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Clemens mansion may find new life as museum, says developer McKee

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2009 - When developer Paul McKee would meet with Chinese business executives as part of one of his major local initiatives -- a major hub for trade with China -- the first thing they often brought up was one of Missouri's most famous sons: Mark Twain.

"I couldn't figure it out," McKee said, "so I finally asked someone I know, and he said that many people in China learn English by reading Mark Twain novels."

Hence, it's no surprise that a central focus of what is McKee's largest project -- a massive redevelopment of north St. Louis -- should be the 151-year-old mansion built by Twain's relative, James Clemens Jr.

McKee and other area leaders have talked about turning it into a museum, a community meeting place or some other type of site that could return the property to its former glory.

The Clemens mansion, at 1849 Cass Avenue, is frequently cited as an example of how McKee has let many of the properties he has bought in north St. Louis get run down from lack of attention. It sits on a large, weed-infested lot right in the middle of new residential construction.

It was included on this year's list of the area's most endangered properties put together by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Built in 1858, it was the scene of parties that reportedly included the governor of Missouri as a guest -- and maybe the owner's relative, writer Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, though no one seems to know that for sure. In 1885, it was sold to the Sisters of St. Joseph, who added a chapel directly to the east 11 years later.

Over the past 60 years, it has been used by various social service agencies, but the property has been vacant, boarded up and abandoned for several years. McKee says he bought it about four years ago as one of the first parcels he acquired in the area. Two buyers were interested in the property, he said, but both deals fell through.

McKee said he aimed to preserve the property and had much of the ornamental iron work removed and stored. Meanwhile, the roof of the chapel collapsed a year ago. A large weed grows out of the roof of the main building, graffiti decorates a wall at the rear entrance and the lot stands out like an overgrown eyesore in the middle of a neighborhood that has already seen its share of reconstruction and rebirth.

"That house needs to be saved if we can," McKee said recently after a presentation for his large-scale redevelopment project in north St. Louis. "But we can't save it overnight."

Saving the building is one thing. What it would become is another question -- one that may be answered by the impression of McKee's Chinese contacts who seemed to think that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sprang to fictional life right around the corner.

McKee has discussed the redevelopment concept with Robert Archibald of the Missouri History Museum, Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden, David Fisher of the Great Rivers Greenway and others. He sees it as a place to showcase the sustainability concept that he says is central to his north St. Louis complex, with gardens, a walking path and a place for those in the neighborhood to gather.

He also envisions a possible way to pay for it: federal stimulus funds. What he needs to do, McKee said, is get the physical dimensions of the building, then put the project together. It's very early in the planning stages, he said this week, but it's also a "very high priority."

"The trick is to get it put together as quick as possible so we can know what it would cost to do all that," McKee added.

"The reason I think that something should happen sooner rather than later is that the neighborhood around there is very stable. I think it could be a place for people to meet people. Economic diversity and intersections are very, very important to the project."

Archibald, who said he has visited the property a couple of times, is attracted by its history, not only with the Clemens family but as a convent. He notes that though the chapel may be beyond repair, the original house, which features busts of a female figure along the cornice, appears to be salvageable.

He noted that it is the only building remaining in the area that has the scale and the land available to serve the purpose that McKee envisions.

"It's a gorgeous house on a gorgeous lot," he said, "sitting where you don't find anything like it."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.