Preserving St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

by Michael R. Allen


Expanded version of report written for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, September 2005.

Background

The St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish had its origin with an 1892 petition by Catholics in the newly-developing Fairmont district of St. Louis. These Catholics, almost exclusively of German origin, were among a wave of residents who moved into the area after the development of Scullin’s electric streetcar line. Their petition was successful, although the parish would not have a permanent church building for another 33 years. On March 9, 1892, Vicar General Henry Muehlsiepen came to the area to deliver a mass at a private residence, an act followed by his ordering a census of the area that showed 60 families ready to organize a new parish. Reverend F.G. Holweck, assistant pastor at St. Francis De Sales church, became the first pastor on May 27, 1892.

Detail of entrance to church.

For the parish, the Church purchased for $8,500.00 ten acres of land on Reber Place between Columbia and Reber avenues. This large amount of land was subdivided into three city blocks (CB #4054A, 4054B and 4054C) in an inviting arrangement, with the church buildings planned for the center block and new homes planned for the two flanking blocks. The arrangement of spaces showed some sense of visual drama, with Magnolia Avenue running up to the middle block, where the church would sit, and continuing around the church block with two home-lined streets. The site is probably one of the best examples of urban planning by a parish in the entire city.

The parish undertook construction of a temporary frame church building, dedicated on October 16, 1892 in honor of St. Aloysius, and a school building. With Rev. Holweck acting as pastor and as real estate agent for the lots on the residential blocks, the parish grew fast and reported 130 families at some point in the mid-1890s. Masses were largely in German. The parish was strong enough for a permanent church, and the parish turned to the renowned St. Louis church architect Joseph Conradi for plans. Conradi designed an elaborate Gothic edifice that would have been marvelous — had it been completed. After laying the cornerstone on May 7, 1899 and building the basement, the parish quickly ran out of money for completing the structure. The parish roofed the basement and the incomplete building became the second home for St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish.

Side view of church building.

Around the turn of the century, numerous Italian immigrants arrived in the Fairmont district. Later to become the ethnic group most widely associated with the area, the Italians at the time were struggling to establish cultural institutions that honored their heritage. Italian Catholics in St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish were far from the city’s only two Italian-speaking parishes, and turned to their local parish for assistance. In 1903, Rev. Holweck invited Rev. Ceasar Spigardi of St. Charles Borromeo Church to organize a mission for Italians in the St. Aloysius building. This mission raised funds to organize the St. Ambrose parish, which was able to move into its own temporary building by year’s end.


The Rectory.

A new pastor, Rev. Francis G. Brand, arrived in 1903 and worked to pay off the church’s debts. He oversaw construction of the existing rectory (built in 1904 by plans from “Koester”) and convent (built in 1911 by plans from Joseph Stander and Sons). Building permits show that in 1914, the parish started building a new school building at the northeast corner of South Magnolia and January (since demolished). Most importantly, though, Brand led efforts to build yet another church building, designed by Ludwig and Dreisoerner (a firm on whom extensive information does not seem to be available) in the Romanesque style. As a late example of a St. Louis church in the Romanesque style, St. Aloysius Gonzaga displays the conservatism of archdiocesan architecture at the time. This building had its cornerstone laid on May 2, 1925, and was completed in April 1926. Construction cost $500,000. The old unfinished church building was remodeled for use as the parish bowling alley and gymnasium, a use it held until the parish closure in 2005.

The parish went on to peak at 800 families in the 1950s. In 1962, the parish built a new school building. The original 1914 school building was wrecked at some point. The school closed in 2002 and the parish was closed in 2005 after dwindling to 315 families.

Clay Mines Under Church

Claims that old clay mines are undermining the main church building likely have some truth, although I have not located conclusive evidence. A June 10, 2005 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes damage to the building caused by settling, including a supposed split down the center of the building and rapid settling of part of the building around the bell tower. The article states that the parish tried to stabilize the building: “about 15 years ago workers put 63 pins in the foundation — nothing held.”

The Convent.

Inspection of plat maps and atlases has not confirmed that this location was the site of a clay mine. No Geological Survey of Missouri spends much time on clay mining, and only the 1890 edition contains county maps of clay mines. The Geological Survey of Missouri’s 1890 supplement The Clay, Stone, Lime and Sand Industries of St. Louis City and County shows that the site sat above clay deposits connected with the Cheltenham district, but locates the closest recently active mines or pit a half-mile to the north. Many brickworks mined the belt of clay that runs through this area. Evans and Howard as well as Laclede-Christy had nearby brick kilns and mine entrances. The site may have been host to an unmapped and short-lived pit; those were common in the Cheltenham district. Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis of 1875 does show a few small dome-like structures near this location which may be kilns. Yet little subdivision of the Fairmont district had taken place by 1875 and the structures may be haystacks.

The mine tunnels supposedly under St. Aloysius Gonzaga may be extensions of the mine drawn on the map found in The Hill, which is located north of Columbia Avenue. Larry Giles, who has thoroughly researched the clay-mining operations in the Cheltenham district, speculated in an interview that there probably is a mine tunnel under St. Aloysius, because the tunnels were rarely mapped and never disclosed to the State Geological Survey. Without a map of that particular mine, Giles says, it would be impossible to make a definite identification of any tunnel under the church. He says that whatever tunnel exists under the church building would also extend through surrounding blocks, and any shrinkage thereof would be systematic. Filling the tunnel without substantial excavation would be impossible; new development on the site could be plagued by severe settling if it is occurring on the land.

The original church building.

A search on Pitzman’s 1878 real estate atlas offers no suggestive leads; the full site of the parish and its subdivision is shown as being owned by Union National Bank of St. Louis. On the Pitzman atlas, no parcels south of Columbia Avenue are owned by brick or ceramic companies, likely due to the establishment of subdivisions there. Without access to the interior of the church building, there is difficulty in making any determination of the physical condition of the 1926 building. From the exterior, it looks sound, and the Building Division has not condemned it. One imagines that a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the subsequent availability of historic tax credits could make renovation, even with structural problems, feasible.

Inside of the sanctuary. Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.

Preservation Board Considering Demolition

Yet new development threatens to destroy the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex for a rather conventionally New Urban subdivision. The developer who purchased the parish buildings from the archdiocese this year, Wohlert Company LLC, has sacrificed the grace of the setting for uninspiring tract housing. Gone would be the stunning head-on view of the steeple from Magnolia Avenue and the old-growth trees. Consideration of preservation of at least the 1926 church seems obvious, but an even wiser plan would save the main church and the older buildings to retain one of the city’s most intimate church settings. Ample space for new housing would remain on the block.

Entrance from vestibule into sanctuary.  Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.

The staff of the city’s Cultural Resources Office has submitted the proposed demolition for review, stating that the buildings are of high merit and eligible for National Register listing. That opinion is correct, and is an accurate interpretation of the city’s Preservation Review Ordinance, which suggests that demolition of the complex for the subdivision is imprudent and possibly an abuse of the ordinance. Yet the Cultural Resources Office is bowing to the pressure to let the development proceed, and is recommending that demolition be allowed. The Preservation Board should go against this recommendation and instead instruct the developer to come up with an alternate plan that respects the Preservation Review Ordinance and gives The Hill area a dignified and historic urban setting, of which it has few remaining. The same developer recently built a home at January and South Magnolia that is totally disrespectful of context, with an attached garage and materials inappropriate for all but a flimsy shed. Within a two-block radius, numerous examples of bad infill housing abound — replete with vinyl siding and garage doors facing the street. The Hill area contains several large tract-house developments from the last 25 years, including the new Parc Ridge Estates development on the cleared site of the Truman Restorative Center.

The context of The Hill (more accurately called the Fairmont District) has been severely diminished in the last 25 years. Demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a mistake and should be prevented. The mistakes of the past should only strengthen our resolve to make better choices for the future.


Sources

City of St. Louis Building Permits.

Survey of Historic Churches of St. Louis Collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Toft, Carolyn (ed.). The Hill: The Ethnic Heritage of an Urban Neighborhood. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington University School of Social Science, 1975.

Wayman, Norbury. The Hill. St. Louis: Community Development Agency, 1976.


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