Mini-Flood 46: Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum


photo by Dan Henrichs

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum system is a very interesting model designed to best promote a very unique collection. Founded in 1983 by a California real estate duo, the Library is now housed in twelve historic buildings throughout the country (to make the collection more accessible to a wider population). Important manuscripts contained include the Bill of Rights, Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity”, Gutenberg’s printing of the Ten Commandments, and more.


photo by Isaac Richardson


photo by James Palmour


photo by Dan Henrichs


photo by Ann Aurbach


photo by Jason Gray

Generally, I try to write these from a group/3rd person perspective, since I am summarizing the experiences of our more than 340 members.  However, I am going to start this article with a bit of a personal confession: I love sifting through historical documents and manuscripts!

The research and writing phase for the articles that you read on this site lasts anywhere from a few hours to several days, but draws on years of previous study.  On occasion, the most wonderful thing occurs during this process- I stumble upon a manuscript, or other first-person account, that leads me down a rabbit-hole of unmitigated curiosity fulfillment.  Sometimes, these roads lead nowhere, but almost equally as often, they offer passage to a place previously obscured.  Adventure begets adventure.  The more you think you know a place, the less you really do.  These are the things that make studying history so much fun, and are the same motivations that put our photographers’ feet on the ground, somewhere new each month, to learn about the people, places and things that make this city along the Big Muddy so special.

Along comes the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum to St. Louis in 2015, and I knew that PFSTL had to check it out.


photo by Sue Rakers


photo by Dan Henrichs


photo by Jeni Kulka


photo by Sharon Keeler

The Compton Heights building that is home to Karpeles in STL dates from 1911, and was built for the Church of Christ.  For the next 70 or so years, this Christian Scientist group operated out of the magnificent Beaux Arts structure (of the 13 Karpeles Museums across the country, at least two others are located in former Christian Scientist buildings, those in Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota).  Afterward, the building was purchased by the New Paradise Baptist group, who occupied it for the next 30 years.  In the basement, they added a baptistery that still exists.  Below is a video of that congregation performing in the worship space from 2014, shortly before it was vacated.  The Museum plans to convert much of the former church area into meeting and performance spaces for area non-profits and cultural groups.


photo by Dan Henrichs


photo by Isaac Richardson


photo by Jason Gray

The history of the Karpeles Collection is a bit less succinct.  Born in Santa Barbara in 1936, David Karpeles’ family moved to Duluth, Minnesota a few years later.  A precocious intellect, Karpeles excelled in math, which he later majored in (along with physics) at University.  In 1963, he moved back to Santa Barbara as a researcher for General Electric.  There, he also began a successful real estate investment business, and completed his PhD.  While at GE, Karpeles developed the first computer program to recognize numerical symbols through optical detection, which was utilized by banks in check processing.

David Karpeles began collecting manuscripts in 1978 after a family visit to the Huntington Library where his children were enthralled by original documents written by former U.S. Presidents.  His first purchase was an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln.  Today, Dr. Karpeles’ manuscript collection is considered the largest private collection in the world of this type, with more than 1 million objects represented.  In a 2004 interview, he was asked about the favorite item in his collection,  he responded, “a decree by Pope Lucius III, dated 1183, instructing knights on their departure to the Holy Land for the Third Crusade.”

The collection is housed in a single location, while exhibits rotate through his network of Museums in the U.S. and to pop-up exhibition spaces internationally.  Some objects displayed are facsimiles, due to the original’s rarity or environmental sensitivity, though even those originals go on display for short periods.  Dr. Karpeles has declared his mission for the exhibits to be bringing the joy and wonder that his kids experienced at Huntington to as wide a group of civilization as possible.


photo by Dan Henrichs


photo by Sue Rakers


photo by Jason Gray

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums came about in the mid-1980’s after a request from an independent scholar to use Karpeles’ collection to help authenticate a body of newly discovered manuscripts.  It was decided to locate the Museums across the country in smaller metropolitan areas after comparing the attendance for an exhibit in New York City to one in Jacksonville, Florida.  It appeared that there were too many attractions for the exhibition to compete against in the bigger city.  Presently, there are 13 Karpeles Museums located across the country, with St. Louis being the largest city in the network.  Kerry Manderbach, Executive Director of St. Louis’ extension, said that our location is “a bit of a test” to see how a slightly larger metro area would embrace the effort.  Based on our visit, we recommend St. Louis to step up and pass.  After all, it’s a long way to Duluth for the excitement that history brings.

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is located at 3524 Russell Boulevard, is open 10a-4p Tuesday through Sunday, and is free to enter.  The exhibit up when we visited focused on the first and second Continental Congress, but the next installation this Fall is on Charles Dickens.  The St. Louis Media Foundation operates a small exhibition space within the Museum as well, and there is a permanent installation of manuscripts with a focus on St. Louis.


photo by Theresa Harter


photo by Jeni Kulka


photo by James Palmour


photo by Jason Gray




Images of the Flooders:


photo by Dan Henrichs


photo by Dan Henrichs



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