant to 19th-century railroad expansion to the western region of the nation;
3. To explain how a legal verdict – the Dred Scott Decision – can affect national policy;
4. To identify and describe a historic structure in their own community that has been rehabilitated and reused.

Last updated: August 11, 2023