The official story of the The View from 2323
This piece was written back in 2016, in the months before the Strange Folk Festival.
In 1882 (or 1901), the architect Wilhelm Otto built a house at 2323 Lafayette. Romanesque Revival was the style. It contained a grand ballroom, a fleur-de-lis entry way and amenities of the grandest scale. This three story eight thousand square feet single family house containing at least 24 rooms.
The first hero is a literal one, the original owner and builder of the house was Conrad Fink, a German born seeker of freedom. At the outbreak of the Civil war this Lincoln loving Steam boat Captain aged 43 is given full rank despite his lack of American service. His Oath of Loyalty sits in a folder at the History Annex. Transporting goods and troops, his ships were the backbone of the war effort and he also laid claim of the first Union Flag to sail into Memphis. After the War commercial success of boats gave way to a quieter life of real estate and money loans. The St Louis Lutheran German Evangelical Synod Community was built on his ink.
Conrad Fink’s pride and joy was his children including Caroline, a beautiful daughter who married a young upstart at the firm. Augusta Nasse was a Junior of a famous local Doctor. This large family was living together in the 1880 census and clearly needed more space, so for 19,000 dollars Conrad took several lots on Lafayette Ave. The ideal location was perfect for the New Money type with Trinity Lutheran down the block in Soulard and Conrad within eye sight of his beloved Union Club, his social circle after the War.
A map from 1835 shows a house of french design, its history remains a void and so the House was rebuilt. Imagine the pristine park, the French socials, and the ballroom filled with spinning youth. St Louis Elite rubbing shoulders in the most popular neighborhood west of the Mississippi. I can imagine young Augusta scheming late into the night with his younger brother-in-law William G to borrow money so they could create a wholesale grocery business and find financial independence. With that loan, Fink, Nasse, Gildehaus worked to dominate the field of grocery foods. Henry Gildehaus was added to round out a powerful team of German influence. Henry was a junior as well, his father president of the Whole sale grocery association. When the firm fought a unpopular sugar tax, father and son probably met across an oak table and silently battled an ancient paternal one.
Conrad well on in years sat back as the boys made him money. In 1894 all was well, and the house was filled with life. Caroline had several fine boys to become the sons in Nasse and Sons. The retired Finks enjoyed the final of Lafayette Square’s original glory days. Augusta with his emotional father figure was at the height of his success. He credits his wife for all of it. Caroline would lose both her mother and father in 1895. Conrad’s funeral was attended by the who’s who of St Louis. Yet the pendulum swing of fate was unfinished. A fire ripped through the warehouse district eliminating stock and products. The FDA found Nasse and Sons guilty of having too much bacteria in their Ketchup.
The next summer the great 1896 cyclone would destroy their home and with it most Lafayette Square. Augusta lost a lot that day, yet his survival sense was strong and the firm and house would be rebuilt. A the turn of the century Caroline began to lose children. Two grown sons, a young daughter and the final one took her life as well. By 1909 Augusta was alone. His niece Mathilda would move her family into the large house. William G, a fierce man who’ independent spirit is painted over local papers would die leaving Henry Gildehaus to be sole owner after Augusta left this world. The Stock market crash would take the rest and leaving a note quoting Macbeth, Henry died in the fumes in his car garage claiming the world didn’t need him. Mathilda fought for the house and sold it.
A new Chapter of 2323 began in 1923. Edward J Seib was a coffee wholesaler and a good Lutheran himself. His older brother George, was a baker. The connection between the Nasse firm is unproven but likely. Edward bought the place for a song. It’s neglected walls needed love and this hard working family was just what it needed. The original Victorian decor was to remain. The history was honored and the garden improved. George and Edward brought big families filling the expansive halls and for 10 years it worked. George’s wife Carrie was the heart and soul of the house, her childhood dreams fulfilled. Years of food service and English learned from the German community, this intelligent German born woman was living the American dream.
The Seib children, George and Edna both graduated McKinley High and moved on to higher education, a choice their mother never had. By 1928 ….still living at home, George a medical student would be grandfathered into the Washington University Medical school department of Anthropology and Physiology as an Associate Professor. Edna, a Artist would later turn the grand ballroom into a studio, her work is missing but apparently award winning. Edna married and moved away, George never did, becoming a famous local house doctor in 1946.
Edward would move on with his family leaving the house to George at a time when Lafayette Square was losing population. Something else might have prompted the dividing line and it began shortly after they moved into the new house. Carrie Seib began to channel poetry nightly. She describes prophecy of dreams at a young age, but dis-incarnate entities giving her information from a trance like poetry session….was another story.
Pearl Curran, a local Del Mar area house wife made channeling famous around the world 10 years earlier by writing award winning poetry and short stories from a quija board. Carrie, a prototypical feminist with her independent artist daughter would no doubt have seen Pearl in one of her many performances locally. Carrie spoke and wrote the voices in her head down. She wrote most nights producing in 30 years, 3 volumes of poetry post posthumously published after her death by her family.
George, being a dedicated mama’s boy and medical doctor in training would have had his world shaken by such a prospect midway through a college degree. His interest in anthropology developed into an unusual 10 year career path. It would take him to Alaska in 1934 to dig into the side of beach looking for proof of “elongated headed” Indians. It was Aleš Hrdlička who theorized the path of America’s ancestors moved over the Bering Strait. Along with Robert Heizer and a party of 5, George would survive the elements to prove the unpopular theories of the Smithsonians original curator. It was during this busy time in George’s life that Carrie began the next phase of her spiritual journey, she started a church.
It began as early as 1933 called the Lafayette Center. By 1939 it shifted to the Independent Church of Truth advertised in the St Louis Dispatch for Sundays and Wednesdays at 8 pm under the Spiritualist banner. In the large living room the children would play the same introduction song on piano and violin. Carrie would enter and give a speech. She spoke of the Power of the Spirit, Perfecting the self and higher callings. Then after some singing and a longer musical interlude Mrs. Seib would quiet the room and she began to speak the future directly to the members of her congregation. She would tell the little ones they would do well in school, tell women of upcoming journeys and tell the men how to watch their backs.
In the late 1950’s these services were recorded by George on Reel to Reel tapes. If he was being a anthropologist or a dutiful son I do not know. For years after her death, George and Edna translated their mother’s poems and reached out to those old Lutheran roots to have them published in Argentina via a dying publishing house called Eden Publishing an offshoot of the Eden Seminary School in Webster. Perhaps the English translations still exist. George was not done, with 5000 copies apiece he sent the poems to every College and library he could find that would accept it, labeling the book “spirit writing”. If George ever wrestled with the idea of his Mother channeling poetry he was sealed a believer when his Alma mater Washington University Olin Library accepted those books where they sit in the basement to this day.
George would work at Lutheran Medical Hospital, sign papers at McLaughlin Funeral home next door, make house calls to his neighbor, the Mayor and the people of Lafayette Square. His real passion seemed to be for the garden, creating one of the largest in the area. Edna who shared that dream returned to the house with her children, who would grow up playing music for the services. Then one of those children Jeanette would grow up and return bringing two small children herself to live in the house until 2015. I believe it was her space being renovated by new owners that threw out the entire history of their house. It was as if George himself who died in 92 was not through telling the world of the works of his remarkable mother. This exhibit is only part an artistic expression of identity and a forgotten history but is a form of exorcism. It’s ok, George. She will not be forgotten.
The View from 2323 is not just one house. It’s all of them. The interwoven histories of St Louis. In every part of this city are the ghosts of the past striving to not be forgotten. The families and lives that all of this is built on. We can’t possibly give a voice to every soul that comes speaking out of lost items, online databases and wooden floorboards. Yet some deserve to be remembered if only for what they brought into our lives. Conrad, Augusta, Carrie, George, Edna and somewhere out there is Jeanette. The People of 2323. I honor them.
The View from 2323