An enduring landmark in Saint Louis’s historical Benton Park neighborhood, the genteel Chatillon-DeMenil mansion pays graceful homage to the French heritage of the two families who built it and celebrates the elegant splendor of the Victorian era in which they lived.
Graced with a stately portico and fluted ionic columns, the majestic façade of the Chatillon-DeMenil house evokes a bygone chapter in Saint Louis’s past, when horse-drawn buggies made their way down dirt roads and opulent residences dotted the home’s fashionable neighborhood. The magnificent brick mansion, built on a pastoral hill overlooking the Mississippi River, often served as a guidepost to nineteenth-century riverboat pilots, signifying a tricky bend in their path.
The home’s refined Greek Revival exterior belies its modest beginnings as a simple four-room farmhouse built in 1849 by Henri Chatillon, a Saint Louis native with a French heritage. A guide and hunter for the American Fur Company, Henri was heralded as a “gentleman pioneer” who possessed the enterprising spirit of a true explorer. His first wife, Bear Robe, was the daughter of a prominent Oglala Sioux chief, and his familiarity with the tribe’s culture and dialects made him a sought-after guide for forays into the unexplored West.
Henri is most celebrated for leading an 1846 western expedition for Francis Parkman, an East Coast historian who penned the best-selling book The Oregon Trail, which chronicles their journey. Bear Robe died while her husband was traveling with Parkman. The bereaved Henri eventually returned to Saint Louis, where he married wealthy widow Odile Delor Lux. There, the couple built their modest farmhouse on 5 acres of land Odile had purchased prior to their marriage.
The house didn’t assume its signature flair until 1863—seven years after the Chatillons sold it to Dr. Nicolas DeMenil, a French-born physician with a legacy of nobility and the co-owner of Saint Louis’s first drugstore chain. Until that time, Nicolas and his wife, Emilie Chouteau—a descendant of the city’s founding family—had used the home only as a summer retreat.
When the Chatillons decided to make it their year-round residence, they hired English architect Henry Pitcher to build an expansive addition that transformed the four-room dwelling into an imposing Greek Revival mansion while maintaining its original footprint.
Seeking more spacious formal rooms for the elaborate entertaining expected of an upper-middle-class Victorian family, Nicolas and Emilie added a grand double formal parlor and a slightly less ornate drawing room on the main level. Richly appointed with two marble mantels and a trio of exquisite Rococo Revival seating pieces, the parlor set an elegant stage for entertaining. Across the hall, the drawing room enchanted with a trompe l’oeil faux-painted decorative finish near the ceiling, designed to resemble crown moulding—a striking feature that remains in the house today.
Emilie and Nicolas lived in their beloved home until their deaths, and their descendants remained there until 1945. By then, the neighborhood had lost its cachet as it became industrialized, and the DeMenil family moved to a more affluent address in the city. But thanks to the efforts of area preservationists in 1965, the home is once again replete with the grandeur of the Victorian era in which the DeMenils flourished. Most of its furnishings date from 1820 to 1880, and several, such as the ceiling medallions, the marble mantels, and the foyer’s parquet floor crafted of five hardwoods, are original to the house. Carefully selected reproduction wallpaper, rugs, and draperies complement the period décor.
To learn more about Chatillon-DeMenil, see “French Connection,” on page 32 of the January/February 2012 issue of Victoria magazine