Law office of Mark Twain's father to get 'tender love and care' in restoration

Posted: Aug. 18, 2015 9:01 am Updated: Sep. 1, 2015 9:17 am

Staff Writer | 217-221-3385 | @athompsonWHIG

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- One of several landmarks symbolizing Mark Twain's ties to Hannibal will undergo extensive restoration over the next year.

Work on the John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, 205 Hill Street, began Monday morning with removal of artifacts and furnishings. Interior wall coverings and siding will also be taken off starting this week.

Henry Sweets, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, said stripping the building to its timbers allows crews to correct its visible rightward lean. He added the structure has settled over the last five decades.

"With time, the building has become quite fragile," Sweets said. "It needs tender love and care."

John Marshall Clemens, Mark Twain's father, served as justice of the peace in the 1840s. He used a building originally located in the 100 block of Bird Street as his office and courtroom.

Twain mentioned his father's office in "The Innocents Abroad," a travel book published in 1869. As a boy, Twain, known then as Samuel Clemens, snuck into the office late one night to avoid trouble after a day of playing hooky. He awoke to find the body of a dead man awaiting investigation by John Clemens.

By the 1930s, the office building had fallen into disrepair. Nearly a decade later, Warner Bros. Pictures representatives visited Hannibal to conduct research for "The Adventures of Mark Twain," a 1944 biographical film featuring Fredric March as Twain. Hannibal residents helped Warner Bros. with their endeavor, and to show gratitude, the studio bought the building and turned it over to the city.

The Clemens office remained on Bird Street until 1956, when it was moved to the Museum Mall on Hill Street. It was furnished and dedicated by the Missouri Bar Association on Law Day in May 1959.

Until Monday morning, the front part of the building was set up as a courtroom. The rear portion of the building depicted the scene from "The Innocents Abroad."

The structure also will be modified to make viewing easier for visitors with mobility issues. Changes made to the building during the 1956 move also will be reversed.

Restoration work is expected to be complete by spring or early summer in time for the start of Hannibal's heavy tourism season. Sweets noted the museum has money on hand to begin the rehabilitation, but it is ready to a launch a fundraising drive to complete the project. He didn't have a total cost estimate on Monday.

Sweets added refurbishing and preserving the Clemens office fulfills two functions.

"It helps us to tell more of the Clemens family in Hannibal and will enable us to look at the legal system at that time," he said. "It will have many interpretive purposes for us."

This isn't the first restoration project for the museum. A roughly $1.5 million renovation of the Becky Thatcher House, directly west of the Justice of the Peace Office, wrapped up in 2013. The house features exhibits detailing what life was like for children in 19th century Hannibal.

The museum also plans to restore Grant's Drugstore/Pilaster House, south of the Clemens Office, once funds become available.

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