Trip Date: 2018-Jan-06 * Scouting Mission: 2017-Jan-07 & 2016-Jan-08

 

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The Old Courthouse, located in downtown Saint Louis, is a magnificent building, and an important touchstone in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.  You can tell what a society values by looking at their buildings — once inside, the Old Courthouse feels like a temple to the Rule of Law.  The arc of justice is long.

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A wonderful time for locals to visit is on January 6th, which is Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  On this day, the Old Courthouse comes alive with music and dancing from 1768, as period actors in military dress throw a party for the public, complete with music, dancing and a ceremony involving the “King’s Cake”.

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The event is called the “Twelfth Afternoon Ball“,  and it comes with ladies in long dresses serving pralines, little cookies and hot cider to visitors.  The public is invited to join in the dancing, which is fun and easy to learn. The whole thing is free.

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Street parking is easy in winter, and you get two hours at the meter.  The Metro stops at 8th & Pine, a brisk four block walk to the Old Courthouse.  As you approach, look for the International Fur Exchange building on your right, (now a Drury Hotel), which stands as a tangible reminder of the enormous wealth generated by beaver pelts, and the french fur traders who procured them.  Take a moment to admire the dome, which was modeled after the Capitol Dome in Washington D.C., as well as the Vatican.

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Once inside, stand next to the warm radiators to shake off the cold, and look left at the underground railroad map, then take a moment to explore the Dred Scott exhibit. Watch the short history channel movie as you wish. Use the restrooms as necessary.

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The music and dancing will beckon to you from the center hall, and fancy ladies in long gowns will serve you cider and cookies.  Enjoy the music from your seats while the more courageous members of your party join in the fun and easy dancing.

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Because of the Dred Scott decision, the Old Courthouse is a National Park, and like Yellowstone Park or Yosemite — where most people don’t go more than one mile from the road — most people don’t think to climb up into the rotunda of the Old Courthouse.  This is your adventure.

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National Park

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When you’re ready to climb, explore the side halls until you find the cast iron stairs, which are beautifully crafted and highly unusual.  As you climb each flight, hunt around for the next flight of stairs, until you’ve climbed as high as you can go.

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On your way up, peek inside the historic courthouse rooms, preserved in all their classical revival splendor, and if no other visitors are around, say something, like “hello”,  to experience the amazing acoustics. Maybe you could shout something like “Let Freedom Ring!”, “Once free, always free!” or, “From the Darkness Cometh the Light!”. Imagine the enormous expense, and admire the incredible craftsmanship, and know such a building would not likely be built today.

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Make note of the Greek columns which ascend in architectural order from Doric to Ionic to Corinthian, as you ascend each level.  Some of the columns are load bearing, (made of cast iron), and some are decorative, (made from wood). Knock on the columns to see if you can tell which are made from iron, and which are made of wood.

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The rotunda was designed to carry voices to as many people as possible without amplification, so your climbing adventure will be accompanied by the merry sounds of music and dancing below.  It’s fun to peer down on the tiny dancers, while ascending the upper balconies above. You’re standing inside an old fashioned amplifier!

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When you get to the top, you will be standing beneath the skylight, known as the “eye”, which brings sunlight down from on high.  The very top structure is called a “cupola”, which means “upside-down cup” in Italian.  There are two ways up to the third balcony, which is as high as you are allowed to go;  visitors are not allowed on the fourth balcony.

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See if you can identify the four allegorical paintings by Wimar, representing the British-Indian attack, the discovery of the Mississippi Rive by deSoto, the founding of Saint Louis, and the transcontinental railroad through the Rocky Mountains.  Also see if you can identify the allegorical figures on four walls representing law, liberty, justice and commerce.

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Make your way back downstairs and out onto the East Steps, overlooking the Arch and facing the Mississippi River.  It is here that slaves were auctioned off, as well as the Eads Bridge (to your left) and the St. Louis Post Dispatch (to Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer).  This is a great spot for a family photo.

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The Dred and Harriet Scott sculpture is to your right. Dred Scott finally achieved his freedom a year before he died. Visit the gift shop on the way out, and check out the children’s books on Lewis and Clark, as well as the excellent selection of children’s books on African American History.  Buy or bring your National Parks Passport, so it can be stamped.

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Use the Restrooms before leaving, and look for the turtle motif on the wrought iron fence facing west, an homage to a quirky custodian who once kept a real turtle in the Courthouse fountain, and complained that the turtle was the only thing in the courthouse that didn’t cause the tax papers money.

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Epiphany at the Old Courthouse in Saint Louis is an excellent adventure for families of all ages; toddlers will get lots of exercise on the stairs, kids will love scampering about the balconies, and teens will enjoy the magnificent building and authentic military weaponry.  It’s a refreshing, short and sweet adventure for the whole family, with a little bit of exercise.

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Finding the event on your computer can be a challenge.  Start with Gateway Arch events; and if all else fails, search Facebook for the  Twelfth Afternoon Ball. The event is hosted on the Saturday nearest Epiphany.  If you miss Epiphany, similar events are held throughout the year, including the President’s Ball on President’s Day.  If you can’t make one of the re-enactment dates, go on MLK Day in January, which hosts the second largest annual civil rights gathering in the nation.

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Here’s your GPS location: 11 N. 4th Street; Saint Louis; 63102. Watch for this information to be uploaded into a collection of adventure maps for sale on Amazon, soon.

 

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