Major Fire at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louis

- by Michael Stillman

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Flames rise from the Karpelis Manuscript Museum in St. Louis.

A major fire struck the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louis on the night of March 26. It both was and was not devastating. There was extensive damage to the building, with flames shooting high into the night air from the roof and second story windows. It took firefighters a couple of hours to put it out. Originally built in 1907 as a Christian Science Church, the structure has housed the Karpeles manuscript collection since 2015. It also housed the collection of the St. Louis Media History Foundation. The latter specializes in historic newspapers, photographs, and other documents pertaining to St. Louis' print, radio, and television history.

 

Whether the building can or should be saved is not yet clear. The roof caved in and damage was extensive to the second floor and back of the building. However, it is a solid, steel reinforced structure, and the front was not seriously damaged.

 

Now for the good news - the material inside escaped unscathed. Between firefighters and museum associates, it was all taken out of the building before the fire or water from the hoses reached it. The historic material from both organizations was saved. In the case of the Karpeles collection, that includes both St. Louis items, such as documents pertaining to Charles Lindbergh's famous flight in 1927, to others national or international in scope. It was taken to private homes for safekeeping until such time as a permanent home is prepared for it.

 

For many readers, the next question will be, what is the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum? This is even more interesting than the fire. The Karpeles Museum is actually comprised of numerous locations in unexpected places, which explains its relative obscurity. This story goes back to 1983, when it was founded by David and Marsha Karpeles.

 

David Karpeles is a mathematician who has held both university and private industry positions. However, the Karpeles also have been successful real estate investors, which provided the funds needed to develop a major manuscript collection. The collection began after a visit to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, with two of their children. They were fascinated by the original documents they saw, not just copies, but those created by the hands of great people years ago. They began collecting manuscripts, and as they filled more spaces in their home, looked for a location where they could be shared with others. That led to the opening of the first Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Santa Barbara in 1983.

 

There are a few surprising things about the Karpeles Museum. One is that admission is free. The Karpeles were particularly interested in making the manuscripts accessible to children. The cost of admission is such that even a child can afford a visit. Another is that it is held in numerous locations around the country. There are 14 buildings in 12 cities that house parts of the collection. Each has some documents of local interest, while others are rotated around the locations, enabling residents of each city to see major pieces in the collection at various times.

 

Here is one more surprising thing - the museums are not located in major cities like New York or Los Angeles. St. Louis is the largest city with a Karpeles Museum. The others are Buffalo, Charleston, Duluth, Jacksonville, Santa Barbara, Tacoma, Shreveport, Fort Wayne, Rock Island, Illinois, Newburgh, New York, and Alvin, Texas. The explanation is that they once opened a museum in New York City. Hardly anyone came. There is no shortage of museums filled with wonderful things in New York. However, when they took the exhibition to Jacksonville, the place was flooded with visitors. They were reaching people without access to such material as is available in New York.

 

Along with the historic collections, the Karpeles chose to do one more act of preservation. They placed their museums in historic buildings. That is how the St. Louis museum ended up in a century-old church. They are often in historic neighborhoods as well, part of the reason why they can be somewhat obscure even to locals. They may not be where you would expect to find a museum.

 

The Karpeles collection began with the purchase of a draft of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Other manuscripts now in the collection include a proposed draft of the Bill of Rights, a declaration of allegiance from various American Indian tribes, the Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington, and the Confederate States Constitution. It is not limited to such American historical documents. There are manuscripts from musicians such as Beethoven and Mozart, scientists including Einstein and Darwin, religious figures including Calvin and Luther, even Peter Roget's original thesaurus. It now numbers over one million items. We are not aware of a private manuscript collection quite like this, other than the Aristophil collection in France. However, that one was built as a financial investment, and as a Ponzi scheme at that. When the scheme collapsed, it became necessary to sell the collection. That sale is currently underway and will continue for several more years. One imagines the Karpeles will be keeping close tabs on those sales to see what comes up.