The Old Courthouse

May 06, 2014 Posted by: Tom Dewey, Librarian

The Old Courthouse, by Robert J. Moore. St. Louis: Jefferson National Parks Association, 2004.

The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is a building many people have seen time and time again. The Greek Revival style building frequently appears as a recognizable symbol of the city alongside the Gateway Arch.  It is rightly famous for its association with Dred and Harriet Scott and their quest for freedom.  Their legal battle was nationally and historically significant and began in the building in 1846. But the building’s history reveals much about the people of St. Louis and the times in which it was created and Moore’s The Old Courthouse tells that story with much authority and interest.

The book begins by explaining the early history of the city and how the first courts in the area were housed at various places including a Baptist church and a tavern. The first courthouse was made of brick and was in the Federal architectural style.  In 1838, just ten years after the completion of the first building, a contest was announced for the design of a new, larger courthouse building.  The population of the city was just 5,500 in 1828, but by 1838 the population had tripled to nearly 17,000.

Dogged by financial, creative and political issues, the courthouse took nearly a generation to finally reach its ultimate completion. The story of the construction of the courthouse is told with much authority as it covers many aspects of the unique structure.  The building’s dome is an especially interesting topic because of its complicated and controversial design for its time. In addition to the building’s engineering feats, the author also details artists and artisans who helped create the beautiful imagery that adorn the interiors of the building, especially the rotunda and dome. 

But Moore never loses site of the human stories that accompany the building.  In addition to its functions as a working courthouse, the building was essentially the town hall for many decades as citizens gathered to hear about local and national concerns. Prominent speakers were often featured and rallies for various causes were held in the building.

Moore explains that the courts continued to meet in the building even during its prolonged construction phases.  The most famous case is the freedom suit brought by Dred & Harriet Scott.  The case started in the St. Louis Courthouse and went through many local, state and federal courts until their defeat in 1857. The Scotts later received their freedom in the building from Taylor Blow after the controversial Supreme Court ruling.  Another prominent case held at the courthouse involved Virginia Minor, a woman who sued the city registrar in the early 1870s because he wouldn’t allow her to register to vote.  The courthouse played a significant role in civil rights issues over the years because of these and many other cases heard within its walls.

Moore’s book gives a vivid glimpse into late nineteenth century St. Louis and how its continued growth eventually caught up with the building.  By the early 1920s many people were calling for a new and expanded courthouse to deal with the burgeoning population and its legal problems.  The courts left the building in 1930 but the building continues to thrive as a museum and as a testament to the rich cultural significance of the city and its people.


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