Tag Archives: Restoration

Guest Blog: Writing the Book on Campbell House

This week we’re handing the reins over to guest blogger Dylan McCartney, a Graduate Research Assistant working with us from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Take it away, Dylan!

When I arrived at the Campbell House in August, I knew very little about Robert Campbell, Virginia Campbell, or St. Louis. I didn’t even call St. Louis home. As a graduate student in the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Museum Studies program, the Campbell House is where I will complete a two-year assistantship. And so, since I knew nothing about the Campbells, I was naturally asked to write up the definitive document about them.

Graduate Research Assistant Dylan from the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Graduate Research Assistant Dylan from the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Specifically, it is a new, updated Docent Guidebook. If a docent leads visitors through the house on tours and relates the story of the family and house, then the Docent Guidebook does the same for docents. It is not a script, because the thing that makes a tour of the Campbell House great is that every docent builds their own tour. Instead, the guidebook provides a massive amount of information, too much to possibly fit on a single tour. The thing our docents do best is to internalize the information, relate the most important points, the things they find interesting, and the things the guest finds interesting.

To write the Docent Guidebook, I have spent the better part of five or so months diving deep into the Campbell House archives. I’ve read letters by the Campbells, poured through their receipt books, hunted down newspapers, and worked with the Campbell House Museum’s researcher, Tom Gronski. I researched the objects, the rooms, and even the history of the Museum itself. And, of course, I chatted with the docents, to see what they wanted out of a new guidebook.

touring visitors

Campbell House Docent Tom Keay leads a tour in the Master Bedroom

A new guidebook was needed because a lot of things had changed since the old one. For instance, when the old one was written, the collections hadn’t even been returned to the house after our major restoration was finished! We’re also learning more and more about the Campbells every day. Before this past summer, we didn’t know about a special cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry hallway. We only recently discovered the names of the Campbell House’s architects. And, until a couple of years ago, we weren’t even sure if the Campbells were slaveowners.

The new edition of the Campbell House Museum Docent Guidebook: Dylan's pride and joy and the product of many many hours of hard work and research.

The new edition of the Campbell House Museum Docent Guidebook: the product of many hours of research and hard work by Dylan!

A new Docent Guidebook also allowed us to correct any myths that have arisen over the years. As with anything dependent upon oral discourse, a comment made twenty years ago by one person can slowly morph into accepted fact. For instance, many visitors have been informed that Virginia Campbell spent $40,000 on the furniture in 1855. In truth, it’s impossible to tell from our archives the exact amount spent, although it is in the tens of thousands. It is also clear that Robert was buying furniture right there with her. The irony of these myths is that it obscures a wonderful story: that Robert and Virginia purchased their furniture half a continent away and shipped it all via train and boat to St. Louis. Robert was even purchasing carpeting and draperies from St. Louis by sending his brother Hugh the dimensions of the rooms!

The result of all this work is 120 pages of thoroughly sourced information about the Campbells, St. Louis, the house, and nearly anything else that we could think of. This document will serve as the go-to source for new docents, interns, researchers, and anyone else looking for a broad yet detailed summary of the Campbell’s story. So if you thought our docents were already great, come take another tour to see how we’ve managed to get even better!

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Ongoing Restoration Projects – It Never Ends!

Painter Dave creates a wood grain design on the primed outer front doors. The magical mixture he uses for this is made from stale beer and Karo Syrup. The sugar content of both ingredients means the design is easy to manipulate and takes a long time to dry.

Painter Dave creates a wood grain design on the primed outer front doors. The magical mixture he uses for this is made from stale beer and Karo Syrup. The sugar content of both ingredients means the design is easy to manipulate and takes a long time to dry.

If you’ve been to the Campbell House more than once, you know that something is different on every visit. Some new bit of history has been discovered or a new artifact is on display or maybe new window dressings have been put up. Last week, painters completed the finishing touches on two very special projects here at the Museum, both involving doors. Giant. Doors. The first project was our outer front doors. The substantial, 9 foot outer front doors provided the Campbells and their ornate smaller inner front doors a barrier between the house and the city street. They’ve been hanging on their hinges for 164 years and counting and have experienced a wide array of temperatures, precipitation, soot, smog and pretty much anything else you can imagine in their lifetimes. Ten years ago, as the Museum’s restoration came to a close, these doors were restored with a faux-grained wood finish. A decade later, they were beginning to show their age and the time had come to restore the restoration (anyone who has lived in an old house for any length of time will understand this).

Carefully... carefully... those doors were heavy.

Carefully… carefully… those doors were heavy.

The other project was even more exciting. A generous grant allowed us to tackle a restoration project that’s been on the back burner for years, decades really. The Campbells’ elegant double parlor has a set of pocket doors leading into it, designed to smoothly slide open and closed for a “grand reveal” of the gilded room and its contents. The thing is, they haven’t opened and closed very smoothly for about 70 years. In fact, they were jammed solidly open. The grant allowed us to hire some woodworking professionals to come in, remove a portion of the door frame and pull the doors off of their tracks. What they found was unexpected, but not surprising. The wheel mechanism in the bottom of the door still worked perfectly – the problem was that a century and half of dust and coal soot had built up inside the wall and piled at the bottom of the door’s enclosure, creating a solid heap which the door was riding up and jamming itself on. After removing the clog, oiling up the mechanics and replacing the doors on their tracks, they’re back to working as well as they did when Robert and Virginia bought the house back in 1854. The painters that worked on restoring our outer front doors then restored the pocket doors’ faux wood grain finish – and they look GREAT! Click below to see the “GRAND REVEAL” through the Parlor pocket doors and click through the gallery below to see the two projects happen from start to finish.

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The View from Hazlett’s Room

The balcony as it appears today, sans enclosure.

Master bedroom balcony at the Campbell House Museum

April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring a beautiful garden along with… a lot of gunk on our roof and in our gutters. Once or twice a year we get up on top of the roofs of the Campbell House’s various built-out bays to clear out debris and do some spring cleaning. This was much easier when the Campbells were living here because their servants could have opened the windows and climbed right out onto the roof. However, as part of the Museum’s restoration in the early 2000s, all of the windows in the house were sealed tightly shut – making a relatively straightforward job a little more interesting (think really tall ladders, lots of climbing and steep roof slopes).

HAZLET~1

Hazlett Kyle Campbell lived in his family’s downtown St. Louis home for his entire life, from 1858 to 1938.

Today we climbed up to the balcony off of the master bedroom used by Robert and Virginia Campbell and, later, their son Hazlett. During Robert and Virginia’s lifetimes, full length windows opened directly onto the copper surface of the open air balcony, which was surrounded by a detailed wrought iron railing. Some time after the deaths of Robert and Virginia, their sons  enclosed the balcony with an elaborate copper roof and trellised wooden walls. While we can’t be entirely sure of why or even when (our guess is circa 1910) this was put onto the house, our best guess was that it was to provide some privacy to Hazlett Campbell, who became increasingly reclusive and mentally unstable as he grew older. Accounts from servants working at the house recall that Hazlett spent much of his time in the master bedroom, rarely venturing outdoors. By enclosing the balcony, Hazlett would have been afforded some privacy in an era when the houses of the neighborhood were being torn down and replaced by large hotels and commercial buildings. As part of Campbell House Museum’s extensive restoration in the early 2000s, this enclosure was removed to return the east side of the house to its 1880s appearance. Check out the gallery below to see how the use of the balcony has evolved over the past 160+ years.

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