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Museum’s treasures survive fire

COMPTON HEIGHTS—Thanks to quick rescue work by firefighters, some priceless documents on subjects ranging from Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara to old newspaper clippings about St. Louis radio will go on display again.

The treasures were among the items that could have been destroyed when a fire severely damaged the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 3524 Russell Blvd., after work on March 26.

 As some firefighters battled a blaze that started in the back of the museum, others removed almost all of the precious documents stored or on display in the front. 

Museum Director Kerry Manderbach watched gratefully as the firefighters spent about a half-hour rescuing the historic objects.

“They were very heroic,” Manderbach said. “They pitched in and really did a great job,”

Manderbach said he went to the area where the artifacts were kept a couple of times to help to unlock the cases, but each time firefighters ushered him out. “They were very aware they were in a museum,” he said. 

The day after the blaze, the St. Louis Fire Department said on Twitter that the cause had been classified as open and undetermined, pending additional information.

On March 29, Manderbach said insurers, investigators and the fire department hadn’t yet determined the amount of the loss or the cause of the fire.

Frank Absher, executive director of the St. Louis Media History Foundation, also was free with his praise for the firefighters. They removed most of the items the foundation had on display or in storage at the museum, Absher said. 

“Those people helped us secure our collection,” Absher said. The foundation planned to honor the fire department for its work at its annual Media Hall of Fame Gala induction ceremony on Saturday at the Red Lion Hotel Downtown.

Manderbach said the fire started high up in the back of the building, away from the historic items, which were in the front. It burned until about 9:30 or 10 pm. The back end and roof were destroyed. A tweet from the fire department said the structural integrity of the building has been severely compromised.

Items in the exhibits included a high school yearbook with Fidel Castro’s picture, a sheet with a picture of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara’s fingerprints, and a CIA notebook detailing what was going on in Cuba when Castro came to power. There also was a medallion worth about $12,000 that commemorated the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair in St. Louis

The firefighters brought out at least eight filing cabinets with photos, biographies and newspaper clippings owned by the Media Hall of Fame. They also saved items like an antique radio, microphones and newspapers dating to the 1800s. Items like radio station T-shirts were lost.

The museum is one of 14 in a group called the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums. The group’s website lists museums in places like Fort Wayne, Ind., Duluth, Minn., Buffalo, N.Y., and Jacksonville, Fla. The website claims the group has the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents. 

The owner of the museums, David Karpeles of Santa Barbara, Calif., is a retired mathematician and real estate seller who has collected more than one million pieces over the last three decades or so, Manderbach said.  Karpeles locates his museums in second tier cities that aren’t culturally oversaturated, Manderbach said.

The items in the St. Louis collection will be sent to Karpeles for now. It’s uncertain where the museum will end up, but Karpeles does seem to be committed to St. Louis, Manderbach said.

The museum formerly was a Christian Science church and a Baptist church. It moved into the building in 2015.

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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