James Clemens House
Saint Louis, MO

Twain’s Unlikely Chapel

I wanted to follow the cat through the dripping ruins of the church…

…where the wood and plaster and iron stubbornly refused to dissolve. The shabby tabby darted between the broken chairs and leapt over holes dotting the floor, finally disappearing though the doorway under the choir loft.

Having already pushed one good leg through the rotten wood in the mansion behind the homeless kitty and myself, I opted instead to turn, at least for now, back toward the close darkness of the greed-stripped chapel. Across the alter, somewhere below the floating Grail, my mind posited the imaginary graffiti: “Twain wuz here,” in shades of deep purple and fire engine red.

From the roof of the Clemens House, looking toward downtown St. Louis.
From the roof of the Clemens House, looking toward downtown St. Louis.

Twain, Mark Twain

It’s absolutely true that Missouri has Twain fever—a symptom of the Clemens family roots so long planted in the region.

In St. Louis, the strongest Clemens connection was James Clemens Junior, who had a house built for himself there in 1858, designed by a well-known local architect, Patrick Walsh.

It was between then and James’ death in 1878 that some conjecture that Mark Twain, James’ nephew, used the house as a place to relax between his river-boating years. “Twain” wasn’t the only notable figure associated with the mansion, either. James was very affluent in the area, the governor was known to attend his patio parties, and I’m not talking about a backyard grill-out.Sisters’ Chapel - (C)SUBSTREET

Sisters are Good Neighbors

A few years after James left this world and his famous nephew moved on, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet bought the house and property. Soon after acquiring the building, the Sisters built themselves a dormitory, the first of their expansions on the historic property.

Adjacent to the mansion they had a chapel constructed in 1896—in an odd instance of multi-abandonmental-synchronism, the designer for this chapel also designed the original St. Mary’s Infirmary, another beautiful lost St. Louis location (that is also on this site). Little else unites the two buildings besides their religious theme and extensive use of plaster, but it’s an interesting connection nonetheless.

Breaking the Habit (Pun Intended)

Outpouring Plaster - (C)SUBSTREETThe Sisters of St. Joseph left the house, dorms and chapel in 1979 and, in their place, various social service organizations began using the space, including a homeless shelter. By 2000, the building was abandoned and in disrepair—it was this state that I found the chapel in—not even the feral cat wanted to be there.

I couldn’t blame it, considering the rain and ruin…

Architecture Takes a Knee - (C)SUBSTREETLike so many other abandoned and historic buildings I’ve come to know and appreciate over the years, I expected it to only collapse more, until finally an emergency demolition order would raze the whole estate. This, thankfully, is not what is going to happen to the Clemens House.

In Fall 2010 it was announced that the house and chapel would be preserved and rehabilitated into a senior living space and museum, but these plans were soon derailed because of inadequate sources of funding. Most buildings this age take a small fortune to successfully renovate.

The Clemens House is a place that has kept giving back to the community it serves, and it will keep doing so, if given the chance, for many more years.