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July 7th, 2014 by Cameron

The Summer of Eads, Part II

Note: This is part two in a series I have titled “The Summer of Eads”. Dealing with a subject (James B. Eads) that is impossible to fit into a single Distilled History post, I’ve decided to write a few. Part one can be found here.

James Eads on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time strolling through the Loop and taking note of the numerous stars and plaques embedded in the sidewalk as part of the notable “St. Louis Walk of Fame” exhibit.

The 137 names on the Walk of Fame, each signified by a brass star and descriptive plaque, stretch for several blocks on each side of Delmar Boulevard. These stars are actually a significant source of nostalgia for me. I don’t get to the Loop much these days, but when I first moved to St. Louis in 1995, I worked in a bookstore just a couple of miles away. The few measly dollars found in my paychecks were usually spent in bars that had one of these stars in front of it.

The Walk of Fame was established in 1988 by Joe Edwards. He’s also the guy behind the famous Blueberry Hill, a bar those stars have led me to more than any other. I’m sure that stopping to read the various plaques while heading into (or stumbling out of) Blueberry Hill is one of the many reasons I became interested in the history of this town.

I found the star for the subject of my summer, James B. Eads, outside a tattoo parlor on the north side of Delmar. One of the first names selected for Walk of Fame induction back in 1989, Eads deservedly went in alongside notable St. Louis names such as Chuck Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Dan Zettwoch PrintAs I took a long look at his plaque, I thought about how little I knew about the man before I began this project several weeks ago. I think most of St. Louis is in the same boat. We all know his bridge, but the story behind the guy who built it is largely unknown. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to tell the story of James Eads before he became an internationally renowned engineer. Turns out it’s a darn good story.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find much about his early life. Plenty of sources provide detail of his engineering prowess, but few provide more than a brief overview of his early years. Many of them rely on one source, a short biography written in 1900 by Louis How, Eads’ own grandson. It may have been fun to find to find some dirt on this guy, but I don’t think there’s any to find. As I gradually learned, James Eads was a indeed a special guy. He had it figured out from the start.

James Buchanan Eads

James Buchanan Eads was born on May 23, 1820 in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children to Thomas Clark Eads and Ann Buchanan. Regarding Thomas Eads, Louis How asserts he was never “very prosperous”. So he moved his family to find stable income, first to Cincinnati in 1822 and then to Louisville in 1829. In 1833, Thomas Eads decided to uproot his family again, this time to St. Louis. At the age of thirteen, young James Eads boarded the steamboat Carolton. Along with his mother and two sisters (his father stayed behind to gather supplies for a store he planned to open), James Eads started his journey west, to the city where he’d make his mark.

Traveling on a steamboat was surely a wonder for the young, curious Eads. Fascinated by machinery and mechanics from an early age, his father supported his interest by building James a small workshop in Louisville. Four hours on end, he tinkered away in it, taking apart the family clock, building scale models of steamboats, and even constructing a functional steam engine. As Louis How recounts in his biography, a particularly boyish (and ingenious) moment during this childhood occurred when he produced a small wagon that mysteriously moved about the room. As his mother and sisters gaped in awe, it was soon revealed that the motive power was produced by a live rat hidden underneath.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Eads would need every bit of ingenuity he had. As the Carolton approached the St. Louis riverfront on September 6, 1833, a chimney flue toppled over. A deadly fire broke out, killing eight people and severely injuring many more. Ann Eads and her three children emerged on the riverfront unharmed, but all of their possessions were lost. Save for the clothes on their backs, the Eads family suddenly found themselves alone and penniless in a mysterious new city.Sub Marine No. 7

James Eads responded to this adversity with the same hard work and determination that would be indicative of his later career. Discontinuing his formal education in order to help support his family, he started by selling apples on the street. Soon after, he caught the eye of a boarder in a house his mother rented, a mercantile owner named Barret Williams. After recognizing the talent of the young man, Williams offered Eads a job as a clerk in his store, a position that would ultimately provide far more than an income.

It’s during this time when the genius of James Eads really begins to take root. Along with a job, Williams gave James Eads access to his personal library. With no formal schooling past the age of thirteen, it was in this library where James Eads continued his education – on his own.Martha Dillon Eads

In the late hours after the mercantile closed, he poured through the classics, became a fan of poetry, read books about science and history, and most significantly, taught himself engineering and mathematics.

Eads began to apply his self-education in 1839, when he took a job as a mud clerk on the steamboat Knickerbocker. His family had moved again, this time to Iowa, but Eads opted to stay back and pursue opportunity in St. Louis. Among other responsibilities, a mud clerk was responsible for wading through the muck, clearing away obstacles, and securing a boat to shore. It was arduous work, but it offered the hands-on riverboat experience he wanted. And most importantly, it’s where he’d start to become fully acquainted with the river that would shape his brilliant career – the Mississippi.

James Eads would come to understand, as much as anyone in his time, the sheer power of the Mississippi. He lived it aboard the Carolton 1833, and he’d live it again when the Knickerbocker was ripped apart by a snag in 1839. For the second time in six years, Eads found himself shivering on shore and watching the boat that just carried him sink to the bottom of the river. But this time, James Eads had an idea.

The Mississippi, with its unpredictable currents, heavy sediment movements, and countless snags, sank boats on a daily basis. James Eads realized a profit could be made from the cargo that sank with them. In the 19th century, “wreckers” were paid handsomely by ship owners and insurance companies to salvage valuable materials from sunken boats. Additionally, laws of the time stipulated that anything sitting at the bottom of the river five years after it settled there became the property of anyone who could get it.

The Eads Mansion on Compton HillBut it was extremely dangerous work. Salvage boat and diving technology at that time was rudimentary, causing even the bravest of souls to pass on such work. But James Eads, already confident in his own ability, went to work designing a new salvage vessel of his own. After months of revisions and improvements, Eads presented his design to two St. Louis businessmen. Surely amazed by what the 22-year old had proposed, the two men agreed to provide financial backing. Before long, Salvage Boat No. 1 was under construction. James Eads was about to start the next chapter of his life at the bottom of a river.

The venture was an instant success. HisSub Marine found ample reward as it raced around western rivers raising lost cargo before competitors could get to it. At the same time, Eads invented a diving bell, weighted with lead, rigged to air pumps, and equipped with a small seat inside. Inside and submerged, a wrecker could move around the bottom of the river while withstanding fast river currents.

eads_glassfactory

As brave as he was ingenious, Eads did much of the diving bell work on his own. Henceforth known as “Captain” James Eads since he piloted his own boats and worked alongside his men, Eads displayed a remarkable personal commitment to his work. As Louis How writes, Eads boasted later in life that a stretch of fifty miles didn’t exist between St. Louis and New Orleans in which he hadn’t stood under his diving bell on the riverbed.

Eunice Hagerman Eads

This is indicative of the kind of man James Eads was becoming. As he grew into an adult, James Eads developed into a brilliant and profoundly thoughtful man. According to sources, he was inquisitive, generous, and supportive of those close to him. He loved nature, read poetry, and was a very skilled chess player. He enjoyed riddles and humor, but he was tactful and when necessary. Some viewed his confidence as arrogance, but even his detractors considered him an exceptional man.

A successful and respected man by his mid-twenties, Eads now turned his attention to family life. In 1845, he married his cousin, Martha Dillon, after a tenuous courtship (remarkably, Martha’s father didn’t approve of the young inventor). His love for Martha was profound; so much so that he looked to find work closer to home. To do this, he decided to sell his interest in the salvage business and find work where he could stand on solid ground.

The decision would mark the beginning of a difficult chapter in his life. After leasing a large building in St. Louis, Eads invested heavily to transform it into a glass factory. It was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi, but the business struggled from the start. Within two years, sales remained stagnant and his fellow investors pulled out. Suddenly, James Eads found himself with a warehouse full of glass and $25,000 of debt.

To pay off his creditors, James Eads had no choice but return to salvage work. Fortunately, the financial turnaround was immediate, but tragedy continued to darken his personal life. In 1849, James and Martha’s only son James died in infancy. Then in 1852, James Eads lost his mother. In a final devastating blow, he lost his beloved wife just a few months later to cholera.

The Eads MansionIn a letter to Martha before she died, James Eads wrote “‘Drive on’ is my motto”. Drive on he did, and despite personal adversity, his professional life flourished. The salvage business continued to boom during his absence, and he found no shortage of work when he returned to it. Any remaining financial questions were answered in 1849, when a devastating fire on the St. Louis riverfront sunk over twenty riverboats. Eads was contracted to salvage nearly all of them, and the profits put him over the top for good.

As his wealth multiplied, James Eads also discovered that life at the bottom of a river can catch up to a man. Battling various health issues, he decided to give up diving in 1853. After re-marrying in 1854, he purchased a mansion on Compton Hill just west of Lafayette Square. Then in 1857, with a fortune of $500,000 in the bank (about 12 million in 2014), James Eads retired from salvage work for the last time.

He was just thirty-seven years old. And he was just getting started.

Stay tuned for the Summer of Eads Part III, in which James Eads goes to work for the Union in the American Civil War.

The Drink

Eads in a Barrel

Once again, I found myself at the end of a post coming up a drink to connect to the life of a subject that died long ago. This seems to happen often with what I call “the biography posts” (other examples include Homer G. Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and T.S. Eliot). Not able to find a bar or drink that I could connect Eads to, I almost copped out and simply drank from a flask in front of his bridge again.

But at the last-minute, I remembered a great story I read about James Eads when he was first getting started in the salvage business.

It happened in his first year as a wrecker, when his first salvage boat was still under construction. Offered a contract to raise 100 tons from a sunken barge in Iowa, Eads didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. To do the job, he rigged a barge with derricks and hired a Great Lakes diver from Chicago to come down and do the work.

Diving BellWhen the diver descended into the river, it became apparent the diver’s armor wasn’t suitable for river work. Used to calmer lake water, the fast Mississippi River currents thrashed the man about on each descent. After several attempts with no success, the frustrated (and likely terrified) diver threatened to quit and head home.

Thinking quickly, Eads had an idea. He rushed into town and purchased a 40-gallon whiskey barrel. Bringing it back to the wrecking barge, he knocked one end out, fastened several pigs of lead to the opening, and connected air horses to the other. He then instructed the diver to get inside and be lowered into the river.

The diver adamantly refused to get inside such a contraption, so Eads was forced to do it himself. Remarkably, the diving bell worked. After several descents, Eads had brought up much of the sunken cargo himself.  The diver, realizing the bell was safe and effective, took over and finished the job.

I’d like to think Eads purchased a full whiskey barrel and helped empty it, but that’s probably not the case. But at least I know he bought one. And that’s good enough for me to tie this post to whiskey.

Even better, I was able to purchase my own (much smaller) whiskey barrel at a local liquor store. It’s the perfect size to make a diving bell for my cat, but it’s probably better used  in toasting the accomplishments of a great St. Louisan.

To drink a toast to James Eads, I filled it with a bottle of J.J. Neukomm, a hand-crafted single malt whiskey made right here in St. Louis. It’s even aged oak barrels, just like a guy who spent much of his life inside one.

The Drink

quote_lineSources invaluable to this post:

  • Zettwoch’s Suitcase – A blog by artist Dan Zettwoch
  • Road to the Sea by Florence Dorsey, 1947
  • Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 41 No 1, 1944
  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
June 3rd, 2014 by Cameron

The Summer of Eads, Part I

Eads BridgeOnce again, despite this blog never making me a single dime, my life continues to become richer as a result of it. This time, it’s in the form of a new friend that recently crossed my path.

Her name is Amanda Clark, and she owns and operates Renegade STL, an architecture and history tour company here in St. Louis. Like me, she’s all about telling the story of this city to people who are looking to hear it. Not only do Amanda and I share a common interest in the subject matter, we share a common interest in how we do it. We can both be a bit offbeat, we can each be a bit colorful (perhaps profane), and we don’t mind throwing a few drinks back when we do it.

Amanda may not know it, but she gave me one hell of a problem. On the day I met her, I listened to Amanda discuss one of her favorite St. Louis history topics, James Buchanan Eads. That guy, and the bridge that bears his name, are both very dear to her heart. A bit of this bridge love must have rubbed off on me, because I now find myself thinking about it all the time.

Fast forward to this exact moment and I find myself staring at stacks of notes, books, photographs, and drawings of this city’s landmark bridge. In the past few weeks, I’ve stared at it, biked over it, sketched it, toasted to it, and even joked that I am awesome enough to survive jumping off it. What it all means is that I have way too much information to shove into a single blog entry. My dear mother chides me because my posts are too long as it is, but how can I keep that bridge, the man who designed it, and the drink to celebrate them both under 2,000 words?

Bike-a-Sketch: Eads BridgeI can’t, so I came up with a plan. Like my Elijah P. Lovejoy posts last year, I think certain St. Louis history topics simply require a bit more love than others. For James Eads and his bridge, I’m going to write a couple, or maybe a few, and I’m going to post them all in a row. The good news is that most of my research is done (the biggest time consumer), so all I have to do is write, edit, and of course, drink.

Before I jump in (figuratively), I have to take a moment to clear something up. In discussing the Illinois & St. Louis Bridge (its original name), I often hear fellow St. Louisans confidently make a completely incorrect claim:

Eads Bridge QuoteThe Eads Bridge was definitely not the first bridge to span the Mississippi. It was the first one at St. Louis, and it contained several notable firsts in its design and construction, but it definitely wasn’t the first to span the river.

Perhaps people wouldn’t look to attribute unfounded facts to what the Eads Bridge is above the water if they only knew how special it is under the water. For that reason, I’m going to start my Summer of Eads with the story of the two massive limestone piers that hold it up. Specifically, I’m going to start with the story of the men who suffered building them. It’s a tragic story that I found particularly fascinating while researching every aspect of the structure. It’s also an unusual place to begin this bit of history, but like my new pal Amanda, I do tend to follow the unbeaten path.

Eads Bridge

Although he had never built a bridge before, James Eads knew the river better than anyone. His full story will come later, but it’s that point that must be noted here. The Mississippi is big and cranky. While it made many a riverboat pilot rich in the 19th century, it swallowed up just as many with its unpredictable currents and flows. As a young man, James Eads made his fortune walking around the bottom of it, salvaging wreckage in a diving bell of his own design. He knew first-hand how quickly the Mississippi could move something, and he had to be certain his bridge didn’t move. Sitting two massive bridge supports on silt and mud deposited by river currents wouldn’t cut it. They had to sit on bedrock.

James Buchanan EadsDuring a trip to Europe in 1868, he witnessed first-hand a relatively new technology that he decided to employ in his own bridge, the pneumatic caisson.

Caissons are watertight retaining structures. To work in depths of water, pneumatic caissons are sealed at the top and filled with compressed air. Sealed workspaces created by caissons allowed laborers (referred to as “submarines”) to work at the base of a bridge pier, on the riverbed, by digging up silt and sending it to the surface through pneumatic tubes. As the men dug towards bedrock, huge limestone blocks were piled on top of the caisson, thus building the pier at the same time the caisson pushed deeper into the riverbed. When it hit bedrock, the structure was leveled and the air chambers were filled with concrete. The concrete-filled caisson then became the base of the finished pier.

Pneumatic caissons offered an unprecedented level of efficiency, but at the time, only two bridges in the United States had been built using the technology. Neither came close to the size and depth required in Eads’ bridge design. Even today, the pneumatic caissons used in constructing the Eads Bridge are among the largest ever built.

When the east caisson was launched and sunk to the sandy river bed in October 1869, two engines on the surface went to work pumping compressed air into the chamber far below. This pressurized air compensated for leaks and provided a breathable workspace for laborers below. To get into the chambers, workers descended through a candle-lit spiral staircase and entered an airlock. When the airlock was sealed, an alternate door leading to the chamber was opened. The men could then climb out and begin work at the riverbed.

Dr. Alphonse Jaminet

As workers dug through the sandy riverbed and the caisson sank deeper, air pressure increased to compensate for the higher water pressure outside. When the east caisson hit bedrock in February 1870, the air pressure inside the chamber measured fifty pounds per square inch. That’s over three times the “normal” air pressure a person experiences at sea level.

At first, these pressurized compartments were a source of wonder. Eads himself frequently led friends, politicians, and curious St. Louisans down through the spiral staircase and into the air chambers at the bottom of the river. While there, visitors experienced an eerie atmosphere, water dripping from above, the hissing of escaping air, and a nearly intolerable odor. While many found the experience wholly terrifying, others found amusement. The increased air pressure caused voices to sound nasal and high-pitched, it was impossible to whistle, and blown-out candles seemed to re-light themselves as if by magic.

Soon, the physical effects of working such environments took a darker turn. Foremen started hearing complaints from workmen experiencing severe stomach, head, and joint pains when they emerged from the stairwell. Others suffered temporary paralysis in legs and arms, causing several to be admitted to a local hospital.

The situation became deadly on March 19, 1870, when a man named James Riley emerged from the center access shaft, informed a friend that he was feeling well, and promptly keeled over. He died fifteen minutes later. A few hours later, James Moran, an Irishman who worked in the east pier caisson, died at City Hospital. Three days later, a 22 year-old German named G.S. Alt died after two weeks of hospitalization. The next day, 27 year-old Henry Krausman and 21 year-old Theodor Baum both expired.

Eads Bridge Diagram

The lack of consistency in visible symptoms was confounding. Nearly every case involved stomach and joint pain, but similarities seemed to end there. While several men died, others experienced full recovery within a few hours. An Irishman named Mike McCoole became ill for the first time after three weeks of caisson work while an American named Hugh Devel collapsed on his very first day. An Irishman named Michael Herwin starting spitting blood while a co-worker named James Galloway was found to have pus in his urine. A 20 year-old German named Hansep Miller was hospitalized for nearly two months. Legs fully paralyzed, Miller had no control of his bowels and required frequent catheterization. Another man, a 30 year-old German named William Saylor worked three months in the west pier with no issue. After being transferred to the east pier, he died shortly after his first shift.

On March 31, Eads assigned his family physician, a man named Alphonse Jaminet, to figure it all out. Already familiar with the problem, Jaminet was the obvious choice for the task. Several weeks earlier, on February 28, 1870, he suffered a near-fatal encounter himself. After spending two hours in the east caisson, Jaminet emerged from the stairwell and discovered that he could barely walk. Racked with pain, he somehow made his way home and spent several hours expecting death to come at any moment. Fortunately it didn’t, and his recovery enabled him to spend the next several weeks doing everything he could to assist those afflicted. His detailed transcript, published in 1871, is the first record in history of what we now know as “decompression sickness”.

The Grecian Bend

Jaminet was faced with quite a dilemma. As John L. Phillips explains in his book The Bends: Compressed Air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering, it was unlike anything that had been seen before. It was a disease unique to the Industrial Revolution, and Alphonse Jaminet had no medical or scientific basis to work from.

Named “caisson disease” when it reappeared during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge two years later, it was jokingly referred to as “the bends” by workmen in St. Louis. According to Robert W. Jackson in his book, Rails Across the Mississippi, this epithet evolved from a popular fashion of the time. Men who suffered through the severe stomach and joint pain often walked about with a bent over posture. In the late 1800′s, it looked similar to the “Grecian bend”, a pose many women in Victorian society used to show off their bustles.

Today, we know that decompression sickness happens as a result of leaving a pressurized environment (such as a caisson) too quickly. The increased nitrogen produced in the bloodstream in such an environment requires sufficient time to dissolve when leaving it. If the nitrogen doesn’t dissolve, it may form bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body. These bubbles can lodge in the head, abdomen, or joints, producing symptoms experienced by the men working in the caissons.

Jaminet recorded the details of every case presented to him. He attempted to isolate it by recording each worker’s age, nationality, amount of time worked, their body type, and even their daily behavior. His biggest frustration came from the unruly behavior of the men who paid little heed to his warnings. Mostly Irish and German, many of these men were young, strong, and not the type willing to lay down for a spell. With four dollars of pay in their pocket, many rushed out of the caissons and headed straight for the beer and whiskey offered at saloons and taverns along the riverfront.

Caisson & Pier Diagram

Jaminet knew the problem was related to changes in air pressure, but his efforts to remedy the problem never provided the proper level of decompression we know today. Despite this fact, his work must be commended. With the support of James Eads (who also believed frequent saloon visits had a hand in the matter), shift times were reduced, the time between shifts was increased, and men were compelled to rest and eat before going ashore. He even ordered a “floating hospital” built next to the east pier. Many men received overnight care in this facility on the river before being sent home or to the hospital. According to John Phillips, this clinic was the first of its kind to provide on-site care for workers injured on the job.

Perhaps most importantly, he insisted the men working the airlocks, the men essentially controlling the rate of decompression, follow strict guidelines. Prior to this, veteran workers often initiated “greens” to caisson work by opening airlocks as quickly as possible and letting air rush in.

Sinking the East PierHowever, a few methods implemented by Jaminet also display the basic lack of understanding of decompression. Along with his belief that drinking alcohol accelerated symptoms, he also believed taking a hot bath would hasten paralysis. Drinking water was forbidden, and men who complained of thirst were given ice cubes or beef tea. He wasn’t alone. Home remedies circled around the workmen themselves, including various elixirs and useless “magneto-electricity” amulets made of silver and copper.

Despite fifteen deaths, two permanently disabled men, over 100 caisson workers severely afflicted (not counting the men who simply walked off the job when they became ill) caisson and pier work didn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only time caisson work cease was when workers attempted to strike for higher pay. Knowing that St. Louis provided no shortage of men looking for work, Eads and the bridge company simply waited them out. After a few days without pay, the men shuffled back into the caissons.

East Caisson Detail

By late May 1870, work at the riverbed was complete. James Eads was filled with pride in observing the two the two largest and deepest bridge piers ever constructed rise out of the water. As Howard Miller explains in his benchmark essay about the bridge, he had ample reasoning to admire his masterpiece. His accomplished marked a new chapter in the annals of civil engineering. In discussing his accomplishment, Eads wrote:

“When I left it to-day, I could not help being impressed with the feeling that I had never undertaken any mechanical or engineering performance before with such full assurance that failure was absolutely impossible as in the case of this, the greatest work of my life…”

This sentiment is remarkable for a man whose life was filled with wondrous accomplishment. That story comes next in the Summer of Eads.

The Drink

Selecting a drink to celebrate the Eads Bridge was difficult. I can’t drink on the bridge, and the rows of saloons and taverns that once welcomed caisson workers between shifts are all long gone. But I wanted to find something I could tie to the men who did a job I’d never sign up for.

Despite Jaminet’s warnings about drinking alcohol, one can’t blame these guys for ignoring him completely. As I spend my days sitting in a cubicle for too much money, these guys spent their days shoveling mud for not enough. If they didn’t drink for the taste, they certainly drank to celebrate surviving another shift.

A final anecdote found in my research further illustrate the dangerous changes in air pressure these men experienced. In Rails Across the Mississippi, Robert W. Jackson tells the story of a caisson worker who inadvertently carried a flask of brandy in his pocket down into an air chamber. Or perhaps it was intentional, and this man thought a few nips far below would help prevent the joint pain he suffered after work. Either way, it must have been a shock when he emerged at the surface and the flask exploded in his pocket. If he hadn’t already determined his job was dangerous, he surely must have realized it at that moment.

Personally, I wouldn’t climb down into a caisson if the reincarnation of James Eads came back to life and offered to lead me down into one himself. Instead, I decided to simply go stare at it again, just as I did after my new friend Amanda told me her version of its story.

But this time, I brought a flask of brandy with me. With no risk of it exploding in my hand, I raised it and drank to the men who worked and died building our famous bridge.

quote_line

Sources invaluable to this post:

  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
  • The Bends: Compressed air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering by John L. Phillips, 1998
  • Physical Effects of Compressed Air, and of the Causes of Pathological Symptoms Produced on Man, By Increased Atmospheric Pressure Employed for the Sinking of Piers, in the Construction of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis Missouri by Alphonse Jaminet, M.D., 1871
May 7th, 2014 by Cameron

More Love for Rob & Ginny

Rob & Ginny's Crib

A few months ago, I started my third year as a volunteer docent at the Campbell House Museum in downtown St. Louis. I’ve said it many times before in this blog, but I just have to say it again: I love this place. There are so many reasons why it’s special, so I decided it was time for Distilled History to highlight a couple more of them for people to come down and see it in person.

When people take my tour of Robert and Virginia Campbell’s house, most visitors will recognize right away that I tend to focus on the history of the family and the house they inhabited. I do love all the stuff that’s inside the house, and I’ll always point it out, but I’ll admit that china sets and chamber pots are not my strong suit. If Ulysses S. Grant drank out of a silver cup that’s now on display in the butler’s pantry, knowing why he drank (and of course what he drank) is far more interesting to me than the cup itself.

My preference for the “how did it happen” instead of the “how pretty it is” could be why the history of the city of St. Louis gets a prime seat at the table during one of my tours. To me, the history of the Campbell House and the family is far more vivid when accompanied by the story of the city that rapidly grew around them. The two are irrevocably linked together.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When Robert Campbell stepped onto the St. Louis riverfront for the first time in 1824, he stood before a town containing around 4,000 people. St. Louis was young, and it didn’t extend very far from the river that had initiated its creation. Lewis and Clark had set off just from the same point just twenty years earlier, and one of the city’s co-founders, Auguste Chouteau, was still alive.Rococo Revival Furniture

When Robert died just fifty-five years later in 1879, that small town had grown into an enormous beast of 350,000 people. He’d watch his house, built in 1851 on farmland beyond city limits, become enveloped by buildings, commerce, and a city that wasn’t taking it slow. The story of how all of that happened, and all of the accompanying subplots (Civil War, cholera, cyclones, and beer, to name just a few) makes for a fascinating Campbell House tour. Hear it, and one will understand that Rob and his family were on board for on one hell of a ride.

Anyway, one of the great things about being a visitor to the Campbell House is that every tour is different. While my tour may focus on how Rob and his family  moved through St. Louis, another docent may provide amazing facts about Rococo Revival furniture, Virginia’s intricate needlework on display in the formal parlor, or the $40,000 spent on one massive shopping trip in 1855 (for those wondering, that’s like dropping 1.5 million in today’s dollars).

Weekend Manager ExtraordinaireOne person in particular has a fun project going that’s helping me further appreciate these inanimate aspects of Campbell life. David Newman, the weekend manager, posts a daily photograph on social media as part of a project he calls “Campbell House Photo-a-Day”.

David is one of my favorite people at Campbell House. He’s barely over twenty (I think), and his energy level is really kind of disgusting. Along with his weekend responsibilities of keeping me and a few others in line, he’s in graduate school, he’s a Park Ranger at White Haven, and he’s frequently marching off to Civil War reenactments playing the role of a Union private. When all of that isn’t happening, he’s playing gigs or jamming with his band mates until the wee hours of the morning in his apartment in the Campbell Carriage House. Watching this guy go makes me feel very old.

But David knows his stuff, and talking Campbell history with him is fun. If we aren’t leading people around the house, we can usually be found seated around the break room table checking each other’s facts, comparing notes, and making sure our tours are solid.

He’s also got a great eye and is an accomplished photographer. I love this project he has going on, so I decided to take a break from the usual burden of research-heavy Distilled History and show off what David is up to. The following slide show highlights forty or so of my favorite images he has taken in recent weeks. Hopefully, they’ll convince a few Distilled History readers to take his tour and see these things for themselves.

After that, I hope people will come back and hear my side of the story.

(To see more of David’s fun project, search for #chmphotoaday on Instagram)

The Drink

Beer in the Garden

Another (new) aspect of my tour at the Campbell House is one that I’m pretty excited about. Since I started volunteering there, I’ve always thought it would be great if I could offer a cold beverage to people while they listened to me throw down some good history. I mean, my two favorite subjects are history and booze, so why not try to add a drink to my favorite history in St. Louis?

However, I knew without asking that serving beer inside the Campbell House was not an option.  Spilling PBR on a 165 year-old sofa would put me in some hot water. Even worse, it would certainly be me that spilled it. That can’t happen, but the idea kept nagging at me. But then it hit me: There are no sofas in the garden.

Suddenly, I had it all figured out! If I offered a cold beer to museum visitors outside, it would make for a fitting conclusion to the tour. It could also be an opportunity for visitors to take a seat under the gazebo and we’d continue the conversation from one of the best viewpoints of the house. We could even talk about Campbell family alcohol preferences (another topic I’ve included in recent tours).

Remarkably, when I reluctantly asked the museum brass if I could do this, their response was immediate.

Great idea! But the beer must be free.

Woah! Not only did they like the idea and support it, but the lack of a liquor license means I can’t charge a dime for it. My plan was to give it away all along, so everything has fit neatly into place. Come for a tour at the Campbell House, ask for the Distilled History guy, and you’ll get free beer on your tour. If you’re lucky, I’ll even have some homebrew on hand that I’m brewing specifically for this endeavor.

So, there you go. Plenty of reasons, including cold beer in your hand, to get down to the Campbell House Museum. You’re out of excuses.

March 9th, 2014 by Cameron

The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874

My Favorite Drinking BuddyOne of the joys in my life is that my dear mother can take a joke.

My mother is brilliant, effusive, hilarious, (and in a very lovely way), kinda nuts. She’s easy to make fun of, and badgering her about one of her many quirks (such as her inclination to chitchat with everyone who crosses her path) is always good fun. But Mom can also dish it back, and this sort of back-and-forth banter always makes for an amusing evening when we’re visiting. While we’re at it, the scene is usually accompanied by gin, colorful language, and laughter as we make fun of each other and (of course) others.

Frequent topics include how one should never willingly ride in a car my sister is driving, accounts of my misbehavior during high school/college/last week, or even the time Mom sprayed eyeglass cleaner in her mouth because she thought the little spray canister was a breath refresher.

I’ll also go to work on her with an annoying little game I call “That’s from St. Louis”. It’s a simple game, especially for a guy who knows thousands of useless facts about St. Louis. Here’s how it works:

During our fun chats, all I do is wait for my mother to say something that I can relate to the city of St. Louis. I’ll usually start with something trivial that everyone knows:

Mom & Cameron BanterIn the beginning of the game, Mom will usually respond with something simple like “That’s nice, dear”. But the key is to keep it going. The more random the fact, the better:

Mom & Cameron BanterAfter five or six of these, it’ll start to get to her. I’ll hear a “sigh” in return, or maybe I’ll get one of her “looks”. My mother adores the city of St. Louis, but the button pushing is getting to her. This is when I go in for the kill:

Mom & Cameron Banter(Snap)

Mom's Fed UpI actually have a good reason for telling the story about how I mildly torment my mother. It’s a good lead-in to this post, which is a first in the life of Distilled History. Instead of promoting something that did happen in St. Louis, I’m going to promote something that didn’t.

The Hot Dog: Not a World's Fair Creation

My dumb little game not only led me to learn that I had one of my facts wrong, but it also led me to the fun story behind a classic drink. It’s not exactly St. Louis history, but it’s drinking history. That’s one-half of this blog, so it’s good enough for me.

On the evening when I informed my (somewhat exasperated) mother that the gin-based Tom Collins cocktail was invented in St. Louis, I remember suddenly wondering if it was actually true. Although I’ve been told by a few reliable sources the Tom Collins was born here, I’ve fallen for more than a few myths of St. Louis before.

How to Mix Drinks

Others have as well, and that’s why we sometimes hear people incorrectly boast that the hamburger, the hot dog, and peanut butter were all invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They weren’t, and minimal research will provide evidence that the three foods were around well before 1904. But all is not lost, dear St. Louis. Our magnificent fair 110 years ago can still claim the waffle ice cream cone and cotton candy.

With a bit of research, I also learned the Tom Collins cocktail also belongs in the same “Not-from-St. Louis” category as peanut butter. It turns out the classic libation of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda was almost certainly first poured in New York City.

Many claim the drink is a St. Louis creation because of a famous bartender named Jerry Thomas, the “presiding deity” of the bar at the famous Planter’s House Hotel that once stood downtown. One of the most famous hotels west of the Mississippi in the 19th Century, it’s possible that during his tenure, Jerry Thomas served drinks to notable guests including Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis.

The claim does have merit on the surface, because “Professor” Jerry Thomas (as he would come to be known), was in fact there. He did work as the head bartender at the Planter’s House at some point in the mid-19th Century. But it’s a flimsy claim to say he invented the Tom Collins cocktail during his tenure. Not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. In fact, there is no record of how long he was at the Planter’s House, what he did (other than tend bar), or why he eventually left.

What can’t be argued is that in the years after he left St. Louis, Jerry Thomas would become the most famous bartender in American history. This happened in part because of a benchmark book he published, The Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Published in 1862, it is considered the first book of cocktail recipes ever published in the United States.

"The Professor" Jerry Thomas

A significant clue that the Tom Collins cocktail is not a St. Louis creation is that the recipe doesn’t appear in the that book. The Collins doesn’t appear (for the first time in print) until the second edition, published fourteen years later in 1876. By that time, Jerry Thomas had been for years firmly rooted in his own bar on Broadway in New York City.

A second (and most convincing) clue is remarkably, a simple practical joke.

In 1874, some random fellow in the saloon-filled streets of New York City came up with an idea to provoke one of his drinking companions. It worked, and the success of the joke caused it to become a popular form of entertainment in the city. It didn’t stop there. As fast as news could travel, folks in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and any town that could claim a bar and a guy looking to rile up his pal became a place where the prank was rehashed. It was known as The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, and it’s one of the more amusing (and well-documented) stories in the history of drinking and mixology.

An article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 13, 1874, details how the prank worked:

How the Hoax WorkedWith his friend sufficiently riled up, the two men would set forth to locate Tom Collins. Entering the crowded saloon he was directed to, the joke’s pawn would angrily demand of the bartender “Where is Tom Collins?” Already in on the prank, the bartender would direct the man towards some unsuspecting patron about to deny being familiar with anyone named Tom Collins. In the resulting confusion, tempers would flair, the joke would eventually be realized, and the crowded bar (most certainly in on the act) would erupt with laughter.

Tom Collins Ad

Of course, this sort of scene would require a round of drinks to get everyone to simmer down and heal egos.

The prank became so popular that even newspapers became participants. False sightings of the notorious “Tom Collins” were reported, advertisements promoted his preferences in hats and cigars, and articles with titles such as “That Infernal Tom Collins!” appeared frequently when the joke succeeded. People even wrote songs to memorialize the good times had with the prank.

In one humorous account, the joke caused conflict even when the victim knew what was happening. In June 1874, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an account of a hotel patron who became quite angry when he was handed a card that said “Tom Collins wants to see you after dinner”. Already victimized by the joke two or three times previously, the man became “wrathful”. This led to “hard words” with the identified prankster, and a “first class scrimmage hung in the balance”. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

As 1874 wound down, so did the joke. The more it was staged, the more difficult it became to find someone who’d be an unknowing patsy. But the hoax has a lasting legacy that lives on today. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich (and several other sources), it’s this joke that gave us the name of the famous Tom Collins cocktail we know today. In his book Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Wondrich asserts that the ancestor of the Tom Collins is a gin-based punch with the similar name of “John Collins”. Popular in England, the recipe was likely transported across the Atlantic by British sailors visiting New York City. However, Americans have a tendency to put their own spin on things, and before long the “John Collins” became known as the “Tom Collins”.

And it’s delicious gin that gives us the answer why.

Tom Collins Quote

In 1874, the London dry version of gin (think Bombay Sapphire, for example) that many prefer today was practically unheard of. Order a gin drink in 1874 and you’d either get Dutch Jenever or British Old Tom gin. Both are sweeter and maltier versions of the London dry everyone is familiar with today. These (delicious) versions are still around today, but London dry is now the standard (due in large part to the popularity of the martini cocktail).

Anyway, when angry guys started storming into saloons in and demanding to see a “Mr. Collins”, bartenders started putting their own spin on the joke. A “Collins” was also a drink, so holding one up and bellowing back “Here’s your Mr. Collins!” became an amusing way to enhance the prank.

Title Page of Jerry Thomas's Book

The final piece of the puzzle occurred when an unknown bartender or patron decided to refer to the drink as a “Tom Collins” instead of a “John Collins”. This likely made more sense at the time, because it was very probably that Old Tom gin (or just “Old Tom”) was used to make it.

Like the hoax that had spread from bar to saloon, and town to city, so did the freshly named drink. Then, two years after the joke took the country by storm,  Jerry Thomas sat down to write the second edition of his popular cocktail recipe book. Surely recalling his own experiences from the hoax the Tom Collins recipe was included. It would be the first time the recipe appears in print. The rest, as they say, is drinking history.

Tom Collins Recipe

The Drink

The Planter's House

The location of the drink for this post is one I have been saving for few months. The Planter’s House, named after the famous St. Louis hotel, recently opened on the on the corner of Mississippi and Chouteau just north of Lafayette Square. Frequent readers of this blog will likely become very familiar with Planter’s House, because it’s going to be featured in this blog for years to come. The first time I walked in the door, I instantly recognized that St. Louis had been blessed with another place at which I could satisfy my cocktail fix.

I knew it would be good even before that because a guy named Ted Kilgore is one of the proprietors. I don’t know Mr. Kilgore personally, but his name carries weight among cocktail connoisseurs in this town. I’ve been telling people for years that the best Manhattan in St. Louis is the one he served when he ran the show at Taste. Now it’s at Planter’s House, and I’m giddy that it’s actually possible to order a pitcher of them from the cocktail menu.

The Planter's House Tom Collins

Another aspect of the (new) Planter’s House that I appreciate is the attention to St. Louis drinking history. Not only is the name of the establishment a nod to Jerry Thomas and the original Planter’s House, but the accompanying “Bullock Room” is named after a notable African-American bartender who worked in St. Louis in the early 20th Century. That’s a guy who will be getting attention in this blog sooner or later.

I’ll be back often for the Manhattans, but the purpose of my visit was to get a Tom Collins. It’s listed as one of the “House Favorites” on the Planter’s House cocktail menu, and I’ve never had a better version. My only complaint is that this brutal 2014 winter continues. Accompanied by fresh lemon juice and orange peel, I believe a Tom Collins is most enjoyable during warmer weather.

To add to my excitement, I was elated to learn that Bol’s Genever, not London dry gin, is used in the Planter’s House Tom Collins. That’s how Jerry Thomas would have prepared it.

Served in a tall Collins glass over perfectly clear ice, the drink is ideally made at Planter’s House.

Now all I have to do is get Mom, my favorite drinking buddy, back to St. Louis so I can take her to the Planter’s House for another.

December 16th, 2013 by Cameron

87,000 Stories to Tell

Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1900Since I started this blog, I have purposely avoided writing about certain St. Louis history topics. In the past eighteen months, people have suggested I write about various things like the InBev buyout of Anhueser-Busch, the Pope’s visit in 1999, and even the Edward Jones Dome (seriously?). Honestly, these are topics that just don’t interest me. They make me yawn. Other suggestions, like the 1904 World’s Fair and the Gateway Arch, are so familiar in St. Louis that I’m not sure I could make them interesting. I worry writing about them would make others yawn.

The category “I’d Rather Be Burned Alive” includes a topic someone suggested just a few weeks ago. On that day, I was asked to research why everyone in St. Louis always asks everyone else in St. Louis “Where did you go to high school?”

After informing my well-meaning and idea-challenged friend that I attended Elmira Free Academy (located about 900 miles to the east), and then asking where she went to high school, I rolled my eyes and politely declined.

(Damn! I succumbed to that tedious St. Louis high school inquiry after all.)

Anyway, there’s another category of St. Louis history topics that I’m saving for a rainy day. These are the big kahunas; the topics that I believe are very special in this city. I want to space these gems out over the next several years (or as long as I continue to beat myself up trying to write this blog). Examples include the Cahokia Mounds, the Lemp Caves (if I can ever get down there), Forest Park, Pruitt-Igoe, and the Camp Jackson Affair. Dozens more exist, which means I plan to force this blog down people’s throats for years to come.

Well, I think it’s about time to dust off one of the good ones. A few weeks ago, I was the lucky recipient of a special tour of Bellefontaine Cemetery, the wonderful 314 acres in north St. Louis that holds as much history (literally) as any patch of ground in the Midwest. Over 87,000 people are buried there, and each one has a tale to tell. If you like Distilled History, get used to Bellefontaine. I plan to pluck stories out of this place for years to come.

Entrance to Bellefontaine Cemetery

Let’s kick this off by admitting that I adore cemeteries. I love to drive through them, bike through them, and tour them. I enjoy locating graves of notable people, as I’ve done for the Homer Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Irma Rombauer posts in this blog. I sometimes go to cemeteries just to sit and read a book, admire the foliage, or even take a nap. I think they are big, wonderful parks of history.

A park-like type of cemetery such as Bellefontaine (and Woodlawn, the Elmira, New York cemetery that my fellow high school graduates should know), is considered a “rural cemetery”. These are cemeteries that primarily honor the dead, but are also designed to provide a welcoming and comfortable place for people to visit. That’s certainly the case at Bellefontaine. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to see. Containing more than 4,000 trees and over 180 species of trees and shrubs, Bellefontaine is not just a cemetery. It is also an accredited Level II arboretum.

The Rural Cemetery

The “rural cemetery” movement started in the mid-19th Century. Following a model set forth in Paris, the first rural cemetery in the United States was established in 1831 (Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Eighteen years later, Bellefontaine in St. Louis was established as the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi River. Prior to Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis buried their dead in plots around churches and in smaller, overcrowded cemeteries in and around town (many were located along current-day Jefferson Avenue).

St. Louis in the mid-19th century was growing rapidly. Along with overcrowding, many believed that air, water, and soil could become infected with disease if people were buried near population centers. Both concerns were further intensified in the summer of 1849 when a deadly cholera epidemic killed nearly 10% of the city’s population (note: future blog post). Suddenly, burying people farther away became a priority.

Bellefontaine Cemetery in Autumn

As a result, city leaders formed an association for the purpose of founding a large rural cemetery outside city limits. It was named after Fort Bellefontaine, a military garrison located about five miles northwest of St. Louis. Along the road to that fort sat the Hempstead farm. This 138 acre farm was purchased by the foundation, and the land became the first of three parcels that together now make up Bellefontaine Cemetery as we know it today.

Bellefontaine Cemetery Map

The next significant step in the shaping of Bellefontaine Cemetery was the hiring of a renowned landscape architect named Almerin Hotchkiss. It was this man who created the master plan for the cemetery and gave it the look we still see today. He oversaw the building of the roads, landscaping, and overall maintenance of the grounds. Upon completing the overall plan, he remained in St. Louis as superintendent of the cemetery for the next forty-six years.

Perhaps the most significant monument in the entire cemetery (along with one of the better stories), is the Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb. Universally regarded as an architectural masterpiece, the tomb was constructed in 1892 for the wife of millionaire and philanthropist Ellis Wainwright. Referred to in local press as “the most beautiful woman in St. Louis”, Charlotte Wainwright died suddenly of peritonitis at the young age of thirty-four. Her husband Ellis was emotionally devastated by her passing. In order to preserve her memory, Ellis Wainwright reached out to a particularly famous architect for a unique and exceptional design.

The Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb

The result is one of the most significant designs from of one of history’s most important architects, Louis Henry Sullivan. Known as the “father of the skyscraper”, Sullivan was at the height of his fame when he was commissioned to design Charlotte Wainwright’s tomb.

Key to Wainwright Tomb

When Charlotte Wainwright died, Louis Sullivan was already in St. Louis finishing another project for Ellis Wainwright. That building, which also bears Wainwright’s name and stands today at the corner of Chestnut and 7th in downtown St. Louis, is another topic I better be careful with if I choose to write about it. Considered by many to be the first skyscraper ever built, the 10 story Wainwright Building is a masterpiece. It was even featured in recent a PBS documentary as one of 10 Buildings That Changed America.

When Wainwright asked Sullivan for a preliminary design, he provided a sketch of a tomb that combines two classic forms, a half-sphere resting upon a cube. Inspired by the tomb of a Muslim Saint in Algeria, the form appears solidly Byzantine. Assisting Louis Sullivan with the design (particularly the interior) was his head draftsman, a promising young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.

The simple cube and dome design is accented by a border of richly carved motifs and bronze grill doors. Windows adorn each side of the tomb, each surrounded by additional stone carvings. Interestingly, the name “Wainwright” appears nowhere on the exterior of the tomb. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it is often referred to as the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis”. The New York Times referred to it as a “major American architectural triumph”, and “a model for ecclesiastical architecture”.

Hugh Morrison, in his book Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture, writes:

…it is the most sensitive and the most graceful of Sullivan’s tombs, distinguished alike in its architectural form and its decorative enrichment. In the writers opinion, at least, it is unmatched in quality by any other known tomb.”

Wainwright Tomb Interior

While the exterior is unassuming, the interior (that I was delighted to be able to see on my special tour) surges with subtle color, swirled marble, and flecks of gold. The walls and ceiling are covered with a beautiful patterned mosaic. Look above, and small angels dispersed among small mosaics seem to come and go depending on the point of view. Below, two burial slabs are inlayed in the floor to mark the final resting place for Ellis Wainwright and his wife Charlotte. Each is chiseled with a poem, Lord Tennyson for the husband and Anna Laetitia Barbauld for his wife:

A Poem for Charlotte

Despite having two architectural masterpieces named after him, things didn’t go very smoothly for Ellis Wainwright during his later years. While in New York in 1902, Wainwright learned he was being indicted for attempting to bribe several politicians as part of a business deal. Instead of heading home to face the charges, he fled to Europe. Although he lived lavishly in Paris for several years, his self-imposed exile took a toll on his health. He didn’t return to St. Louis until 1911 when the prosecuting attorney in his case had retired. He paid a bond upon arrival and proclaimed to the press that he was happy to be back. Ultimately, the charges didn’t stick and Wainwright was able to resume life as he wished.

Soon after, Wainwright moved to New York to be close to other business investments. In 1922, he shocked friends and associates by “adopting” a twenty-two year old woman named Rosalind Kendall (he was seventy-two). She took his name, called him “Daddy”, and became his constant companion. She lived in the apartment adjoining his on Park Avenue.

Not surprisingly, The arrangement didn’t last. When Wainwright’s efforts to make Rosalind a movie star proved unsuccessful, Rosalind moved on. She supposedly accepted a sum of money in return for relinquishing any claims to Wainwright’s estate. Upon Wainwright’s death, this arrangement was legally overturned, making Rosalind Kendall very wealthy.

In declining health, Ellis Wainwright returned to St. Louis in 1924. He turned his attention back toward his departed wife Charlotte, setting up an endowment at Bellefontaine to repair her tomb in the event of vandalism or earthquake. His behavior also became increasingly peculiar. During his final days at the Buckingham Hotel, servants were required to physically move him from room to room in order to avoid being seen by hotel maids.

Ellis Wainwright

Ellis Wainwright died on November 6, 1924 at the age of seventy-four. He was laid to rest next to his wife in the remarkable monument to them both in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The Drink

Homebrew

The reason why Ellis Wainwright had the means to build one of the first skyscrapers and the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis” is a good one. Like the familiar names in 19th Century St. Louis such as Busch and Lemp, Wainwright became rich as a result of beer.

When Wainwright was just twenty-four years old, he inherited his father’s Wainwright Brewery. Displaying a keen business sense, he secured his path to wealth by doubling profits within two years. He became even wealthier when he sold his brewery to a syndicate named The St. Louis Brewing Association (SLBA). Wainwright was named president and became responsible for managing day-to-day operations. The famous building that bears his name in downtown St. Louis today was initially built as a headquarters for the syndicate he managed.

With that in mind, it’s only appropriate to drink beer in honor of Ellis Wainwright, his lovely wife, and his epic tomb. Even better, I thought this post would provide a perfect opportunity to brew up a batch of my own.

 Homebrew Labels

First of all, I must admit that I am not an accomplished homebrewer. People who are familiar with the hobby know that it’s really nothing more than simple cooking. Well, I’m not a very good cook. But I can follow a recipe, and homebrew kits always come with recipes. I still brew from extract kits, and despite people insisting I move up to the world of “all grain” brewing, I haven’t done it yet. That day will likely come, because with each homebrew batch, I seem to add some additional piece of homebrew equipment that makes the process more fun. For those in the know, I introduced a stir plate and an outdoor burner for this batch. The result was an active primary fermentation that two days later had me scrambling for a blow-off hose.

Until I get to the next level, I’ll keep going with the real reason I started home brewing in the first place: Beer labels. Drinking the beer you make is fun, but naming the beer and designing the beer label is really fun. It’s probably why I’ll never keg it. As much as I hate washing and sanitizing forty-eight individual beer bottles, it makes my day to drink out of a bottle labeled as my own.

My beer may not taste as good as others, but I think my labels are top-notch.. This includes a new one featuring the exquisite tomb found in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Charlotte's Tomb IPA

Sources:

  1. Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley
  2. St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious
  3. St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts by Carolyn Hewes Toft and Lynn Josse
  4. Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison
  5. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – National Park Service
  6. Woo, William F., “Story Behind the Wainwright Building,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1966 p. 3J
November 7th, 2013 by Cameron

The Joy of Irma (and a Sidecar)

Mom's Cookbook

Several years ago, my mother presented me with a cookbook titled Mom’s Cookbook: A Culinary Memoir of Family, Food, and Friends. I cherish it, perhaps more than any gift she has ever given me.

On the pages inside, my Mother dumped out her entire culinary mind. It filled up over eighty-five pages lined with hundreds of recipes. It was organized and formatted into book form for her children, family, and friends to enjoy.  Sounds like a simple and common idea, but she added an additional component that made her cookbook priceless to me. My mother presented each recipe, from the simple plate of hors d’oeuvres to the intimidating cheese soufflé, with its own unique story. In her own voice, often in a humorous and chatty tone, she explains where each recipe originated, when and where she served them, and how people reacted to them.

Her goal was to guide her children towards more success in the kitchen, and she does it in a loving and motherly way. As I read it, I can hear her voice in my head giving me direction such as “avoid any vegetable that comes in a can”, “you must own a good chef’s knife”, and “grow your own herbs, if possible”. She urges us to eat meals together as a family, say grace (prayer provided), and even to drink our milk.

Irma Rombauer in 1943

It includes her mother’s fried chicken recipe (my favorite) and the simple bean salad she made for my father when they young and broke. She includes the cheese puffs served by her mother-in-law at my Christening, the Beef Stroganoff she served to my hungover housemates at the University of Dayton, and even a pumpkin bisque recipe she found last year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The family history tales are my personal favorite. I learned my parents clashed over gravy, that her two children refused to eat certain foods like mushrooms (my sister) and squash (me). She explains her difficulty getting recipes out of my late father, a brilliant cook, but one who refused to write anything down. Even the recipe names are amusing, such as the unappetizing sound of “Aunt Ethel’s Yams” (that I will never attempt to cook).

My favorite line could even be when she uses the “Cold Salads” chapter to scold my sister:

Alex Can't Make Tuna Salad

I don’t know if my mother realized it (maybe she did), but her cookbook isn’t much different from the famous one written by a notable St. Louisan over eighty years ago. The Joy of Cooking, a compilation of recipes published by Irma Louise von Starkloff in 1931, revolutionized cookbook writing. Widely regarded for its conversational tone, simplicity, and sentiment that cooking should be fun, The Joy of Cooking is now a staple in nearly every American kitchen. In that book, as in my mother’s cookbook, it’s implied that a cook should not take oneself too seriously. I believe the simple goal of both books is to feed the people around you with love and good food.

Mom & Irma

What’s enjoyable about researching Irma Rombauer is that she left quite a trail in St. Louis. Except for a few years during her youth, she lived in this city her entire life. Several of the homes she lived in still stand. To add to the fun, I made plans to find all of them during a lengthy visit from my Mother. If Mom wasn’t reorganizing my kitchen, making meatloaf, or drinking gin and tonics with me, I was able to throw her in the car so we could find Irma Rombauer together.

Irma Rombauer's Life in St. Louis

Irma Louise von Starkloff was born on October 30, 1877 in Carondelet.  Her parents raised her in the St. Louis Deutschtum, or “Germanness” that permeated south St. Louis at the time. Her father, Maximilian von Starkloff, was a “Forty-Eighter”, a man who believed in German unification and came to America when it didn’t happen. A successful physician, his medical practice on Main Street (now Broadway) provided his family a comfortable existence.

Starkloff Home 1883-1877

In 1889, Max Starkloff accepted a post as Consul of Bremen in the Harrison administration. The family moved abroad for five years, and this would be the only time Irma Starkloff did not live in St. Louis. When the family returned to America in 1894, a stately new mansion awaited them at the corner of Compton and Longfellow in the affluent Compton Heights neighborhood.

According to her biographer Anne Mendelson, in her book Stand Facing the Stove, Irma Starkloff was strong-willed, intelligent, forthright, and artistic. She was also volatile, and especially later in life, family members often had to endure her fits of irritability. She fully enjoyed the admiration others heaped upon her, especially men. She played piano, enjoyed theater, and acted in amateur stage productions. It was during one of these productions when a young cast mate named Edgar Rombauer began courting her.

Starkloff Home at Compton & Longfellow

Later in life, Irma Rombauer described Edgar, the man she married in 1899, as “exuberant”. The couple had three children together and spent many years of their marriage in loving companionship. However, Edgar suffered from episodes of nervous breakdown that arose during challenging times, such as the death of their first child in 1901.  Over the years, Irma Rombauer worked diligently to care for her husband during his bouts with stability. Lengthy vacations were often required to bring her husband back to a place of tranquility. Sadly, despite efforts from his family, Edgar succumbed to his disease and committed suicide in 1930.

The death of her husband left Irma Rombauer shell-shocked. At the age of fifty-two, and faced with supporting a family with no means of income, she searched for a direction. Inspired by a successful cookbook published to support a St. Louis children’s home, Rombauer picked up the pieces and went to work. With no reservations about her lack of experience, and equipped with an unrivaled determination, she began compiling, testing, and tinkering with nearly 400 pages of recipes gathered from her family, friends, and neighbors. The result became one of the best-selling cookbooks in history.

What’s remarkable about this feat is that Irma Rombauer had no formal culinary education. Even her family seemed puzzled by the endeavor, since cooking had never been her primary talent. A member of her late husband’s family (a group Irma shared a prickly relationship with), even exclaimed:

Irma's a TERRIBLE cook

Her unwitting approach to publishing a cookbook could explain why Irma Rombauer’s project achieved such widespread success. The art of cooking and recipe writing in the early 20th century was more scientific than imaginative. Recipes read like formulas, and not at all like the casual tone found in future editions of The Joy of Cooking. During a time when cookbooks angled towards experienced gourmets of means, her cookbook represented a practical approach for all levels of income and ability.

The 1931 Edition of The Joy of Cooking

The first edition of The Joy of Cooking was self-published in 1931. Irma Rombauer used half of her life savings (about $3,000) to pay a local shoebox label printer to print 3,000 copies. Among other specifics, She insisted it have a cover that could wash easily with a moist cloth. Her daughter Marion, an art teacher, provided the cover and chapter heading designs. When the printed books arrived at her apartment on Cabanne Avenue, she quickly set to work selling them door to door for $3.00 each.

The first edition of The Joy of Cooking frequently echoes her German heritage. Included are recipes for Hassenpfeffer (rabbit stew), Spatzen (German egg dumplings), as well as several pages devoted to brain, liver, and kidney recipes. In introducing Leberkloesse (liver dumplings), Rombauer writes:

“Being the child of a south German, I cannot well compile a cook book without including a dish that is typical of that neck of the woods”

Despite positive reviews and brisk sales, efforts to obtain interest from major publishing houses were unsuccessful. It was during this time that Irma Rombauer started re-thinking how she presented recipes in her cookbook. She developed a format now known as the “Action Method”, in which ingredients are not listed in a separate table. Instead, each ingredient is introduced (in bold text) at the point when it is used in the cooking process.

This casual, flowing method of cooking is what appealed to an Indianapolis publisher looking to take cookbook publication in a new direction. In 1936, the Bobbs-Merrill Company signed Rombauer and published the second edition of The Joy of Cooking. This edition introduced the new recipe format and added “A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat” to the title. The book retained Rombauer’s unpretentious dialog, which appealed to readers and helped build a solid fan base. It sold over fifty-thousand copies, making The Joy of Cooking a modest success.

1931 vs 1964 Recipes

The third edition, published in 1943, added a section featuring “Quick Cooking”.  Another innovation, it included recipes that used canned goods, frozen foods, and new cooking implements designed to speed preparation. Ingredients such as condensed soups and Jell-O became mainstays due to their convenience. While many cooks haughtily rejected these short cuts, Irma Rombauer fully embraced them. This further endeared her to a larger audience, and helped make the third edition of The Joy of Cooking a national bestseller. The 1943 edition sold well over 600,000 copies, and Irma Rombauer hit her stride.

Irma Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker in 1950

The Joy of Cooking, 4th Edition

The success of The Joy of Cooking would pay off eventually, but the first contract signed with Bobbs-Merrill was decidedly one-sided. Inexperienced and acting against the advice of lawyers, Rombauer signed the copyright of the first two editions of The Joy of Cooking over to the publisher.  Without full control of her creation going forward, the relationship between author and publisher quickly became acrimonious. It wouldn’t improve in the years ahead, and the inequity often set Irma Rombauer into fits of rage.  By the end of the 1940’s, and her health in decline, she made a move to protect her creation. Starting with the fourth edition published in 1951, her daughter Marion officially became co-author of The Joy of Cooking.

Marion Rombauer Becker had previously contributed artwork and recipe tasting, but her contribution going forward would now become much more significant. Marion was a proponent of healthy eating. With her contribution, The Joy of Cooking began to emphasize the use of fresh produce and organic gardening.  She insisted on removing several canned food recipes, brown rice was favored over white rice, and for the first time, the cookbook instructed readers to avoid things like “the modern processing of grain”.

As co-author, Marion also assumed the unenviable position of becoming the key negotiator with the publisher. Irma Rombauer could now turn her attention to basking in the glow of being America’s cook, a position she embraced with open arms. Irma Rombauer wanted her cookbook to become America’s kitchen bible, and the continued success of the Joy of Cooking in the years following her death would undoubtedly please her.

Irma Purrs Like a Cat

Irma Rombauer died at a nursing home in St. Louis on October 14, 1962 at the age of eighty-four. Marion Rombauer Becker died in Cincinnati in 1976. Marion’s son, Ethan Becker, now carries on the legacy of The Joy of Cooking. Currently in its eighth edition, the Joy of Cooking has sold more than 26 million copies worldwide since 1931.

The Starkloff Grave

The Drink

The Sidecar Recipe

In the first edition of The Joy of Cooking, the very first recipe listed in the book is a “Gin Cocktail”. Even better, Irma Rombauer writes the very first sentence as such:

“Most cocktails containing liquor are made today with gin and ingenuity. In brief, take an ample supply of the former and use your imagination.”

Call me crazy, but that’s an opening on par with “Call me Ishmael”.

Since the first edition contains only a few cocktail recipes, I decided to venture into the 1963 edition to get a drink idea from my latest subject of interest.  As I did, I was happy to discover that she directs her readers to stir (and not shake) a Manhattan or a Martini. This only confirms my opinion that Irma Rombauer certainly knew what she was doing.

Irma Rombauer’s Manhattan recipe isn’t extraordinary, so I decided to go with a cocktail that I haven’t featured before in Distilled History. I settled on the Sidecar, a cocktail that traces its origin back to the years around World War I. It’s considered a classic, but one I rarely order in a bar (the only one I can currently recall was at Sanctuaria in the Grove).  Bars in London and Paris dispute who first created it, but it became an instant hit during a time when sour drinks were popular.

The Sidecar

Irma Rombauer wasn’t a heavy drinker. She didn’t enjoy throwing a few back until she was in her later years. Either way, I like to imagine her sampling cocktails with her daughter in their apartment on Cabanne Avenue and figuring out what each of them preferred. Her Sidecar uses more lemon juice than I prefer, but she’s earned the right to make a solid opinion. The only change I made to her recipe was to rim the glass with sugar (which is how the drink is commonly served), and I did that only to impress my mother.

Since Mom had to put up with me writing this post during one of her rare visits, she certainly earned something a little extra.

NOTES: As mentioned earlier, this post would not have been possible without the book Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking, by Anne Mendelson. Rarely have I read a biography written as beautifully written and readable as that one. A hearty thanks to Harold Karabell for giving me the idea to write about Mrs. Rombauer when he showed me the Starkloff house on Michigan Avenue. Finally, an enormous thank you to the wonderful people at Bellefontaine Cemetery who personally showed me Irma Rombauer’s final resting place.

October 22nd, 2013 by Cameron

Haunted Alton & The Corpse Reviver (No. 2)

Haunted Alton at Night

Writing a slightly popular blog has its benefits. Maybe I shouldn’t boast that Distilled History is popular, but my Rolodex has certainly bulked up in the past several months. I’ve met new friends involved in the St. Louis history scene, and others who are into drinking. Many are into history and drinking, and that means life is good.

One of them is a clever and entertaining woman named Ginger Justus. She’s the author of a terrific blog named Missouri History & Hauntings.  Like me, she’s deeply interested in the history of the St. Louis area. The difference is while I add drunkenness to my history, Ginger adds ghosts. Fans of what each of us are doing, we started emailing each other and talking about working together in some context. We’ll do that eventually, but in the meantime, Ginger asked me if I’d like to be a special guest on a haunted tour of Alton, Illinois.

Haunted Alton

I’m not a believer in the paranormal, but I do know that ghost stories always come with good history. With Halloween right around the corner, it seemed like a fun event in which to take part. At the very least, maybe someone else would see a ghost, freak out, and make a run for it.

Hearing someone yell “We got a runner!” would make for great reading.

The walking tour Ginger invited me to join is the Alton Hauntings Ghost Tour, created by a ghost guru named Troy Taylor. Founder of the American Ghost Society, Mr. Taylor has authored more than fifty books about ghosts and haunted things, including Haunted Alton, a book I read just last year.

Mr. Taylor wasn’t around that evening, so my tour was in the hands of an equally knowledgeable man named Len Adams. Mr. Adams is the Vice President of the American Ghost Society, a good friend of Troy Taylor’s, and someone who really knows how to tell a good story.

Before leading us into the eerie Alton night, Mr. Adams made it a point to explain that “psychics, Ouija boards, and crystal balls” are not a part of this tour. I was interested to hear him explain that he (and many others who share his interest in the field) believes many hauntings are simply lingering energy imprints left after a traumatic event. A term even exists for this type of occurrence. A “residual haunt” describes things like the inexplicable sound of footsteps in the hall, a door slamming, or a sudden drop in temperature. It could even be the reason why kitty suddenly bolts into another room.

"One of the most haunted small towns in America"

On the other hand, an “intelligent haunt” is the major league of haunts. This is the kind of haunt when you have a tangible and conscious spirit living in your bedroom closet. Intelligent haunts can move things around your house and even join you for a cocktail. According to Len and Ginger, if you encounter one, you could hear, record, and even photograph it.  When I started telling people what I was writing about for this post, I was surprised to find out that many of my close friends are steadfast believers. A few even insisted they had experienced encounters of their own.

I may be a non-believer, but maybe this explains why I found my car keys in the freezer last week.

My tour had many who truly hoped they’d see a ghost. Despite my hope someone would snap, Mr. Adams did his best to allay any fears. He insisted that no harm would come to anyone, and he delivered one of his best lines when informing us the tour even had a safe word:

Haunted Alton Safe Word

The tour lasted a full three hours that night. As it progressed, Mr. Adams wound us around the dark corners of Alton, offering unnerving tales and enlightening history at every turn. Even if ghosts aren’t your thing, you’ll get a fascinating history of the town and the people who lived there.  Len Adams is a ghost expert, but the man knows his Alton history from top to bottom. He accurately recalled topics I have previously written about in this blog, including the stories of Elijah P. Lovejoy and Sunflower Island.

Other topics I was less familiar with, such as the disturbing tale of Hop Hollow Road. This path, a former road between a Civil War prison and the Alton Cemetery, is where Union prison guards unceremoniously dumped the bodies of Confederate soldiers in the woods. Displeased with their improper mode of burial, many claim the ghosts of these men now wander the woods around Hop Hollow Road.

The Enos Sanatorium

A special aspect of this tour is that it will take you inside a few of the stops. Even if you are the most stoic of non-believers, try sitting inside a darkened church and hearing the story of a priest found hanging from the ceiling above you. Other creepy locations include tales of a ghost that smells of lavender and a night watchman who disappeared without a trace. You’ll also hear the story of Tom Boothby, a one-eyed Indian fighter whose demise became the first ghost story of record in Alton.

I enjoyed the entire tour, but it was the first stop that really hooked me. Sitting at the corner of East 3rd and George Streets in Alton is the Enos Sanatorium. Originally known as the Nathaniel Hanson Mansion, the original structure dates to 1857.

Nathaniel Hanson was an ardent abolitionist. With Alton situated across the river from slaveholding Missouri, the town was an active stop on the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the Civil War. Hanson built his home precisely to accommodate that cause. Built on a high bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River, the cupola atop it was visible from afar. Nighttime lanterns inside the cupola reportedly alerted slave runners across the river if the coast was clear or if threats prevented crossing. Additionally, Hanson had tunnels carved into the limestone beneath the house, allowing fleeing slaves a safe place to hide when arriving in Illinois.

There are no records of how many slaves hid in the tunnels beneath the mansion, but it is a documented and verified stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1911, Dr. W.H. Enos purchased the mansion and converted the building into a tuberculosis sanatorium. Soon after, a fourth floor was added and an adjoining nurses home constructed, making the building look as it does today. Tuberculosis was an incurable disease at the time, and scores of suffering patients died in the mansion during the next several years.  Today, many believe a few of these unfortunate souls continue to roam the halls and make themselves at home.

Today, the house is an attractively restored apartment building. According to Troy Taylor and Len Adams, many apartment residents have reported strange odors, sounds of footsteps, flushing toilets, and even sounds of people screaming. Many others residents have decided to find a new apartment elsewhere for the same reasons.

The Tunnel Beneath Enos Sanatorium

On a dark and windy night, the home definitely has a mysterious feel to it. The highlight of this stop (at least for me), is when Mr. Adams informed us we’d be heading into the tunnels. This is when my heart skipped a beat and “Haunted Alton” became a priceless experience for me. The Underground Railroad happened, but very few physical examples of it still exist today. Getting to step inside a physical Underground Railroad location is a big deal for me. It is something I’ve never been able to do. When I did, I stood quietly and thought about people long ago who hid from evil in the exact same space. That’s a profound moment for a history nerd like me.

Of course, the real reason to get us down there was for Mr. Adams to scare the hell out of us. He did an admirable job, and the stories he tells are another reason to take this tour. He also informed us that if someone freaks and starts running, a dark tunnel fifteen feet underground is the worst place for it to happen. As much as I hoped I’d see someone lose it, I agreed this wasn’t the best place to see it.

First Unitarian Church

If there’s a “most haunted” stop, many claim it’s the First Unitarian Church, the final stop on the tour. It’s where the story of the hanging priest I mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s the highlight of the tour, so I won’t give anything else away. Instead, I’ll just say that I’m grateful for Ginger and Len allowing me to tag along that night. I had fun while hearing a few peculiar stories and good history. Anytime that happens, I’m good to go.

For more information about Alton Hauntings Tours, or to make reservations, click here. Tours fill up quickly during the Halloween season, so plan ahead.

Finally, before I move on to the delicious drink I selected for this post, I want to be clear that my intention here is in no way an attempt to demean any believers in ghosts and spirits. While I don’t personally believe in the paranormal, I completely respect the beliefs of anyone who does, like my new friends Len and Ginger. They have an interest in a subject they hold dear, and that’s good enough for me.

However, if you tell me that you should shake a Manhattan and serve it on the rocks, then you need to get your head examined.

The Drink

The Savoy Cocktail BookIf ghosts and spirits are being revived within the walls of Enos Sanatorium, then why not a corpse?  This is one of those Distilled History posts where I knew the drink well before putting a single word to paper. The Corpse Reviver (No. 2), a prohibition-era cocktail created by a man named Harry Craddock, is also one of my favorites.

Craddock was an American who (wisely) fled to England when Prohibition kicked in. As a barman at the Savoy Hotel in London, he became famous for inventing notable cocktails (like this one), popularizing the dry martini, and publishing The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.

The Corpse Reviver #2 was named for exactly what it’s meant to do. After a night of heavy drinking, drinking one (or maybe two) is an effective way to “revive one’s corpse”.  However, Craddock is also quick to point out in his book that “Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

The Corpse Reviver (No. 2)

I’m familiar with such experiences, so along with containing my beloved gin, this is a perfect drink for me. While Craddock recommends drinking the cocktail before 11:00am, I’ve had hangovers last much longer into the day. I mixed mine at 7:00 pm, and I can say it with certainty it worked very well at what it had to do.

The name suggests a “Corpse Reviver (No. 1)” also  exists, and that is correct. Craddock also created that recipe to cure hangovers, but it’s a completely different drink. I also don’t find it nearly as satisfying as the Corpse Reviver (No. 2).

I’ve always thought this cocktail can taste radically different based on the quality of the ingredients used. I won’t make it at home unless quality gin is at hand (Broker’s is my personal preference), and low-end triple sec can’t substitute the extra kick provided by Cointreau.

Don’t wait for a brunch with a pounding hangover to try a Corpse Reviver #2. While it is a great alternative to the ubiquitous Bloody Mary, it’s suitable for any time of the day (or evening). A well-made version is that good.

Corpse Reviver No. 2 Recipe

Finally, if you don’t want to make one on your own (the ingredients are not cheap), Demun Oyster Bar in Clayton makes an excellent version.

August 26th, 2013 by Cameron

A Day in the Life of Distilled History

A Day in the Life

Here’s a useless fact to kick off this edition of Distilled History. If I had to play one of those “deserted island” games and choose only one song that I could listen to for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be difficult. “A Day in the Life”, that magnificent opus that closes out side two of Sergeant Pepper is the greatest rock ‘n roll song ever made. I have no doubt about it.

That song has absolutely nothing to do with St. Louis history or drinking, but it sure put a smile on my face a couple of weeks ago. I played it (loudly) on purpose, and I made sure to share my Beatle appreciation with Tower Grove South on the morning of August 10, 2013. I did that because I knew that I was at the start of a very good “Day in the Life” of St. Louis. It’s a day when everything I love to do in this city came together in one very neat package.

It all started at a church south of downtown. I met a few friends, unloaded a bicycle, and spent the morning peddling through a historic tour of two unique St. Louis neighborhoods. After that, I spent the afternoon with another group of friends talking about things that happened 150 years ago. At the same time, I marched people through my favorite 10,000 square feet of St. Louis history. When that was over, I met up with a yet another group of friends and proceeded to get myself quite drunk on well-made cocktails.

That is how a great day in my life goes down.

I thought it would be interesting to recount that excellent day in this blog. It wasn’t a day focused on just one history topic or drink. It was a day filled with random facts, bits of St. Louis history, and plenty of sips.

Follow along as I describe a “Day in the Life” of Distilled History.

The Morning

Our Ride Through Old Frenchtown

Each year, the local bicycle advocacy organization Trailnet offers an extensive calendar of fantastic bicycle rides, tours, and events around the St. Louis area. My favorites are their Community Rides, which are centered on simply having fun and developing an appreciation for St. Louis. I’ve written about a couple of them in my posts about the Jacob Stein House and T.S. Eliot.

Many of these rides are history tours, led by a St. Louis authority/genius/superhuman named Harold Karabell. An avid bicyclist himself, Harold also shares my opinion that seeing St. Louis from a bicycle offers a unique perspective from which to see our city.

On this day, Harold debuted a new tour that I was really excited about. It was a rambling ride through a section of St. Louis formerly known as “Old Frenchtown”. Once a seamless group of neighborhoods in south St. Louis that blended together, “Old Frenchtown” was carved apart in the years following World War II.

Trailnet's Old Frenchtown Bicycle Tour

That’s when I-44 and I-55 were built through south St. Louis. Suddenly, the borders dividing the neighborhoods of Soulard, LaSalle Park, and Lafayette Square became defined by asphalt and semi-trucks. Use of the term “Old Frenchtown”, already in decline due to shifting neighborhood dynamics, faded further into memory.

Harold kept the audience captivated

The field of architecture is Harold’s wheelhouse, but St. Louis history gets equal attention on his tours. While touring historical and unique neighborhoods like LaSalle Park and Soulard, the amount of information presented in both topics can even be overwhelming. I’ve tried taking notes in order to keep up with him on previous tours, but I always end up with nothing but pages of hurried scribbling.

Old Frenchtown is a remarkably historic section of St. Louis. Originally settled by Germans, French Creoles, and Irish, it later became home to concentrations of Syrians, Lebanese, Czechs, and other groups. It was where in 1896, the third-deadliest tornado in American history uprooted homes and buildings. Fifty years later, Old Frenchtown nearly suffered the same fate at the hands of man. A city plan developed in 1947 proclaimed the vast majority of Old Frenchtown to be “blighted”. Furthermore, the plan proposed razing the majority of structures in the area and rebuilding it with modern homes and cul-de-sacs.

As we rolled along, St. Louis history was on display in all forms.

Harold's Wisdom

At the end of the tour, Harold couldn’t resist throwing out one final fact that I particularly enjoyed. When a fellow rider asked for his surname, he responded that it’s “Karabell”, short for the Yiddish term “Karabellnik”.

“Karabellnik” means “country peddler”. And with that final fact, Harold closed out an excellent morning.

The Afternoon

Happy Cameron

After throwing my bike in the back of the car, I sped off to the next stop. After changing into proper attire and drying the sweat off underneath an air conditioning vent in the gift shop, I was set to throw down some epic tours at my beloved Campbell House Museum. At this place, I actually get to spout history off to folks who are willing to pay for it. Even better, I get a group of people like the one I had on August 10th. The tour on that day was rowdy, long (over two hours), and fun.

Rowdy tours are the best tours. When I say “rowdy” I don’t mean people get unruly and start tossing around furniture. Instead, folks get laughing, hundreds of questions are asked, and visitors offer up their own glimpses of history. It’s tours like this where an amusing back and forth dialog exists. It’s also obvious to me that a mutual appreciation for the home exists.

Knock on this door!

The big rowdy tour that I led that afternoon turned out to be only one I gave that day. The most colorful visitor was an English World War II veteran who now lives in Canada. While his wife constantly tried to quiet him, this guy kept us laughing by cracking bad jokes along the way. In the same group, another visitor boasted that this tour was his fourth trip through the Campbell House.

He reinforced a point that I make to every guest: Every tour is different.

It’s not simply because of the overwhelming number of facts, stories, and tales there are to tell, but the difference really comes in the delivery. While I tend to focus on the history of the family (my main area of interest), another docent may focus on the architecture of the house. Yet another may focus on the lives of servants, or the furniture, or even restoration efforts.

There’s even one guy named Tom who could talk to you for three or four days about Lucas Place, the neighborhood the house used to be a part of.

I’ll even admit that I have a mild man-crush on Tom. I aspire to be the best docent ever, and that won’t happen as long as Tom lurks the halls of Campbell House. The guy is a research machine. If a Campbell House docent battle was ever held, Tom would make quick work of me.

Well, if I can’t beat him, I might as well learn from him.

Campbell Facts

I love giving tours, but simply being inside the Campbell House makes for a good day. If we don’t have visitors, I can head upstairs to do research, sift through the archives, or read through the thousands of Campbell family letters.  More than likely, I’ll just kick back in the break room and hash out Campbell history with other museum folks.

The Campbell Kids

Before I head off to the final phase of my day, I’d like to point out some of the excellent press Campbell House Museum has been getting lately. People work hard at that place, and I’m proud to be apart of it.

The Campbell House in the 1930's

The Evening

Blood & Sand Interior

Another benefit of being a Campbell House docent is what sits directly across the street. Blood & Sand, located on the ground floor of the Terra Cotta Loft Building on Locust Street, is one of my favorite places in St. Louis to get a cocktail.

Blood & Sand is a unique establishment. It’s a membership bar and restaurant, which means patrons pay a small monthly fee in order to visit. In return, members receive a level of personal attention not found elsewhere.

I won’t go into detail about how Blood & Sand works. Instead, I’ll simply say that the level of service I’ve received there makes it worth the price of membership for me. On just my second visit, I had a new cocktail set in front of me that was tailored to my own personal tastes. The owners and bartenders enjoy talking about cocktails, and they all know their craft. Each time I go to Blood & Sand, I seem to learn a bit more about the necessary ingredients and practices I should be incorporating into my own drinks at home.

To add to the allure, Blood & Sand also sits on a St. Louis corner that has some very interesting history.

Terra Cotta Lofts Facts

Then & Now: The Corner of 15th and Locust

Blood & Sand makes a variation of the Manhattan that is one of my favorite cocktails in St. Louis. Blood & Sand’s classic “Grounds for Divorce” adds Campari and Amaro to the standard mixture of bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. I’m not certain, but my guess is the vermouth used is Carpano’s Punt e Mes. The result is spicy, bitter, and exceptionally delicious.

The drink is stirred in ice, strained into a coupe glass, and adorned with a “real” maraschino cherry.

The Grounds for Divorce at Blood & Sand

We spent a couple of hours at Blood & Sand sampling cocktails and closing out the day. My friends had to listen to me throw out more useless trivia while we did it, but they are used to that.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my “Day in the Life” of St. Louis, I was exhausted at the end of it. Bicycling, cocktails, and those rowdy Campbell House tours (especially those rowdy tours), combined to put me in bed early that night. I think I’ll have to wait a few weeks before I cram biking, history, and drinking all into one day again.

On second thought, maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.

July 15th, 2013 by Cameron

Hop Alley & White Lightning

Fire Hydrant in the Hill

One of the things I like most about living in St. Louis is the diversity. For good reasons or bad, St. Louis looks and feels very different depending on where you stand. If you are in Soulard, you know you aren’t in the Loop. If you are on Cherokee Street, you know you aren’t in Old North. To me, that’s a great thing about living here.

While I believe the existence of diverse neighborhoods like South Grand and The Grove make St. Louis a better place, I lament the neighborhoods that are gone. Today, there is little evidence of neighborhoods like Frenchtown, Kerry Patch, and Vandeventer Place. And while The Hill remains famously Italian, other neighborhoods like Bevo and Dutchtown have struggled to retain their ethnic identity. Even Soulard, an area many St. Louisans think was originally French, actually started as a German neighborhood.

Another neighborhood that was recently wiped off the map is one many younger St. Louisans aren’t aware of. In the middle of the downtown business district, St. Louis had its own “Chinatown” that was home to hundreds of Chinese St. Louisans. It wasn’t on the scale of coastal cities like San Francisco or New York City, but it was here. It existed for nearly 100 years, enduring from the 1870’s until 1966.

Hop Alley in 1910

The history of the Chinese presence in St. Louis is actually quite fascinating. We even know the name of the first Chinese person to settle here. His name was Alla Lee, and he came to St. Louis from San Francisco in 1857. He owned a tea shop on North Tenth Street that provided a modest income. He even married a “buxom Irish lass” named Sarah Graham. Together, the couple produced several children.

We also know what Alla Lee said on the first day he walked into the city that would become his home:

Alla Lee's Quote

Well, maybe that’s not true, but he had to at least been thinking it. Even after eighteen years here, St. Louis summers make me curse like a sailor.

Information about the St. Louis Chinatown is scarce, but I found two books by a professor at Truman State University that were very helpful. Huping Ling’s Chinese St. Louis and Images of America: Chinese in St. Louis both provided a fascinating perspective of the Chinese experience in this city. I also planned to attend a lecture about the topic by Professor Ling a couple of months ago, but a freak snowstorm forced it to be cancelled.

Have I mentioned that I struggle with the weather in this town?

Anyway, after settling in St. Louis, Alla Lee could claim to be the only Chinese person living in St. Louis for nearly a dozen years. Then in 1869, about three hundred Chinese people arrived from San Francisco looking for work in local factories and mines. Shortly after, a second group arrived from New York City for the same reason. As Professor Ling details in her book Chinese St. Louis, this represents a perfect example of “re-migration”. In the years following 1869, Chinese people came to St. Louis when the opportunities in cities they first settled in (like San Francisco or New York) fizzled out.

Alla Lee's Census Records

As the Chinese population in St. Louis started to grow, a distinct neighborhood was established where they lived and worked. Located between Market, Walnut, Eighth and Seventh Streets, this small section of downtown became known as “Chinatown”. However, by the mid 1890′s, the neighborhood was being commonly referred to as “Hop Alley”. This was likely a derogatory term, meant to represent the stereotype of Chinese immigrants frequently being “hopped up” on opium.

By the turn of the 20th Century, Hop Alley was home to more than 200 Chinese people. Most of them lived in small rooms above or behind the numerous Chinese businesses that lined the streets. These businesses included hand laundries, tea shops, groceries, dry goods stores, and restaurants.It looked much like the Chinatowns we know today, with lanterns, banners, and signs with Chinese characters hanging from building exteriors. Mandarin and Cantonese were the common languages spoken and heard in Hop Alley. It was a bustling part of town, with Chinese residents and workers going about their daily lives. With shops, vendors, and businesses selling unfamiliar foods and goods, Hop Alley was an exotic part of St. Louis.

Hop Alley Map

Unfortunately, much of the city surrounding Hop Alley did not embrace the neighborhood nor its residents. Many St. Louisans viewed the Chinese as unusual, lazy, and deviant. Newspaper accounts branded the neighborhood as brimming with opium addicts, criminals, and gamblers.

In researching this post, I scoured several newspaper articles from that time pertaining to Hop Alley. Very few focused on the lives or merits of the Chinese residents, instead focusing on awful stereotypes and prejudices.

Hop Alley in Plate 24 of Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis

In many of these articles, Chinese people are referred to as Chinks”, “Mongolians”, and even “Heathen Chinee”. Reporters repeatedly mocked their spoken English, aping them with quotes like“You likee chop stick?”,tankee tankee, and “Ho Ho! Wat you want?”.

I did stumble upon one article that attempted to understand the daily life of a Chinese person living in Hop Alley. Unfortunately, reading it made me cringe (and honestly, it got me rather pissed off). “The Chinese in St. Louis”, published in the St. Louis Republic on January 14, 1894, spewed ignorance and racism on an epic scale.

The article gives an account of two men visiting a Chinese restaurant in Hop Alley. Although the men were “much surprised to find it palatable”, the contempt for Chinese people eating nearby is appalling.

St. Louis Republic 1894 Quote

A derisive cartoonwas included in the article to reinforce the author’s point. In the drawing, a man is portrayed squatting on his chair, using chopsticks with two hands, and eating a meal of stewed rat.

Hop Alley Cartoon

The article then proceeds to detail how the men attempted to “shove a quarter” to the restaurateur, unaware tipping is not a custom in Chinese culture. This provokes the writer to report:

St. Louis Republic 1894 Quote

While it’s certain that newspapers exaggerated the negative aspects of Hop Alley, the neighborhood was far from perfect. Opium dens and gambling rings did produce repeated problems for St. Louis law enforcement. One crime in particular made national headlines in 1893. In that year, a man named Lou Johnson came into conflict with a Chinese gambling ring. Things didn’t get sorted out, because Lou’s headless body was found dumped in an alley. His head was later found buried in a basket of rice. Although several men were accused, a lack of evidence prevented any kind of conviction.

Young girl in Chinatown

Despite Hop Alley’s poor reputation around St.Louis, it was home to a community of people. Professor Ling makes the point that it’s important to remember that Hop Alley was where Chinese people in St. Louis felt at home. It’s where they lived, worked, and relaxed. In a city where Chinese people frequently felt unwelcome, Hop Alley was where they could find peace and comfort around a common people. It was also a destination for Chinese people living outside of the neighborhood. They visited the neighborhood to see family, shop, and dine with friends. During Chinese New Year, Hop Alley was also a central gathering place for a very important holiday in that culture.

Although Hop Alley existed well into the 20th Century, the neighborhood followed a familiar pattern in St. Louis after 1920. The Great Depression brought about economic strife, causing many Chinese businesses to close or relocate. The flight to the suburbs following World War II prompted many Chinese families to move beyond city limits. By the 1960’s, Hop Alley was a shadow of its former self. It then disappeared completely in 1966, the year Busch Stadium was constructed. Baseball fans needed a place to park, and the buildings in Hop Alley became expendable.

Hop Alley: Then and Now

Following the demise of Hop Alley, many Chinese people congregated in a comparable community around a stretch of Olive Boulevard just went of city limits. I’m glad it’s there, and I’m glad St. Louis still has a visible Chinese community (for reasons you will soon read about). However, I can’t help but wish that Hop Alley had lived on in downtown St. Louis. I think the city would have been even better if it had.

The Drink

Brian and I outside of Taiyuan in 2001

Researching Hop Alley has been one of my most enjoyable posts, and that’s because of the drink that I knew would follow it. Baijiu, an extremely popular liquor in China, is a drink that is also very dear to me. I’ve been fortunate to drink quite a bit of it during two separate trips to China.

These trips were made possible by the fact that my good friend Brian Flaherty was living there. Fluent in Mandarin, Brian knows where to go and how things work in China. As a result, my fellow travelers and I interacted with people who had never seen a western face, we rode hard sleeper trains through the countryside, and we even camped overnight in a Great Wall guard tower. We were able to experience China in a way that very few foreigners have been able to.

Brian is also a big fan of drinking, and this fact made both trips even more special. Drinking is an important part of Chinese culture, and we made sure that we took full advantage of it.

On our first visit to China in 1998, Brian introduced us to baijiu. We were in a tiny Beijing restaurant with a very large bottle prominently displayed on the front counter. It was filled with a clear liquid, but floating inside were reptile skins, unrecognizable round things (eggs, maybe?), and various leaves. I think I also saw a seahorse, but I’m not sure. Brian informed us it was baijiu, and it was custom in China to celebrate important events (like our visit) by drinking it.

Well, it’s not like I really needed a reason.

The baijiu that first night was a special “homemade” brand. The first sip sent us reeling. I can’t really describe the taste, but we soon settled down and toasted a few cups. Then, we toasted a few more. With chasers of warm beer between drinks, we started to acclimate to the flammable potion swirling in our bellies. I ended up sleeping very well that night.

1998 China Trip

In other words, we were roaring drunk. I’ve been a baijiu fan ever since.

Baijiu is distilled liquor made from fermented sorghum. It’s been a staple in Chinese drinking circles for thousands of years. Translated, it means “white liquor” or “white wine”. Brian provided an even better translation:white lightning. I’m not kidding when I say you had better be careful with baijiu. It packs a wallop. Because of “white lightning”, I have a few adventures from those China trips that certainly wouldn’t make Mom proud. Maybe I shouldn’t blame baijiu, but I can also claim to be one of the few Americans that has streaked the Great Wall of China.

An easy (and incorrect) comparison is to say baijiu is like Japanese sake. Although baijiu is sometimes served warm like sake, baijiu is generally much higher in alcohol content (usually 40%-60% APV). It is usually packaged in ceramic bottles, often decorated with colorful labels, ribbons, and small Chinese ornaments. Several types of unflavored and flavored baijiu varieties exist, but because of its distinct (and pungent) aroma, most connoisseurs actually categorize baijiu by fragrance.

As I previously mentioned, the first sip (or even whiff) of baijiu is startling. I force it upon my friends as a novelty often, and it rarely elicits a pleasant response. If baijiu is categorized by fragrance, I even have one friend who insists it belongs in the “feet” category. He’ll come around someday, because I’m going to continue making him drink it. Personally, the taste has grown on me. I like to drink baijiu, and the taste brings back great memories of my trips.

Baijiu: The world's most consumed form of liquor

Chinese drinking customs can definitely add to the impact one may experience with baijiu. Toasting is the rule, and it is custom to invite someone nearby to drink with you. Put yourself at a table in Beijing with several Chinese baijiu drinkers, and you’ll quickly realize that you are in deep shit. They love to toast (especially with foreigners visiting their country), so plan on raising your glass often. The kicker to this is the term “ganbei”, which is often called out during these frequent toasts. “Ganbei” literally means “empty glass” or “drink it all”. It’s not just with baijiu, either. The Chinese also love beer, so get ready to ganbei Chinese lagers like Yanjing or Tsingtao if its nearby.

chinapic_06

Finding and buying baijiu is almost as fun as drinking it. When I eat at local Chinese restaurants, I often ask if baijiu is available to order. I’ve never seen it on a menu, but I know that some places keep a stash in the back. If I strike gold, I’ll usually get a little smirk from the server, and a delicious cup of white lightning. A few days ago, I also bought a bottle for my liquor cabinet at one of the markets on Olive Boulevard. I selected a high-end variety described to me as “unflavored and dry”. When I checked out, the cashier chuckled when she asked for my ID.

And then she whispered to me under her breath “this is a good one”.

Buying baijiu

For the first time, I’m not going to drink the drink I write about in a Distilled History post. Baijiu is meant to be a celebratory liquor to drink with friends. Because of that, I’m going to wait for my pal Brian to come to St. Louis for a visit. When he does, we’ll take that bottle of baijiu to the corner of Walnut and Eighth Streets and toast a couple to Alla Lee, Hop Alley, and the hundreds of Chinese St. Louisans that once called it home.

July 5th, 2013 by Cameron

Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome

Our Villa in Tuscany

Ciao miei buoni amici!  Saluti dall’Italia!

For this bit of Distilled History, I must ask my St. Louis readers to allow me another brief detour.  I’ve been pampering myself in Tuscany for the past two weeks, and I haven’t had an opportunity to blow the dust off another St. Louis history topic. I’ll return to the stories of Mound City in due time, but for now I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing Florence and Rome.  As a student of history, these two towns have more to offer than just about any place in the world.  To make up for my absence, I figured I could throw in some Distilled History while I’m here.  It shouldn’t be that difficult, right?  Since I’m reveling in the cradle of western civilization, I can’t help but stumble over great history, food, and drink.

It’s actually easier said than done.  I’m very distracted.  I’m trying to write this post while sitting in a luxurious 18th Century villa.  There’s a swimming pool, palm trees, and half-naked lady statues scattered around me.  The landscape before me is filled with rolling hills, vineyards, and round bales of hay. Our villa is located near the idyllic town of Montepulciano, an area known for producing some of the best wine in Italy.  Worst of all, I’m currently battling an astounding hangover caused by too much of that Italian wine (along with grappa, birra, gin, bourbon, and a certain cocktail you’ll read about in a bit).

Brunelleschi's Dome

Fortunately, I found a topic to write about years before I even arrived here.  While it would be easy to write about Italian monuments such as the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Pantheon, these sites are secondary to me on this trip.  Years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary about a Cathedral in Florence that fascinated me.  Although not as recognizable as the previously mentioned sites, it’s a very big deal.  Specifically, what sits on top of that church is what I had to see for myself.

I’m won’t go nuts doing research for this post.  I’m in Italy, and I don’t want to do anything but bake in the Tuscan sun, drink myself tipsy, and look at very old things.  All of the information for this post came from my vague recollections of the documentary, my climb up the dome, and the book Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. If you enjoy superb non-fiction writing, this guy has the goods. His book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling about the Sistine Chapel is also outstanding.

Brunelleschi's Dome

“Brunelleschi’s Dome” is how many refer to the cupola atop the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It is the “Duomo di Firenze”, or the Cathedral of Florence. Construction of this cathedral began 1296, and the initial plans called for the largest dome ever constructed to sit atop it.  Sounds like a great plan, but the architects faced a significant problem: Nobody knew how to build a build such a massive dome.

Despite the lack of dome building knowledge in the late thirteenth century, the so-called experts decided to go ahead and build the cathedral anyway.  They figured that since it would take decades to build the foundation and walls, they had plenty of time to figure out the dome problem before constructing it was necessary.

Oops. Not so fast. When the cathedral was ready for the dome in 1380 (nearly 100 years later), they still didn’t have a solution. The cathedral would sit open to the elements for another forty years before one man introduced a plan worth trying.

dome_model

Perhaps it was a certain mindset in Florence at the time that gave the original architects such optimism.  After hundreds of years of ignorance and suppression of knowledge during the Middle Ages, a cultural movement was blossoming in Italy. Florence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries introduced a resurgence of learning based on classical knowledge.  Instead of writing the ancient Greeks and Romans off as pagans, great thinkers looked to them for inspiration.  This re-birth or “Renaissance” brought humanism back into the mainstream.  The dome that was built atop the Florence Cathedral would become one of the most important accomplishments in the early years of that movement.

The inability to build a large dome is surprising since one had been standing tall in Rome for nearly 1,000 years. The Pantheon, a self-supported concrete dome 142 feet wide and weighing 5,000 tons, was built by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD.  Despite having a full-size model at their disposal, nobody could figure out how to build it again.

That is, until Filippo Brunelleschi came along.

Born in Florence in 1377, Brunelleschi grew up in the shadow of the Florence Cathedral as it was built.  Initially trained as a goldsmith and clockmaker, Brunelleschi soon displayed an unparalleled genius in art, architecture, engineering, and mathematics.  Along with the dome he’d make famous, Brunelleschi is also credited with discovering the mathematical laws of perspective.  Another concept lost since Greek and Roman times, perspective gave artists the ability to accurately represent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional surface.  This discovery (or rediscovery) radically changed the direction of artistic impression during the Renaissance.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Eventually, a guild in Florence announced a contest for entrants to submit plans to complete the unfinished dome. Brunelleschi, who had studied the Pantheon closely with his good friend Donatello, jumped at the opportunity. It took some convincing, but Brunelleschi was eventually able to secure the commission for himself.

Brunelleschi was a character (to say the least). He was brilliant, competitive, combative, and paranoid.  He was so convinced that his ideas and designs would be stolen, that he refused to explain exactly how he would build the dome. Despite being called an “ass” and a “babbler”, he indefatigably insisted he could do it.

The original plan called for an octagonal dome 171 feet above the floor of the cathedral and spanning 144 feet (two feet wider than the Pantheon). Adding to the challenge, support and centering the dome from underneath wasn’t possible.  Materials for such an enormous scaffold weren’t available, and church leaders insisted that the interior of the cathedral remain open and accessible for services during construction. The dome would have to support itself as it climbed into the sky.

Brunelleschi rose to the challenge with a myriad of ingenious solutions.  In nearly every phase of construction, he overcame hurdles with methods that had never been used before. Even the mathematics used to determine such significant building stress wouldn’t be known for hundreds of years. His accomplishment is all the more impressive considering what little architectural knowledge was available at the time.

The Cupola

The most important aspect of his design is that the dome is actually two domes.  An inner shell is made of sandstone and marble, and it acts as the main load-bearing structure.  The inner shell is also obviously smaller, but that fact is not noticeable to the naked eye. It is protected by a larger outer shell constructed of brick and mortar. The space between the two shells contain ribs for additional support (and the staircase that I had longed to climb).

In constructing the inner shell, the biggest problem facing construction was overcoming “hoop stress”.  As a dome’s construction goes higher, more weight is forced upon the base. Unchecked, this can cause the base of the dome to “spread” and ultimately collapse under its own weight.

I’m no architect, but “spreading” sounds bad for domes built 200 feet off the ground.

To counter hoop stress, Brunelleschi devised a system of horizontal iron, stone, and wooden “chains” that act like metal hoops around a barrel.  Built into the inner shell at various levels, these chains squeeze the dome and distribute weight to the eight corners of the octagon.  Even today, full details of Brunelleshi’s chain designs are not fully understood.  Since the chains are built into the inner shell, they aren’t visible to study with the naked eye.

Brunelleschi's Lift Sketches

Another hurdle was how to get thousands of blocks, brick, and mortar up into the sky. Nobody had figured out how to do that either, so another contest was announced.  Brunelleschi won the blue ribbon again, designing a remarkable lift and crane system. The hoisting power was provided by oxen that moved in a circle around the base of a lift.  Sounds simple enough, but the problem was getting the lift back down to earth.  Oxen don’t travel in reverse, and unhitching and reversing the team after each lifting session was a giant hassle.  To solve this, Brunelleschi designed a reverse gear that could be shifted manually. This allowed the oxen to continue moving happily along (well, maybe not so happily), in one direction. Additionally, Brunelleschi even gave his lift variable speeds.  This allowed heavier blocks to be lifted slower while lighter materials could be raised quickly.

The eight brick sections of the outer shell also presented a unique problem.  As the dome progressed higher, the brick walls angled inward at an increasingly perilous angle.  Without support from beneath, a solution was needed to keep the angled bricks in place while the mortar dried.  No scaffold also meant that twitchy masons had to build the walls while perched more than two-hundred feet off the ground. Without missing a beat, Brunelleschi had a solution for this problem as well.  He used a herringbone (think zigzag) pattern that placed bricks vertically at regular intervals in each row.  These vertical bricks act like bookends to provide support for each row of horizontal bricks.

Sadly, I can barely understand that concept, let alone explain it.  Being a guy who simply likes to drink and find good history, physics makes my head hurt.  I’m going to have to defer to Ross King on this one.  If anyone needs further information how Brunelleschi worked this out,  pick up Mr. King’s book and turn to page ninety-eight.  I can’t add anything other than to say that I think herringbone brick is kinda pretty.

Herringbone Brick Pattern

After sixteen years of construction, the dome was completed in 1436. Except for the one mason that fell to his death, everyone agreed that Brunelleschi had pulled off a remarkable feat. Single-handedly, he pushed architecture and the science of building light years ahead of where it had been. His design would become the standard for all Baroque and Renaissance dome construction going forward. Years later, when when Michelangelo designed the dome atop St. Peter’s Basilica, he credited Brunelleschi’s dome as his inspiration.

dome_stairs

Filippo Brunelleschi died in 1446.  His legacy seure, he was even given the honor of being entombed in the cathedral he helped build.  Visit Florence today and you can also find a fine statue of Brunelleschi that sits outside.  It depicts a man gracefully looking up and admiring the dome he built.

Nearly six-hundred years later, Brunelleschi’s dome is as impressive as ever. My good friend Liz and I also found out it’s one hell of a climb. As we huffed up the 400-plus steps, we found twisting stairwells becoming increasingly darker and narrower.  The stairs wind between the two shells, so one can even say they have climbed through history when they get to the top.  The effort is more than worth it.  As you climb higher, you’ll get to view the interior frescoes close-up, you can peer through small exterior portals allowing beams of light in, and can run your fingers along the herringbone-patterned brickwork.  When you finally emerge at the top, you are greeted with stunning panoramas of the city of Florence.  The view isn’t likely to be much different from what Brunelleschi saw himself.

Panorama from Brunelleschi's Dome

The Drink

Campari

After an American climbs an Italian cathedral, it’s only appropriate that an American orders an Italian cocktail. I almost went with grappa for this post (so very delicious), but I needed something refreshing after that climb.

With its distinctive dark red hue, Campari even looks sweet and delicious.  It’s actually quite bitter, made from a secret recipe of aromatic herbs, fruit, barks, and other unknown botanicals.  It even once contained crushed cochineal insects to give it the scarlet color its known for (this process has recently been replaced with artificial coloring).  When I was a kid, I remember insisting that father let me try a sip of his Campari and soda.  My face contorted into a sneer of disgust, and I couldn’t fathom why he even pretended to enjoy it.  My father knew his alcohol though, and thirty years later, Campari became a steady partner in my rambles through Florence and Rome.

A man named Gaspare Campari invented Campari in northern Italy around 1860.  It is a mild bitters-type aperitif, a drink Italians sip to help stimulate their appetite before one of their epic meals.  Italians usually drink it in a cold glass with a splash of soda.  I prefer Campari as an ingredient in cocktails, notably the Negroni and the Americano.  Adding Campari to a Manhattan also creates a delicious variation.

The Americano, my cocktail of choice after the climb, is a simple and refreshing cocktail, especially for a hot summer day.  When I return to St. Louis and the weather is sure to be unbearable (sigh), an Americano is another good cocktail to help beat the heat. It should be stirred and served on the rocks, but I’ve occasionally seen it served straight up in a cocktail glass.  It’s usually served with a slice of lemon or orange as a garnish.

Other than a few “grazies” and “ciaos”, I don’t speak Italian. I gave it a shot while wandering the streets of Florence, but I wasn’t completely surprised to find my Americano order result in a cup of coffee placed in front of me. Thinking I screwed something up, I soon learned I was on the money. An “Americano” or “Café Americano” is also a term used to describe espresso mixed with hot water.

dome_recipe

My espresso was delicious, but I needed a kick after climbing 400 steps.  I sheepishly drank my café Americano and moved on to another bar where I made sure to point at the bottle of Campari when ordering.

The Americano

No problems with this order, and I soon found myself sitting back and enjoying my cocktail. From my seat, I was able to look up and admire Brunelleschi’s dome that towered into the sky before me.

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