Father Maurice B. McNamee: The Visionary Who Saved Samuel Cupples House
The following are historical communications about Father Maurice B. McNamee's efforts to save Cupples House, then also known as Chouteau House.
The University News, March 20, 1964
Chouteau House To Be Razed Fr. Reinert Says
Chouteau House will probably be torn down when the new Student Union Building is completed, according the Very Rev. Paul C. Reinert, S.J., president. Fr. Reinert briefly discussed the future of the old building Tuesday during a Student Union Fee Report to the Presidential Advisory Board.
Fr. Reinert cited high maintenance costs as the most likely reason for razing the structure.
Several students suggested that the building be used for fraternity activities after the new building is constructed. Fr. Reinert stated that most offices in Chouteau House will be moved to the new Student Union Building.
The Student Union Building will cost over three million dollars. Original plans for a skating rink were dropped as an unnecessary increase in expenses. Four of the proposed sixteen new bowling alleys have also been eliminated from the plans.
The building will take two years to complete after bids have been approved. The summer of 1966 will be the earliest possible date for occupying the building.
Letter of Richard L. Bliss, Chairman
Committee for Preservation of Historic Buildings
St. Louis chapter, American Institute of Architects
April 30, 1966
Dr. Rita Adams
St. Louis University
221 North Grand Blvd.
St. Louis, Missouri 63103
Dear Dr. Adams:
Please forgive my long delay in answering your inquiry regarding the Cupples Mansion. I have not been singularly successful in unearthing factual information, and what little I have to convey is perhaps no more than you know.
The building was completed about 1890 from plans by Thomas B. Annan, one of the architects of the Old Merchants Exchange. Even at the time of its completion, the Cupples Mansion was an architectural landmark. Cupples spent the staggering sum of 500,000 1890-dollars to assure that every detail would be worthy of the design conception of the architect. Annan is said to have been sent to Europe to collect the rare woods used for the interior paneling.
The massive stone masonry and the dark, ornate interior are typical of the late Victorian stylistic trend known as Richardsonian Romanesque. To a greater degree than the vast majority of the work of this period, the buildings of H.H. Richardson and his followers (freely based on Romanesque forms) represented a genuinely creative impulse, pointing the way to Sullivan and Wright.
Professor Buford Pickens, architectural historian of Washington University, feels that the Cupples Mansion is perhaps the most significant example of this type of Victorian residence, which once abounded on West Pine, Lindell and the private places of the West End. He has examined the untouched condition of its richly detailed interior. The Mansion was illustrated in John Bryan's 1928 publication, Missouri's Contributions to American Architecture. Mr. Bryan was associated for many years with the National Park Service and is the architect of many of St. Louis' best known restorations.
The St. Louis chapter, A.I.A., earnestly hopes that St. Louis University will be able to continue to use the building in some capacity which will permit retention of its original architectural character.
The Preservation Committee would be happy to discuss the matter further with you. We are planning a meeting at the Steedman Room of the St. Louis Public Library on Saturday, May 7, at 10:00 A.M., the main topic being a student report on Union Station, built only a few years later than the Cupples Mansion and in the same style. You and any of your colleagues who may be interested are most welcome to attend. Since both Professor Pickens and Mr. Bryan are members of our committee, you would have an opportunity to discuss with them the subject of the Cupples Mansion.
Richard L. Bliss, Chairman
Committee for Preservation of Historic Buildings
St. Louis chapter, A.I.A.
"The House the Mac Built"
By Jane Priwer
The poetic license in the title of this story rates a couple words of explanation. The stone mansion on West Pine known to most of our alumni as Chouteau House was built back in 1889 by a wealthy St. Louis woodenware merchant, Samuel Cupples. But Father Maurice B. McNamee, "Mac" to his friends, has become its preserver and rebuilder. Since we bought the building, 30 years ago, he has saved it several times from the headache ball. And in the last three years he has given it back its proper name, Cupples House, restored much of the interior, and turned it into a unique combination of 19th century home, art museum and cultural center. To make sure the work goes on apace, he recently arranged for restoration and management to be vested in a new legal entity, incorporated under the title of the The Samuel Cupples House Foundation.
In the intervals of his duties as professor of English and art history, Father McNamee serves Cupples House as host, curator, interior decorator-in-chief and sometimes odd job man. He has an office next to what was once the servants' dining hall, and occasionally sleeps there, to keep an eye on all his treasures.
All this trouble and work, he insists, is more than worthwhile. Cupples House represents the best among the few remaining examples of Richardsonian Romanesque domestic architecture in the country. (Richardson was the architect who made this style popular.) The house was designed by Thomas B. Annan and built, over a two-year period, at a cost of half a million in 1889 dollars. The foundation and the massive front pillars are of pink granite and the rest of the house is of dark purple Land Meadow limestone, imported from Colorado. At the moment both kinds of stone are the same sooty black. But when the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, as Father McNamee hopes will soon be the case, federal funds may be available for cleaning the exterior.
Mr. Cupples spared no expense, either in materials or workmanship. An English sculptor was brought here to do the fine sculptures on the outside of the house, and two English woodcarvers spent two years on the elaborately carved woodwork throughout the interior. Many of the fine woods, different for each room, came from Europe and beyond. The mosaic floor in the front foyer is from Italy, and the stained glass windows were designed by an artist in Boston. One could continue indefinitely. But the accompanying photographs tell this part of the story much better than words. So on to some more recent history.
The University bought the building in 1946 from the Railroad Telegraphers Union, which had used it as headquarters for over a quarter-century. The price was $50,000, one tenth of the original cost. It was renamed for Charles Pierre Chouteau, the first student admitted to Saint Louis College after the Jesuits took over, and was put to various worthy but inappropriate uses, such as a student center and a home for ROTC and Metropolitan College.
Father McNamee, who joined the English faculty in 1944, had different ambitions for the house from the beginning. But for a long time all he could do was make sure it stayed standing. He managed to talk the administration out of razing it several times, once for a new home for a law school building and once for a new home for the Jesuit community. "I took good care," he told us, "to volunteer for any committee which was looking for a building site on the Frost campus. It was worth all the committee time I've put in during my 30 years on the faculty."
In 1970 he finally got the chance to do more than prop the walls up. The Jesuit community vacated its quarters in DuBourg Hall, thus freeing up a lot of new office space. Arrangements were made to move all the offices out of Cupples, except for those of the art and history faculty. Father kept those there on purpose, on the third floor, to pull art students in through the building. "I never intended the place to be a sterile, roped off historical museum."
Father McNamee believes beautiful and interesting buildings should be designed for active use and enjoyment. This philosophy is visible both in future plans for Cupples House and in the uses to which it is already being put. The mansion is to be restored to its turn of the century elegance, and members of the Cupples family are taking an active part in the process. They have donated photographs, showing many of the rooms as they once were, and some of the original furnishings, including a portrait of Samuel Cupples and the furniture for one entire bedroom.
However, no attempt will be made to make all 49 rooms into a replica of what they once were. Even if this were possible, the result would be downright depressing, in the absence of the family life which went on there. In its "Upstairs Downstairs" heyday, 23 people lived in the house, including eight maids, a butler, a chauffer, and a doctor who was a close friend of the family. Four laundresses and a seamstress came in every day.
There would be no point to having the mansion become nothing but a monument to vanished way of life. So Father McNamee has seen to it that Cupples House develops a new "Upstairs Downstairs" life, as an art museum. The two first floors are used for the display of the fine period furniture, paintings and other art objects generous benefactors have given, and are still giving, to the University.
Some of the pictures go back a long way. Seven, for example, are part of a collection of 52 paintings (mostly Flemish) brought here by Peter DeSmet and others of the University's founding fathers. Four of them are hung in the old Cupples billiard room, now renamed the Flemish Room. The room is enhanced by recent acquisitions, including the superb "Adoration of the Magi," by Pieter Coecke Van Aelst (1502-1550), donated by the Benoist family.
The "downstairs" part of the house is for the display of contemporary art and special holdings. The old bowling alley in the basement, and the exercise and laundry rooms opening off it, have been remodeled into an up-to-date art gallery. Father McNamee did a lot of the menial work himself. He spent one entire summer with a paintbrush (non-artistic variety) in his hand. The "downstairs" part of the house is for the display of contemporary art and special holdings. The old bowling alley in the basement, and the exercise and laundry rooms opening off it, have been remodeled into an up-to-date art gallery. Father McNamee did a lot of the menial work himself. He spent one entire summer with a paintbrush (non-artistic variety) in his hand.
The contemporary art is the special concern of Father's friend and faculty colleague Dr. Theo Haimann, who holds the dual title of professor of management science and director of the University art collections. Dr. Haimann was at one time an artist in Europe. He still maintains close connections with up-and-coming European artists, and has spent years putting together an increasingly valuable modern art collection for the Cupples at a price a poor Jesuit university can afford. The gallery holdings are constantly being added to by generous art lovers, such as the late Samuel J. Levin and his wife Audrey. Dr. Haimann's wife helps take care of the entire collection, as a volunteer assistant curator.
The Cupples Gallery is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 10-12 a.m. and from 1-3 p.m. The two first floors are open during the same hours on every weekday except Wednesday. Visitors who find weekdays inconvenient can view both the gallery and the upper floors on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, from 2-4 p.m.
In addition to these regular viewing hours, the house is often opened for academic conferences and formal receptions. This third function for Cupples House is increasingly popular and adds greatly to the University's reputation for gracious and distinctive hospitality. Visiting scholars who dine in the spacious central hall and are serenaded afterwards by the University Madrigal Singers from the Musician's Gallery above, carry home a permanent impression of warmth and elegance.
No one gets more pleasure from opening the mansion to appreciative visitors than its chief restorer and rebuilder. To understand just why, you would have to know something of his previous career. This Sampson has spent a lifetime fighting, and converting, the Philistines, and Cupples House has been by no means the only battleground. In talking to Father McNamee you get the impression he hails back to a long line of European Jesuits, who were intensely involved in all the arts, including painting and architecture. Rubens and other great artists, he told us, painted acres of pictures for Jesuit churches in Europe. Missionaries from European countries came out of this tradition. But it died out to a large extent in the more utilitarian atmosphere of 20th century America.
In the 1930's, when young Maurice McNamee wanted to do graduate work in art history, he received no encouragement at all from his superiors. "The Provincial told me there was no demand for the subject, and he was perfectly correct. At that time not a single course in art history was taught in any Jesuit high school, college or university in the entire country." So the young scholar went into English instead, and achieved enough in that field to meet any definition of a distinguished academic career. He wrote several well known books, headed the English department for 15 years and the Honors Program for ten, and received the coveted Nancy McNeir Ring Award for Distinguished Teaching.
But he never gave up his original field of interest, or his determination to make the University an artistic as well as an intellectual center. His success in this regard can be seen in many areas, including our flourishing department of art and art history, which he promoted with the help of Thomas N. Toner, well known artist and professor of art here. The department is served by a quarter of million photographic slides, many the work of Father McNamee himself, on successive trips to Europe.
Another contribution makes a combination detective and horror story. This is his recovery of the artistic legacy left to the University by Father DeSmet and his colleagues. As we mentioned earlier, it consisted of 52 paintings, brought all the way from Belgium. "Some of them are huge," Father McNamee remarked. "The thought of transporting them all that way, by sailing ship, riverboat and heaven knows what else, is enough to boggle our 20th century minds."
For a long while Father DeSmet's successors took good care of the paintings. When DuBourg Hall was built, in 1888, they were hung in a large museum area, two stories high, with a hammerbeam (sic) ceiling, which at that time was the only art museum in St. Louis. Then the space was divided horizontally, to put in a floor for physics laboratories. After that the paintings were crammed together on the walls of the DuBourg Parlors. Then they disappeared from there too.
"When I came back to the University after my theology training," Father McNamee recalled, "there wasn't a picture in sight. We had a Father Minister at that time to whom cleanliness was next to godliness and several notches above art. He'd decided to give the parlor walls a coat of cornstarch, to facilitate cleaning. In the process the paintings had been taken down and scattered to the four winds. I've spent much of my life since tracking them down, working from an inventory made at the time of the 1904 World's Fair, when the collection was appraised by the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Berlin."
He found all but two, and he knows how one of these met its sad end. It was a painting of the Assumption, which once hung in the Vatican Museum. Some painters-house painters that it-laid it on the floor of the old DuBourg gymnasium, while they were working on a nearby corridor wall. The students appropriated it as the floor for a boxing ring, and that was the end of that!
The fine portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola, which now hangs in Jesuit Hall, had a very near escape. One winter a group of Jesuit scholastics covered it with a sheet, on which they painted a Christmas scene. Since the canvas was thoroughly encrusted with St. Louis grime, they had no way of knowing what a liberty they were taking with the founder of the Society of Jesus! Afterwards they tossed the whole thing out on a trash heap behind DeSmet Hall, where it stayed for over a month. Providentially, Father Eugene Murphy happened to pass by the spot. "He was pacing up and down, saying his office, and he noticed this strange object on top of the trash. The exposure to the weather had rotted the covering sheet, and washed away some of the grime from the painting. And there was St. Ignatius looking up to heaven, with the snow falling down on his face. It gave poor Father Murphy quite a turn!"
Father McNamee has equally hairy stories to tell about the recovery of many of the paintings. For example, of the companion portraits by Van Huysen, "The Artist" and "The Artist's Wife," now hanging in the Cupples House dining room, one was found rolled up in an attic and the other in one of the scholastic's bedrooms, with a hole in the head!
But enough has been said to show why Father gets so much pleasure from his work in Cupples House. Since he began his long struggle to make the University a center for artistic appreciation, the tide of public taste and opinion has swung in this direction. People are more appreciative of beauty, in the old, as well as the new. And they are willing to invest a little imagination in recapturing past ways of life.
When the library of Cupples House is restored, there will be a dedication plaque on the wall. The words, written by one of his family, describe how Mr. Cupples loved to sit in the bay window, on summer evenings, looking over toward the stables, where the University gymnasium stands today, and watching the grooming of his marched chestnut coach horses and his faithful buggy steed, "Roanie." Many future visitors are going to stand in that same window, picturing the long gone scene. And if they know the whole Cupples House story, they will thank Father Maurice McNamee for the opportunity, as well as Samuel Cupples himself.
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 17, 1977
Professor-priest's dream of historic restoration gives new life to mansion of millionaire merchant
By Mary Kimbrough
Ghosts tread softly through the spacious rooms of Cupples House, but they are a lively breed of spirits in their born-again home.
Their genial guardian angel, "Father Mac," would have it no other way.
The gray-haired Jesuit - seldom called by his formal name, the Rev. Maurice B. McNamee, S.J. - is an ardent historian with a scholar's veneration of the past. But he has no heart from the smell of moth balls, the mustiness of the dear, dead days, or the aura of sedentary specters from a long-gone era.
A bulldog in a Roman collar, he has battled long to keep Cupples House in the land of the living, and at last the fight has paid off.
The turreted mansion at 3673 West Pine Bl., owned and occupied by St. Louis University, has been entered on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction which qualifies it for matching restoration funds and protects it from demolition.
A certificate of its enrollment - citing its "significance as one of the most impressive residences in the city of St. Louis" - will be presented by James L. Wilson, director and state historic preservation officer of the Department of Natural Resources, at a reception at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at the mansion. Guests also will see the one fully-restored room, the first floor library, and tour the house which contains turn of the century furnishings - some actually used by the Cupples family - against the background of exquisite wood-carving and artistic detail.
Admission is $8, or $15 per couple.
St. Louisans also may join the Samuel Cupples House Foundation for a minimal annual donation of $15. Gifts totaling $1,000 or more in any three consecutive years entitle the donor to a lifetime membership.
With the mansion's enrollment as a landmark, "Father Mac" can breathe a sigh of relief.
Cupples House, along with his faith and his work, is at the core of his world, so much a part of him that some even call it "the house the Mac built."
The affectionate and slightly irreverent license is understandable. While the mansion was planned and paid for, in 1890, by millionaire woodenware merchant and philanthropist Samuel Cupples, the professor-priest can be credited with saving its life and giving it a new reason for being.
More than once, since St. Louis University acquired the property 31 years ago, Father McNamee, like some embattled knight defending his castle from invaders, has cheated the voracious headache ball of another victim.
But he has refused to settle for mere preservation, even though Cupples House is a sumptuous echo of a gilded era that will not come again. Almost single-handedly, he has created a blend of past and present into an art and cultural center and has opened its hospitable doors so that 20th century folk can mingle with yesterday's ghosts in the ornate rooms and high-ceilinged hallways large enough to shelter an ordinary man's cottage.
In the process, he has found for himself a new mission and a latter-day career.
The legal foundation was established to run and restore the house and maintain the continuity of its beautification, but Father McNamee is the curator. He also is a sometimes-decorator, an occasional handyman, a blend of art director, entrepreneur and major domo, with a bit of the pitchman in his clerical soul.
Now approaching retirement as professor of art history and English with the gusto of a college sophomore, he maintains an office at the back of the first floor, where the Cupples' huge retinue of servants once had their meals. Sometimes, he stays overnight in the house just to keep a sharp eye on things.
He leaves his full-time faculty post this spring and although he will teach some courses, his work at Cupples House will be his major assignment as a member of the Jesuit order.
Meanwhile when Father McNamee isn't in the classroom, you might find him arranging an art exhibit on the ground floor where the Cupples family used to bowl, conferring with a contractor in the dining room where the Cupples' private, live-in physician doubled in brass as carver of the dinner roast, moving in a piece of furniture donated or loaned by a friend, or even taking a paintbrush in hand to touch up a wall or a ceiling.
With his love of history and his fascination with the threads that weave together past and present, he has learned almost as much about the Cupples family as his own family tree. He knows Samuel Cupples not as some legendary wraith from a forgotten age but a flesh-and-blood peddler-turned-tycoon, a self-educated, religious super salesman, "a man who ruled the roost, but he was generous and there was great affection in this house."
"Samuel Cupples was the 13th child of his farm family in Pennsylvania," he relates. "He left home at 17, without finishing high school, to go 'west' to Cincinnati, where he became an odds job employee at a woodenware company.
"He did so well that he was head of the office in a year or so. Then he heard about how St. Louis was growing, so he loaded broom handles and axe handles and other woodenware on a flatboat and started down the river, but before he got there, he had sold everything. So he went back for another load and with that, set himself up in the woodenware business.
"This house is a symbol of his success."
A devout Methodist, Cupples became a benefactor of hospitals, orphanages and schools. He established one of the city's first manual training schools and built two engineering buildings at Washington University. He also left much of his wealth to Washington U.
His was a lifestyle of grace and luxury, in keeping with his business success, Father McNamee says. Reminiscent of "Upstairs, Downstairs," the household was maintained in smooth running order by 18 servants, many of them live-in staff, and included a full-time seamstress, a butler and chauffer. Three were French.
"He had a large and handsome stable across the street, where the gym is now. Even though he had six cars, he was driven to work every day in his carriage," he notes.
At the height of Cupples' career, he had 22 warehouses and his industrial empire - later to become the seed of the Washington University endowment - was centered in historic and innovative Cupples Station, an industrial terminal near where Busch Stadium stands today.
Now, decades after his death, the Cupples name stays vigorous in St. Louis, enriching the city's bloodstream of industry, education and philanthropy. To this, thanks to "Father Mac," can be added art and architecture.
On the Cupples House Board, working to restore the home's one-time splendor, are his great-granddaughter, Mrs. L. Rumsey Ewing, a Globe-Democrat Woman of Achievement, and her sister, Mrs. Thomas McPheeters: Mrs. Curt Engler, , Mrs. Ewing's daughter, and Curt Engler, an insurance executive, who is chairman of the board.
From family archives and homes have come furnishings, photographs and an unfinished portrait of Samuel Cupples which now looks down from the library wall on his massive, custom-made desk and the worn Bible bearing his name, from which he read to his family every evening.
Here, too, are bookshelves filled with just such classics as his personal physician used to read to him in his later years.
This room has been restored with a part of a $10,000 gift from a granddaughter, by adoption, Maude Scudder Conner, now living in California. Samuel Cupples first married Amelia Kells and when she died, still a young woman, he married her sister, Martha. Their daughters, Lily and Clara, died of diphtheria in childhood.
Cupples later brought into his household a third Kells sister, who had three daughters of her own. The eldest of these, Amelia Lowman, he adopted. Amelia grew up to marry William Henry Scudder and became the mother of Maude Scudder Conner and Gladys Scudder McRee, who became the mother of Mrs. Ewing. Amelia's sisters married William Taylor and Clifton Scudder and for a time, all three of the young families lived in the Pine Street mansion.
Maude Conner remembers vividly those childhood days. With her gift have come personal memories which nourish the biography of the house, give it muscle and nerve and soul and become the pulse beat which Father McNamee covets for it.
"Sunday nights," she recalls, "Grandpie would have his friends in for dinner and we would go to the music room and sing hymns. Mother would play the piano, Grandpie and Dr. Wagers played the flute …
The walls in the dining room were covered with a beautiful tapestry with a deer (hart) running through the woods … The dining room table was huge and round and had a large Tiffany glass shade suspended from the ceiling. There was a long sideboard the length of one side of the room. How well I remember the two large serving platters.
"Twenty-two people lived in the house," Mrs. Conner continues. "Imagine the amount of bed linen used, plus table cloths, night clothes etc etc. … and uniforms for that huge household.
"Everybody knew what a kind, thoughtful, generous, spiritual, charitable man Grandpie was, and all the tramps knew where they could get a hot meal …"
Mrs. Conner's son, Rene di Rosa has given a plaque that reads, in part:
"Sadly for the casual visitor the joys, the lively music of life, the sorrows and the rewards of the family which flourished here are now silenced by time and change."
Still, even the causal visitor cannot help but be touched in some way and strangely transported back in time as he approaches the colossal relic of the late 19th century.
From the street, once a little-traveled roadway, now blocked off from nearby noisy thoroughfares, it may appear to some an austere, forbidding place, alien to the campus camaraderie which swirls around it.
To others, Cupples House seems to rise out of the ground like a graceful stone mountain, the rich purple of its Long Meadow Colorado limestone exterior barely bleeding through the soot and grime of the passing years.
Perched atop one of the city's highest spots, it looks down in lordly grandeur on the new breed of structures which surround it and the new generation of students who cross its threshold or pass its doors.
Designed by architect Thomas Annan and two years in building, it is a grandiose example of the romantic Romanesque style espoused by Henry Hobson Richardson. Its imported stones and woods and its meticulous craftsmanship endow it with a quality and breeding rare even in its affluent time.
It was once the gentle, elegant world of its own special family who knew "the lively music of life, the sorrows and the rewards," once a velvet, mannered world of servant and savoir faire, of portraits in the parlor and bowling in the basement. Green space insulated its inhabitants from the bustle of downtown and its thick walls muffled the staccato beat of horses' hooves on the pavement and the clang of the Grand Avenue streetcar a block away.
Now, without moving an inch, it has become an integral part of a throbbing academic world which its builder, who had sought pastoral quiet, neither knew or wanted. The brick and mortar of St. Louis University reached out to draw it into the scholarly circle of the mid-city campus.
And therein a touch of irony which "Father Mc" relates with a twinkle in his eye.
"Samuel Cupples has envisioned this as THE exclusive street," he says, "He liked the space and the view. He was angered when the Jesuits bought property here and built a church. He never forgave them, even put it in his will that his home should not be sold to the Jesuits."
"After his death in 1912, however, it was sold to the Brotherhood of Railroad Telegraphers who used it as a headquarters for many years. Then St. Louis U. bought it from them for $50,000, one-tenth of what it cost Samuel Cupples.
"Its (sic) ironic that the Jesuits are the ones who are now lovingly restoring his property."
Viewed from the vantage point of the late 20th century, Cupples House is an architectural anomaly and its original florid lifestyle an anachronism not easy to imagine in an age of sleekness and speed, skyrocketing costs and shrunken space.
Born into an age of opulence, it somehow survived its transition years as office building, student center ROTC headquarters - during the turbulent '60s - and Metropolitan College home, and has emerged in surprisingly good health. Now, in its sturdy maturity, it has become a prestigious, permanent gallery and cultural center, a meeting place for university and civic groups and often rented for private parties.
The house and the gallery may be viewed from 8:30 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 2 to 4 p.m. the second and fourth Sunday of each month. There is no admission charge but guests are invited to make a donation.
Large contributions, of course, are being sought constantly to supplement the already generous gifts of furnishings and the bequests which have assured authentic restoration of the house rooms. A $25,000 grant from the Cupples Co., will permit the cleaning the exterior and essential roof repairs.
Guests will not find here a sterile, stagnant recreation of the past or even an exact reproduction of the family home, although, in one room, the original white wall covering, embossed with gold, is in excellent condition and what family possessions are in the house have been replace in their original settings.
Under Father McNamee's guiding hand, Cupples House has emerged not as a carbon copy of the past but as a living, breathing, peopled place of the present, reflecting for a new generation glimpses of the one-time glory which made it a showplace even in its youthful era of flamboyant architecture.
"I want no roped-off museum," he says. "Some restored houses are dead. They smell of moth balls. Not this one. It is being used constantly for meetings and functions held in a dignified setting. That's as it should be."
Even that small portion of the house not open to the public, the still unrestored third floor, has been roped off for good reason. In 1970, when the Jesuits vacated nearby DuBourg Hall, all offices were moved there from Cupples except the art and history faculty which Father McNamee kept on the third floor in order to bring art students constantly through the building, a part of its life blood.
It is, for them, living laboratory. On the first two floors are examples of the fine period pieces, paintings and art objects, either from the family or friends, furniture actually used by Cupples or the kind of handsome pieces he might well have favored. In the impressively lighted and attractively decorated art gallery on the ground floor are some of the finest displays in the area, in a range of media and subject matter from African primitives to religious artifacts from Jesuit history.
There is also a constantly changing panorama of other exhibits, including one-man shows by prominent St. Louis artists.
Hanging on the walls are Old Masters from the St. Louis University collection and paintings left by Father Peter DeSmet, many of which might have been lost forever had it not been for Father McNamee's detective work in rescuing them from unlikely hiding places or even untimely death.
But the house itself is the real art treasure which long ago caught his eye and sent him on his latter-day culture crusade.
The size alone is mind-boggling. There are 49 rooms, 22 operative fireplaces, centrals halls on all three floors 90 by 35 feet, large enough to serve as grand ballrooms. The grand stairway ascends all the way to the third floor, with a handsome minstrels' gallery between the first and second floors from which musicians played for dinners and dances against a backdrop of stained glass.
The handsome windows were fashioned in Boston. Stone was carved by a craft artisan brought especially from England.
But, appropriately for a woodenware millionaire, the woodwork is the home's real and lasting glory.
Here is imported English oak in the library, white mahogany and red mahogany imported from Central America, rosewood, walnut, bird's eye maple. The woodwork and paneling were hand-fashioned and over the massive fireplace in the library are carved Samuel Cupples' own scholarly philosophy, in Latin, "Vita hominis sine literis more est" - the life of man without literature is dead.
Here are built-in divans, a built-in sideboard, all constructed on a scale in keeping with the heroic lines of the house, a complete set of furniture made especially for a bedroom of the same wood as the room's decor. Parquet floors form graceful patterns. In the fireplaces are elaborate examples of St. Louis iron work.
It is a rich reservoir of human history for the priest who, in the 1930s, could find no encouragement for his dream of graduate work in art history and turned, therefore, to English literature, becoming a distinguished scholar and author. He headed the English department 15 years and receive the Nancy McNeir Ring Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Still Father McNamee held to his dream and though he himself is not an artist, he successfully introduced art and art history to the St. Louis U curriculum and helped develop a flourishing academic department. On his study trips to Europe, he took many of the quarter of a million art slides on file in Cupples House.
A Sherlock Holmes in clerical garb, he has tracked all but two of the 52 arts works left by Father DeSmet. A priceless portrait of Father Ignatius Loyola, so encrusted with grime that it was unrecognizable, was rescued from a trash bin where it had remained for weeks.
He found one Van Huysen portrait rolled up and forgotten in a musty attic, and another in a scholastic's room, with a hole in the subject's head. Both now hand in the dining room of Cupples House.
It's an appropriate setting for a pair of born-again portraits, for here they look down on the lively ghosts who people the house that Samuel Cupples built, a glimpse of yesterday that couldn't die because "Father Mac" wouldn't let it.
July 23, 1979
The Reverend Thomas R. Fitzgerald , S.J.
President: St. Louis University
Dear Father Fitzgerald,
I know that you have a lot more important things to be thinking about than Cupples House; but, just for the record, I thought you might be interested in some of its history and present situation. I'm sending along copies of three article on it - one appeared in the Sunday supplement of The Globe, another in the St. Louis Commerce Magazine, and the third in Universitas. The building has been on the National Historic Register since October, 1976.
It was twice slated for demolition - once to secure a site for the law school and another time as a possible site for a Jesuit residence. On both occasions I persuaded the Campus Planning Committee not to do it. When the Jesuits moved out of the rear wing of DuBourg sufficient office space became available to vacate Cupples House and begin developing it as an Art Center. It immediately attracted wide attention in the civic community. After a summer of physical back breaking work I had it in sufficient order to present it to the public in an open-house. We expected a couple hundred visitors and had almost three thousand that first Sunday.
We have gradually restored the first and second floors. A gift of $10,000 from one of the Cupples relatives enabled us to completely restore the library. Most of the other restoration work on the interior has been financed by rental income, now amounting to around $6,000 a year. Practically all the fine period furniture in the house has been donated by interested friends. It now amounts to well over $1,000,000 in value. Gifts of Mrs. Carolyn Skelly Burford alone are evaluated at over $350,000 As you know, Mrs. Drefs left all her beautiful collection of period furniture to the house. If it ever gets free of the courts, it will magnificently furnish the third floor as a memorial to Mrs. Drefs. (And, incidentally, I'm hoping that space can be found in the front part of the old law school building or elsewhere for the offices of the Art History Department., It currently occupies 6 rooms on the third floor.)
The art work which is exhibited in the House and Pius XII Library or stored in the storeroom in Cupples House is now evaluated at over $4,00,000. All of this, except for the 50 paintings brought to the University by Father DeSmet from Belgium and all of which I saved at one time or another from destruction, has been assembled during the last fifteen years or so by Dr. Haiman and myself. We now have the best collection of contemporary lithographs and African sculpture in the city, and a very representative collection of modern painting in general. A recent book on modern art lists something like 350 important contemporary artists. We have lithographs and/or paintings by over 175 of them. The gallery which we have developed in the basement where we exhibit these items - some permanently and some in rotation - is one of the most attractive galleries in the city.
Cupples House has become a very active place for all kinds of University related and civic social events. Over 6,000 visited it last year on group tours alone.
What is its financial situation? A gift of $35,000 from the Cupples Company is enabling us to repair the roof and clean the masonry exterior and paint the exterior woodwork. As I remarked above, the interior renovation has been financed from rental income (with the exception of $10,000 from one Cupples relative and $3,000 from another). We are currently planning air- conditioning and moisture controlling the gallery, renovating the kitchen, and refinishing the parquet floors on the first floor - all to be financed by the sale of two small Marine paintings by J.E. Buttersworth and four figures from our Pre-Columbian collection. We have over a hundred items in the collection worth over a half million dollars. A gift of $55,000 from Mr. Morton D. May as an endowment for the Gallery earns about $5,000 a year which finances our art shows and minor improvements in the gallery. Mrs. Burford has agreed to finance the installation of a sprinkler system in the house for fire protection, (at a cost of some $57,000.) An electric company will probably update the electrical service in the house as a tax write-off. At this writing specific details are being worked out on that. We have a bid for the work from another company of $22,000.
The University actually owns the house and everything in it, although there is a legally incorporated foundation, the Samuel Cupples House Foundation, with its own board of Trustees which sets policy and administers it. I am at present the executive director of the house, at no salary except for the art history course I still teach. It would seem desirable to keep a Jesuit in that position. There are two other Jesuits on the board - Fathers Ed Burger and Don Cunningham. In the long pull it might work out that Terry Dempsey, a novice at present who is going into Art History and who knows the house and the art collection here very will (sic), could be groomed to take over the job of director. He is going into the history of Flemish painting and could continue the scholarly work I have begun in that area and with which St. Louis University is now associated internationally through my work. (I have published articles in the Art Bulletin, the Gazette des Beaux Arts, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, and The Journal of Iconography. There is some chance that the air-conditioning of the gallery might be financed by Mrs. Sam J. Levin who has already given over $2,000,000 worth of art to the collection. A friend of mine in Miami Beach, Mrs. Webb Jay, has remembered the house in her will, sufficient to restore one room; and she has also left here French period furniture to the house which will beautifully finish the music room. The room ought eventually have a plaque dedicating it to her. (Incidentally, she is at present also playing with the idea of leaving money in her will sufficient to set-up an endowed chair in the Theology Department to be devoted to teaching theology through art.) In the very long haul, help may come to the house through the will of Mr. Milton Mendle who is on our board. The residue of his estate at his death and that of his wife is to become a trust for his daughter, but after her death the capital comes to Cupples House. He is presently truing to persuade his daughter to change her will to make Cupples House the beneficiary of her own estate also at her death. That, some decades hence, could make Cupples House financially entirely independent of the University. We will continue to work for other funds to being (sic) that about earlier.
Meantime, it is partially dependent on the University. Utilities, janitorial service, routine maintenance, and insurance on the house are covered by the University. (There is no insurance on any of the contents. None is realistically possible until the sprinkler system is installed and the wiring has been up-dated.) Besides the above we have a yearly budget of some $13,000 which covers day to day expenses and the assistant director's salary. But that $13,000 includes the $6,000 budgeted income from rentals. So the actually budgetary cost to the university annually is $7,000. The additional cost of the items listed above comes to around $25,000. But the University used the building throughout the year for numerous social functions and everyone admits that it it (sic) one of the best public relation image makers on campus. It brings countless individuals to the campus from the local community and increasingly from all over the country through the convention center who would have no other contact with the University. So from the public relations viewpoint alone the money contributed by the University to Cupples House seems to me well spent. The art collection and shows presented in the gallery, of course, also provide a very important asset to the Art Studio and Art History Program.
This gives you some general impression of our operation. When we have the place settled back after the summer restoration work I would like to give you a personal grand tour so you can get a first hand experience of what has been done and what remains to be done.
Very sincerely yours,
M. B. McNamee, S.J.,