Jane Smiley on What St. Louis Tells Us About America

The rows of brick houses around Skinker looked old and indestructible, but we saw the downside when we headed into the city — many brick houses were boarded up, others had collapsing roofs, smoke stains along the walls. They are much harder to dismantle than clapboard houses. Bricks represent the glory and the danger of St. Louis’s history — many still graceful and beautiful in the middle class and wealthy neighborhoods, but in the poorer areas, their history is a burden and a reminder.

My grandfather worked for International Shoe Company, in the tannery where they turned the hides into leather across the Mississippi, not downtown, in the huge shoe company warehouse that was turned into the City Museum in 1997. This “museum” is something I have never seen before, a playground/junk collection full of children and their parents, designed by Bob Cassilly. I would like to say that I knew him in elementary school in Webster Groves, the St. Louis County suburb where I grew up, because he was about my age, and that we collected fossils down in Deer Creek, but I can’t. Surely he had lots of fun with this museum.

The vast exhibition, indoors and outdoors, includes “old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, miles of tile, and even two abandoned planes!,” as well as caves, a 10-story slide, a tree house, a Ferris wheel, a castle turret, and the world’s largest pencil. It is one of the most popular museums in the United States, but I could only take it for an hour. We wandered around the four floors, watched the kids explore the outdoor balconies. It also includes a prominent first-aid room, and I could see why.

Not far away is the Field House Museum, built in 1845 by Roswell Field, the father of Eugene Field, who wrote “Little Boy Blue” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.” Roswell Field was famous as Dred Scott’s attorney when Scott was fighting against being re-enslaved in the 1850s. The United States Supreme Court decision against Scott was made public in March 1857 on the steps of the St. Louis Courthouse. Fortunately, Scott was given his freedom that May, but he died at the age of 59, 15 months later. The Dred Scott decision is widely considered one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made. The Field House is the last rowhouse remaining on the street, with narrow, steep stairs, and friendly exhibits of toys, books and the paraphernalia of mid-19th century daily life. We were the only visitors.