Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse (officially called the Old St. Louis County Courthouse) was built as a combination federal and state courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri. Missouri's tallest habitable building from 1864 to 1894, it is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and operated by the National Park Service used for historical exhibits and events.


Land for the courthouse was donated in 1816 by Judge John Baptiste Charles Lucas and St. Louis founder René Auguste Chouteau Lucas and Chouteau required the land be "used forever as the site on which the courthouse of the County of St. Louis should be erected." The Federal style courthouse was completed in 1828.

It was designed by the firm of Lavielle and Morton, which also designed the early buildings at Jefferson Barracks as well as the Old Cathedral. The firm is reported to the first architect firm west of the Mississippi River above New Orleans. Joseph Laveille as street commissioner in 1823-26 was the one who devised the city's street name grid, with ordinal numbers for north-south streets and arboral names for the east-west streets.

Missouri became a state in 1821, and the St. Louis population tripled in 10 years. A new courthouse was soon needed. In 1839 ground was broken on a courthouse designed by Henry Singleton, with four wings including an east wing that comprised the original courthouse and a three-story cupola dome at the center. Its overall theme was Greek Revival.

In 1851 Robert S. Mitchell began a redesign, in which the original courthouse portion on the east wing was torn down and replaced by a new east wing. From 1855 to 1858, the west wing was remodeled. The famous Dred Scott citizenship case was heard in the west wing before the remodeling.

In 1861 William Rumbold replaced a cupola with an Italian Renaissance cast iron Dome modeled on St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The United States Capitol dome, built at the same time during the American Civil War, is also modeled on the basilica. Once the dome was completed, Karl Ferdinand Wimar was commissioned to paint murals. The St. Louis dome was completed in 1864.

Rumbold in 1869 was to design the Missouri State Hospital (also called the St. Louis County Insane Asylum or City Sanitarium) which also features a dome. Its location at 5400 Arsenal is the highest point in St. Louis.

Rumbold's dome in the courthouse is wrought and cast iron with a copper exterior. Four lunettes in the dome have paintings by Carl Wimar depicting four events in St. Louis history. Ettore Miragoli painted over them in 1880, but they were restored in 1888.

Louis Brandeis was admitted to the bar in the building in 1878.

The courthouse building was the tallest building in Missouri and St. Louis until 1896 when Union Station (St. Louis) was built.

When St. Louis County, Missouri and the city split in 1877 the courthouse became city property. The courthouse was abandoned by the city in 1930 when the Civil Courts Building was built. Descendants of Chouteau and Lucas sued to regain ownership. In 1935 St. Louis voted a bond issue to raze nearly 40 blocks around the courthouse in the center of St. Louis for the new Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. President Franklin Roosevelt declared in an Executive Order the area would be a national monument. The courthouse formally became part of the new monument area in 1940. Replaced in 1941, the roof was renovated in 1955, 1985, and 2010. The courthouse remained the largest structure in the monument until the Gateway Arch was built in 1965.

Notable cases

  • In 1846 the slave Dred Scott sued for his and his wife's freedom in the building based on the fact that they had lived in free states. All of the trials, including a Missouri Supreme Court hearing, were held in the building. The case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled against him. The decision was to polarize the nation in the run up to the American Civil War.
  • In 1872 Virginia Minor attempted to vote in a St. Louis election and was arrested. Her trials, including the deliberations before the Missouri Supreme Court, were held in the building. The case was eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Minor v. Happersett, which upheld the male-only voting rules.


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