St. Louis Field House Museum Commemorates 175th Anniversary
The house that eventually became the Field House Museum is celebrating a milestone this week: 175 years since its construction in 1845. The site at 634 S. Broadway in St. Louis was the home of two notable St. Louis figures: Roswell Field and his son Eugene Field.
Roswell Field moved his family into the unit to get away from what was then considered the city — prompted by his first child’s death during the cholera epidemic and his original home nearly burning down in the St. Louis Fire of 1849.
“When they were living there, [Roswell’s] wife, Francis, passed away after giving birth to a child. And this was when Eugene was about 6 years old. And he decided to send his two boys, Eugene and his younger brother Roswell Jr., to live with their aunt and their cousin in Amherst, Massachusetts, because he felt they needed a mother figure in their lives,” Stephanie Bliss explained.
Bliss is the Field House Museum executive director. She joined host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to delve into the site’s history and upcoming exhibit: “Momentous Milestones.”
“So although it no longer became their primary residence, the Fields did hang on to it for when Eugene and Roswell would come back to St. Louis, so that way they could go back to their home per se,” Bliss added.
Roswell Field is best known for serving as the attorney for Dred and Harriet Scott during their lawsuit for freedom in 1853. He formulated the unconventional legal strategy that placed slave Dred Scott’s lawsuit for freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Roswell decided in order to keep the case propelling throughout the courts, he would change it to [a lawsuit based on] citizenship (rather than a freedom suit, which was common at the time),” Bliss explained.
“He's the first person to argue citizenship in the federal courts. And so that was how the case was propelled to the U.S. Supreme Court. He stated that Dred and Harriet were citizens of the United States. Now that didn't necessarily mean that they had the rights of a white man or a property owner, but it meant that they couldn't be owned — that they were not pieces of property, but in fact, humans.”
Roswell’s son Eugene Field went on to become a literary figure most known for his newspaper columns and children’s poetry.
“I like to say Eugene is kind of like our first blogger — but in newspapers. He really got the chance to write about anything and everything. And one of those things that he did right was poetry. And at the time, when he was writing, he was writing for adults to remember their childhood,” Bliss said.
Adults would then read those literary works to their children, which in turn made them popular across generations. “So much so that there was a Eugene Field Elementary School in every state at one point in time. So his works really resonated with both adults and children, and after his death, he was termed ‘The Children's Poet,’” Bliss added.
Saving history with pennies
In the mid-1930s, 634 S. Broadway was under threat of demolition. But a committee formed to raise funds for restoration, and its efforts led to the building becoming a museum in 1936.
Children played a notable role in this endeavor.
“The schoolchildren actually raised almost $2,000 in pennies and nickels and dimes from their penny drive. So they helped save the house, and for the years that the schools ran it, they used it as a field trip destination. And so after that, the legacy was continued where the St. Louis Public Schools get free admission to the museum [to this day],” Bliss explained.
The Field House was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2007 for its historical significance. Also among the museum’s notable features is the collection of toys from the drives it organized in the 1970s through the '90s, with toys dating back to the 1780s.
This history will all be on display from Wednesday through Nov. 28.
“This is the first time we've really done something like this,” Bliss said. “We're really delving truly into our history and those people who helped not only save us, but have supported us and helped us survive the 175 years that we've made it so far.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.