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'This is a jewel': Renderings show what's next for St. Louis' Old Courthouse

The Gateway Arch National Park superintendent believes this is the only second major renovation since the building was constructed.

ST. LOUIS — Protecting and preserving the Old Courthouse is already underway.

Thursday morning, crews put barriers and fences around the monumental space in downtown St. Louis. 

"This is a jewel and a showpiece in our city," Lynne Jackson said. 

Jackson knows how important this establishment is.

She is the great-great-granddaughter of Harriet and Dred Scott.

She's also the President and Founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, which is meant to commemorate, educate and reconcile.

"Dred and Harriet walked up those steps on April 6, 1846, to begin an 11-year journey where they lost their case in courts to get their freedom," she noted. 

But this decision moved the nation a step closer to the Civil War and, ultimately, the freedom of enslaved people.

Some of the most pivotal court cases in United States history were heard inside its courtrooms.

Besides Dred and Harriet Scott's fight, Virginia Minor fought for her right to vote as a woman, and more than 300 enslaved African-Americans filed suit for their freedom.

Jackson has been behind a big push to honor the past and she welcomes a courthouse renovation.

The renovations are the final component of a $380 million CityArchRiver project.

Jeremy Sweat is the Superintendent of Gateway Arch National Park and said nearly $30 million will bring much-needed upgrades inside the Old Courthouse.

$6 million were brought forward from the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, which is the park's official philanthropic fundraising partner. 

$3 million will go to construction and the other $3 million will go to new exhibits.

"The Old Courthouse is part of the Gateway Arch National Park," Sweat explained. "Back in 1935 when this land was set aside as a national park, the Old Courthouse was the first thing included in the park."

Renovations will include:

  • Installation of an elevator for greater accessibility
  • New heating ventilation
  • Air conditioning system
  • New fire suppression system
  • General restoration and improvements

Improvements also include new and updated exhibit galleries:

  • Northeast Gallery: Dred and Harriet Scott – Focuses on the family’s fight for freedom, which began in the Old Courthouse, and how the legal and political environment at the time culminated in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court Decision. The exhibit gallery also reflects on the legacy and relevancy of their case today.
  • Northwest Gallery: Pathways to Freedom – Explores African American life in St. Louis: slavery, the tortured legacy of enslaved individuals seeking freedom, post-Civil War civil rights and more.
  • Southeast Gallery: Designed for Justice – Highlights the architectural features of the courthouse and the spirit of innovation of architects, designers, builders and craftsmen.
  • Southwest Gallery: See You in Court – Focuses on the importance of courts in our society, our legal structure, and the daily activities in the courthouse from 1839 to 1930. Visitors will be able to experience an 1850s courtroom and re-enact mock trials that will further their understanding of how our court system allows us to settle disputes peacefully and provide a framework for how our society functions.

"The renovations are going to highlight what we learned since the Dred Scott decision and bring those stories back to life," Jackson pointed out. 

Jackson remembers going to the Old Courthouse as a little girl. 

"There was only one portrait of Dred on the second floor. Then later on, there were a couple of panels, but never a story, until it was the 150th anniversary. That anniversary took the two galleries in the main floor and turned it into Dred Scott galleries in 2006-2007. It then went back to one gallery. Now he’ll have his own gallery and all of the story can be told and shown," Jackson said. 

Sweat said this is the only second major renovation since the building was constructed. He believes the last renovation was in the middle of the 20th century.

"Probably what I'm most excited about are the accessibility improvements, so for the first time we are going to have folks of all availability levels make it to the second floor," he shared. 

Jackson is eager for these improvements, so it can create change inside and out.

"I am hoping they'll walk away with the understanding that one or two people together can make a difference. We are here to bring a light to another way," Jackson said.

Sweat expects renovations should be wrapped up in two years.

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