Discovering the Early Days of a Painted Lady
I used to make my husband drive by our home—a Second Empire–style townhouse in Lafayette Square—before it was ours. He resisted touring the interior, but when I finally convinced him, we both left smitten. We were in love not just with its soaring ceilings, plaster cove moldings, and tidy pocket shutters but also with its wrinkles, bruises, and battle scars. There were wide, undulating baseboards that morphed suddenly into skinny runners. Off-period dentil moldings, piecemeal marble fireplaces, and an atrium sliced out of the home’s old-growth floor joists gave clues to a long, bumpy, but ultimately lucky life. Neighbors offered insights into the recent renovations and owners, but the townhouse’s early days remained frustratingly opaque. When I learned that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had finally been digitized, I quickly made my way to the Missouri History Museum’s glorious Library and Research Center. With the aid of the Museum's talented archivists, I spent an afternoon digging through the past of my "painted lady."
The house was built by N. J. Livingston in the late 1870s but wasn’t occupied until 1883. Livingston worked for the St. Louis Merchants Exchange, and although the family entertained a little, things didn’t get interesting until the Durants purchased the home in 1888. Within months they had welcomed Mrs. Annie Jenness Miller, a progressive East Coast reformer who was in St. Louis lecturing on “Artistic and Hygienic Dress.” Her profile and accompanying sketch in the paper depict a “graceful” woman in a high-necked pleated bodice, tailored jacket, and a bustled skirt fashioned using pleats and ribbon. A more reserved, but evidently no less famous, contemporary of Amelia Bloomer, she quipped to the Post-Dispatch that she had stopped giving autographs long ago on account of “writer’s cramp.”
I wish I could tell you it was all fashionistas and frivolities, but tragedy struck the house within the decade. I don’t invest much in the supernatural, but if I were staging a ghost story, the unfortunate servant girl Hilda Hartmann, found dead from asphyxiation on December 7, 1892, would certainly win the part of lead hauntress. Her death was tragic but probably not nefarious, she “having blown out the gas” in her room. I'm guessing she lived on the third floor, because there’s still a cut-out circle where an old potbelly stove must have been. I suspect Hilda, unfortunately identified as Dilda by the Post-Dispatch in its announcement of her death, was a German immigrant—not much could be found about her, as it often goes with poor young women of the past. I hope her short life was at least a happy one.
The house survived the catastrophic cyclone that hit Lafayette Square in 1896, but it couldn’t escape the neighborhood’s boarding-house days unscathed. In 1919 five barrels of “spirituous liquor” stolen from the G. Riesmeyer Distilling Co. were recovered from what was then a garage (formerly a stable and currently our carriage house). The home belonged to Meyer Katz at the time, a gentleman who “had given the police much trouble in the past,” and was a known member of the Max Greenberg gang. I suppose things could have been worse for the whole lot of them, because a few months later a can of turpentine exploded on the home’s second floor, causing injuries and $1,500 worth of damage.
I call the house ours, but the truth is we’re only stewards, probably not so different from those who walked its gracious parlors a century ago. While I spend the occasional sleepless night searching for comfortable and attractive shoes on Amazon (where is Mrs. Miller when you need her?), my husband prefers to carry the torch of Katz and his gang—our cellar is always stocked with the finest whiskey.
—Genny Cortinovis, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Saint Louis Art MuseumEDITOR'S NOTE: If you're interested in researching your St. Louis home's history, visit our House History Research Guide.