Searching for local Jewish history in new ‘1875 St. Louis’ exhibit

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The Missouri History Museum’s exhibit, “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis,” provides a virtual replica of every building in the city of that year, and offers a “Where’s Waldo?” challenge to find the hidden gems of local Jewish history in this remarkable 6,000-square foot diorama.

If viewers are armed with a list of Jewish institutional addresses as of 1875, they can find incredibly accurate line drawings of such locations. Among these: the then-synagogue of Congregation Shaare Emeth at 17th and Pine streets, in all of its rococo splendor. That impressive building served as Shaare Emeth’s home from 1869-1897.

It is surprising to realize that such a true “virtual” replica of an entire major American city could have been started way back in 1874 and completed a year later. Long before computers and holographic photography, St. Louis draftsman Camille N. Dry took on the daunting challenge of replicating with accurate line drawings every single building in the city of St. Louis at the time — not only buildings like City Hall and the Old Courthouse, but churches, synagogues and temples, private residences, even outhouses. The final maps were published in book form in 1876 by Richard Compton, a sheet music publisher. They charged $25 per copy, equal to about $500 in today’s dollars.

As a business venture, the maps were a flop. Very few sold and the venture lost a considerable sum of money. 

Fortunately, the map inventory has been preserved over the years, and the Missouri History Museum has done a fine job mounting them in its galleries. Allow yourself considerable time when you visit the exhibit, which continues through Feb. 14. You can do a “two-fer” of exhibits since the powerful exhibit on Nazi propaganda is also appearing at the facility through Sept. 7.

In perusing the Great Walk exhibit, it’s easy to see some of the root causes for the regrettable divide between St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which was approved in a contested election in 1875 and went into effect the following year. What we now call the Old Courthouse was originally the St. Louis County Courthouse. The tremendous cost over-runs for the domed structure made city residents feel they were paying double taxes to support a free-spending county from which they derived no benefit.

While there are no specific Jewish sites or personalities singled out in the exhibit, one can find buildings that had been serving the Jewish community of 1875, when there were about 10,000 Jews living in a city of 320,000. 

In addition to the Shaare Emeth synagogue building, which is No. 26 on one of the geographic panels of the exhibit, the original B’nai El, a unique octagonal structure, was still standing. The B’nai El synagogue, built in 1855, was the first permanent building in St. Louis history. The Shaare Emeth building served that congregation from 1869-1906. B’nai El in 1875 replaced its original building, at Sixth and Cerre streets, with a new one at 11th Street and Chouteau Avenue; it served until 1906. The panels of maps are divided by neighborhood in the exhibit, and there are computerized versions with which one can surf to find such architectural gems. 

Andrew Wanko, public historian for the Missouri History Museum and content lead for the exhibit, is impressed with the fact that the forward-looking and brutally honest team of Dry and Compton wanted to show the city, “warts and all.” In addition to the stately mansions of the wealthy, there are also humble homes of the financially distressed and the truly wretched slums of the desperately poor. Dry even included accurate drawings of the outhouses, called “temples of indecency,” which served the community at the time, and the various soap factories and slaughter-houses that produced the overpoweringly pungent smells in those neighborhoods.

The struggle in those days between expansive visionaries and pessimistic naysayers is also evident.Originally, the western city limit was at Grand Avenue. It was extended to include Forest Park, a decision that was opposed by those who doubted many people would move that far west and others who wanted to divide up the park land into broad streets similar to Lindell Boulevard.  Fortunately, the optimists won that argument.

Among the prominent Jewish leaders in St. Louis back in 1875 was the colorful and controversial Rabbi Solomon Sonneschein, first rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, who served from 1869 to 1886.   Sonneschein was fired by Shaare Emeth in 1886, only to become the founding rabbi of Temple Israel. 

Rabbi Moritz Spitz was serving as rabbi of Congregation B’nai El, and United Hebrew Congregation was in the process of fully transitioning from its Orthodox origins in 1837 into a Reform temple.  Rabbi Henry J. Messing, in the late 1870s, persuaded UH leaders to join the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 

One of the prominent members of the Jewish community in 1875 was a young attorney named Nathan Frank, who attended Washington University and earned a law degree at Harvard. Then he later entered local Republican politics and became the first – and thus far only – Jewish member of the U.S. Congress representing the St. Louis congressional district in the House of Representatives.  Frank was active in both the Jewish and general communities of St. Louis, and a generous philanthropist.  A gazebo-shaped grandstand in his honor is in the moat near the Muny in Forest Park.

A Walk in the Past: 

St. Louis in 1875

WHERE:  Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, Lindell Boulevard at DeBaliviere

WHEN:  Through Feb. 14

HOURS:  10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays 


MORE INFO:  314-746-4599 or