On Dec. 9, 2016, the Field House Museum in St. Louis unveiled an addition that provides not just a new entrance, but a spacious gallery enabling a more fuller telling of the stories of the two remarkable men who lived there.
The house, a handsome but otherwise unremarkable three-story brick row house built in 1845 was originally preserved because Eugene Field, widely known as “The Children’s Poet,” spent part of his childhood there, but it can never be torn down because of Eugene’s father, Roswell, who initiated a historic lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Eugene Field (1850-1895) was born in the house at 634 S. Broadway, now nestled between Busch Stadium and a trio of music clubs on Downtown’s southern edge. He worked as a journalist in St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph, but became famous as the author of poems like “Little Boy Blue,” "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” and “The Duel” (better known as “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat”). Samuel Clemens praised the writer in 1902 during the unveiling of a bronze plaque marking the house as the birthplace of Field.
By 1934, the home, along with the rest of the row houses on the block, was slated for the wrecking ball, a situation that inspired newspaper reporter Irving Dillard to write an editorial decrying the destruction of a building associated with the beloved poet. The diatribe worked; the St. Louis Board of Education—which owned the property—was persuaded to save the house, and St. Louis schoolchildren collected nearly $2,000—an astonishing feat in the teeth of the Great Depression—for its preservation. It opened to the public as the Eugene Field Shrine in 1936, and later became known as the Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum. School groups from St. Louis City public schools are still admitted free.
As research into Field and his family progressed, museum curators began to realize the profound importance of Eugene’s father, Roswell, not to poetry, but to American history. Roswell, one of the best property lawyers in Missouri, was persuaded by a colleague to take on the case of a slave who maintained that he and his family should be free because they had lived four years in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal.
In 1853, Roswell initiated the Dred Scott case at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, which still stands as part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) operated by the National Park Service.
The rest of the story was succinctly told by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in his statement upon the designation of the house as a National Historic Landmark in 2007:
“Field House, St. Louis, Missouri, is the home of Roswell Field, the attorney who formulated the legal strategy that placed slave Dred Scott’s lawsuit for freedom before the Supreme Court. In Scott v. Sandford, one of the most controversial cases of the 19th century, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that no slave could be a U.S. citizen and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (that abolished slavery in the territories) was unconstitutional. The 1857 decision widened the political gap between the North and the South and helped precipitate the Civil War. The most effective critic of the decision was Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown Illinois lawyer, whose attacks on the case thrust him into the national political scene. Anger over Taney’s decision energized the Republican party and led the nation’s first antislavery political party to victory in 1860. It took the Civil War and post-war constitutional amendments to overturn the Dred Scott decision.”
The new addition also houses temporary exhibits and will allow conservators to restore the home’s third floor—which had exhibited toys—to a closer approximation of its 19th-century appearance.
Open for tours Wednesday through Saturday, 10 am-4 pm; Sunday noon-4 pm.