Historic Preservation Schools SLPS

SLPS Facilities Management Plan Presented on Thursday

The Special Administrative Board of the St. Louis Public Schools will hear recommendations by MGT of America, Inc. on the future use of district schools during the board meeting on Thursday, January 29, 6:00 p.m., at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Ave.

All community members are invited to attend this open meeting to hear this much-anticipated report firsthand. However, due to the anticipated length of the MGT presentation, there will be no public comments taken at this meeting.

The District will hold two special community forums for public comments – Wednesday, February 4, from 6:00p.m. – 8:00p.m. at Roosevelt High School, 3230 Hartford St., and Saturday February 7, from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Ave.

Public comments may also be submitted via the Internet starting Friday, January 30, by visiting The District will accept comments on the MGT presentation via the Internet through February 8.

For more information, please call 314-345-2367.

Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis SLPS

Harrison School Slated for Rehabilitation

by Michael R. Allen

On December 12, the Missouri Housing Development Commission approved issuance of 4% low income housing tax credits to the Harrison School Apartments project. Developer George Kruntchev’s North Tower Group plans to rehabilitate the historic Harrison School at 4163 Green Lea Place in the Fairground neighborhood as affordable rental apartments.

Harrison School has sat vacant since its closure by the St. Louis Public Schools in 1996. In 2003, the building was finally put up for sale at the behest of a new majority on the Board of Education that sought to lower the district inventory. In 2007, after sitting nearly four years on the market, a developer purchased the school and secured listing in the National Register of Historic Places before selling the school to North Tower Group.

Benjamin Harrison School is a magnificent example of the earlier St. Louis Public School buildings. The basic plan comes from architect August H. Kirchner, who designed the original 1895 section of the building. (Coincidentally, Kruntchev’s other school project, Grant School in Tower Grove East, also involved a Kirchner school.) That one-story, four-room section was designed for expansion. After all, the city and the Fairgrounds neighborhood were growing rapidly, and until construction of Harrison the only other school in the vicinity was Ashland School, first opened in 1870. Kirchner made attempts to overcome the limitations of previous school buildings, which were dour, crowded and devoid of proper ventilation and light. Kirchner made the classrooms large with substantial windows for light and air. His ideas would influence his successor as district architect, William B. Ittner, who expanded Harrison School with additions in both 1899 (adding additional floors to the 1895 section) and 1909 (adding the north wing).

The result of the architectural evolution is an imposing Romanesque Revival school whose brick body is articulated through buff brick and red Iowa sandstone. The design is very similar to other Kirchner schools later expanded by Ittner, including Adams and Euclid schools. One of the striking features of Harrison is a kindergarten in the 1909 addition that placed two trapezoidal bay windows on either side of a hearth, an Ittner innovation that was not repeated.

Now, over twelve years since closing, the school finally is finding a new life. That’s a cautionary lesson to the Special Administrative Board (SAB) governing the St. Louis Public Schools. The SAB will be approving a facilities management plan early in the new year that will include what is anticipated as as substantial round of schools closings. Hopefully successful conversion projects like the one at Harrison will convince the board that there are many possibilities other than demolition or abandonment. I remain impressed by the wide array of adaptive reuse plans that developers have found for St. Louis schools. The again, the architecture itself, with its spaciousness and care for natural light, is hospitable to almost any human activity.

Historic Preservation Media SLPS

Historic Preservation Should Be Part of St. Louis Public Schools Facilities Plan

by Michael R. Allen

KWMU aired my latest commentary today, on my birthday: Historic Preservation Should Be Part of St. Louis Public Schools Facilities Plan

Historic Preservation Media SLPS

Historic Schools Given Short Shrift in Facilities Management Planning

by Michael R. Allen

Over at the Post-Dispatch Eddie Roth has posted a blog entry on the short shrift that historic schools are getting in the current St. Louis Public Schools facilities management planning process. Roth quotes at length an e-mail that I sent him outlining what’s wrong with the approach being taken by the district and its consultants, MGT of America.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis SLPS

SLPS Facilities Plan Can Avoid Mistakes of Past

by Michael R. Allen

After twenty-five years of vacancy, Carr School at 1421 Carr Street north of downtown is severely deteriorated. Much of the central roof has collapsed, pulling ornamental dormers out of shape. Windows and doorways are unboarded, affording access to a sea of collapsed ceilings and wooden roof members. A quarter-century has left the building in need of serious repair, and the surrounding Carr Square Village with a massive burden. The school was once a showy centerpiece and now has become a symbol of north side decline.

The plight of Carr School is relevant now as the St. Louis Public Schools implements a Facilities Management Plan via consultants MGIT of America, Inc. The district hosting a rapid-fire series of evening meetings for public input on the plan. The schedule is online here. The meetings started last night at Carr Lane VPA and run through December 17 at schools across the city. Why the meetings are crammed into a short period during the busy holiday season is not certain. Obviously, the district is seriously seeking input to avoid prior school closing pratfalls. Hopefully the schedule and geographic range do not make the meetings difficult to attend for parents and concerned neighbors.

The schedule lists several possible concerns that may be expressed. An encouraging sign is that “historic preservation” is prominently listed. To take that concern from the flier to the meetings, though, citizens should select a meeting or two and attend to discuss preservation issues with SLPS staff and consultants.

While no other closed public school has sat empty as long as Carr School, others from the 1994 and 2003 rounds of closings still await certain futures. Carr School is a magnificent work of architecture, and one of architect William B. Ittner’s most idiosyncratic school designs for the St. Louis district. Its plan, style and mosaic murals are unique among the schools built. Of course, all of Ittner’s works are singular, as are those of other district architects like Frederick Raeder and Rockwell Milligan. St. Louis never had “cookie cutter” schools.

While the district cannot be expected to keep all schools open or within its inventory, the district should work hard to ensure that none of the fine historic school buildings sits empty for years like Carr School. The facilities plan needs a strong, detailed preservation component. The district needs to examine alternatives to current real estate policy, including allowing charter schools to purchase or lease decommissioned public schools. Schools are the anchors of many city neighborhoods, and while they may not all be schools forever they should remain anchors through reuse. In 25 years, we should be celebrating successful preservation planning for the district and its beneficial impact on neighborhoods. To that end, city residents need to participate in the current facilities management plan.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis SLPS South St. Louis

SLPS Proposes Eight More School Closings

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Louis Public Schools will be closing eight additional school buildings and reopening two, pending a vote by the appointed transitional school board and public input.

The schools proposed by district staff for closure are Mitchell School, 955 Arcade Avenue; Gundlach School, 2931 Arlington Avenue; Lyon School, 7417 Vermont Avenue; Mark Twain School, 5316 Ruskin Avenue; Meramec School, 2745 Meramec Street; Shenandoah School, 3412 Shenandoah Avenue; and Simmons School, 4318 St. Louis Avenue. The closures are evenly split between south and north city.

Carver School, 3325 Bell Avenue in north city, and Roe School, 1921 Prather Avenue in south city, would reopen.

This comes on the heels of last year’s round of five closures, which has left several historic school buildings vacant. The district has yet to market some of the closed schools from last year’s round. Hopefully the district will develop a policy for swift disposition of closed schools that includes provisions for timely reuse as well as preservation. The district would do well to seek National Register of Historic Places designation for any closed school not already listed, so that the buildings are “tax credit ready” at the time of sale. While the district may elect to retain several buildings for future use, it already possesses a long roster of vacant buildings and needs to continue to be mindful of the impact of school closings on neighborhoods.


District Closing and Selling Five Schools, Selling Six More

The St. Louis Public Schools will be closing and selling five more schools and selling six others. (Post-Dispatch coverage is here.) These are the first closings since 2003, when the district closed 17 schools.

Schools to be closed and sold:
Ashland Branch, 4415 Margaretta Avenue
Euclid Montessori, 1131 North Euclid Avenue
Lafayette, 815 Ann Avenue
Turner Branch, 4235 West Kennerly Avenue
Webster Middle, 2127 North 11th Street

Additional buildings to be sold:
Central High, 3616 North Garrison Avenue
DeAndreis, 4275 Clarence Avenue
Gardenville, 6651 Gravois Avenue
Lexington, 5020 Lexington Avenue
Marshall, 4342 Aldine Avenue
Marshall Branch, 4322 Aldine Avenue

SLPS South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Nouveau Rousseau

Southwest High School after mural cover-up, September 1, 2004. Photo by Michael R. Allen.

by Susan Turk

The businesslike efficiency, which now typifies the management of the Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), was demonstrated August 23 by the speedy obliteration of Nouveau Rousseau, a landmark mural which had graced the façade of Southwest High School at Arsenal and Kingshighway for the past 20 years. Painted by Southwest students, Nouveau Rousseau, transformed an otherwise unremarkable building into a tropical jungle, giving passing motorists, Metro riders and pedestrians a glimpse of paradise reminiscent of French painter Henri Rousseau’s landscapes. In its place we are left with newly painted plain brown brick walls which the administration considers to be a more appropriate representation of the future of a building soon to house Bunche International Studies Middle School and Central VPA HS.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

Much like that icon of American business, Henry Ford, who considered history to be “bunk”, SLPS COO Manny Silva explained in the Post-Dispatch that obliterating was important to symbolize that this was a new school. Since the mural symbolized the old, now defunct Southwest HS, it had to go. And so, a work of art that had become part of our cultural heritage had to be sacrificed.

Nevermind that it was quite possibly illegal. Nevermind that federal law recognizes the moral right of artists to protect their work from alteration or destruction. Nevermind that federal copyright law requires that if the owner of a building wishes to destroy a work of art painted on it, he is obligated to either get written permission from the artist or artists who created it, or first give the artists the opportunity to try to remove and preserve it.

So much for respect to the former students who created Nouveau Rousseau. So much for their legacy, a testament to the quality of fine arts education in the SLPS. All gone within a matter of hours.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

It is a sad commentary on the current outlook of the district’s administration that some small economy could not be found to preserve Nouveau Rousseau in some way. It could have been photographed and displayed elsewhere.

From the destruction of historic buildings that housed public schools, to the scattering of the historical treasures that were housed in the districts archives, to the obliteration of the landmark Nouveau Roussea, one can only surmise that to the business men running St. Louis Public Schools, history IS bunk. But while there may not be much room for history and art in the rarified business climate that now governs the SLPS, history and art are important components of an educated mind.

Somehow, the brave new evangelists who have brought the gospel of efficiency to the SLPS are going to have to reconcile academic and business cultures if they are going to be successful in improving the outcomes for our students. Hopefully, they will not often find it more efficient to destroy the proud products of our students’ labors in the process.

From the August 30, 2004 issue of the electronic newsletter version of Saint Louis Schools Watch. To subscribe, email editor Peter Downs.


Toward Politics as Signification Ritual, and Nothing Else?

by Michael R. Allen

The meetings of the Saint Louis Board of Education have devolved into an aimless political ritual. This assessment is born from the experience that the observer could have gathered at the April 27 meeting of the board, which consisted of some of the most uninspiring antics of the whole sorry spectacle that the new board majority began in April 2003. The underlying mission of the board majority has always been polarization of the discourse of the schools situation. Before the election of the Gang of Four corporate-backed members last year, the board already was in a state of crisis over how to rebuild (I avoid the tainted word reform) the flagging Saint Louis Public Schools.

While the board had seen some nasty fights, at no point did the board’s majority seek to take as their direct opponent the parents, teachers, students and staff of the district. The discourse of the board prior to April 2003 consisted of confused attempts by the four-person majority of longtime members, including William Purdy, to silence the three-person insurgent faction of reformers, which included Bill Haas (elected in 1997) and Rochell Moore (elected in 2001). This discourse was built on conflict, but was certainly not a monologue: the reformers got their points across, and came close to swinging votes in favor of their ways of making changes. Then, the big issues were over budget sizes and transparency of process. The reformers wanted to cut the bloated district budget to provide more direct services to students, and maintain a transparent political process that allowed the district’s actual constituents to have rights in decision-making.

Now, the discourse has been altered significantly. The phrase “budget cut” is more likely associated with and spoken by the school board majority and its most prominent members, former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl. The reformers are the ones the press accuses of hanging on to bloated and antiquated system—the very ones that they rhetorically assailed before. The majority’s members are posed as reformers, and have adopted the vocabulary of reform: “efficiency,” “results, “excellence,” “cutting waste,” etc. All the while, the old reformers have not really changed positions while the majority is actually an insurgent faction of members whose appropriation of vocabulary masks a mission to privatize much of the district’s functions and make the rest palatable to the influx of new affluent city dwellers who feel safer with corporate paradigms of government.

The reformers — now reduced only to Moore and Haas as their former ally Amy Hilgemann drifts in and out of alliance with the majority — are as true as ever to their old discursive challenge: they want the school board to accept the terms of its constitiution by the law, and to behave within certain bounds that are limited by obligation to the people who compose the district. Hardly radical, the reform group is actually conservative in its insistence on popular democracy restrained by the gentle restraint of the law. They want the board to act as guarantor of the welfare of district students and staff, instead of as bottom-line managers of district policy. Haas and Moore, in their often-disparate ways, ask that the board members act as if their roles connoted political commitment. The majority, as its behavior and language demonstrates, rudely disagrees.

The end result, though, has not been heartening to anyone who thinks that the board ought to act as guardians of the right to education. The old reformers have enjoyed widespread popular support from the day that the new majority was seated. District parents and teachers were quick to realize that the new majority was little more than a front for Mayor Francis Slay and his corporate cronies, who construe reform as anything that forcibly changes a public good into a private, unilaterally-controlled commodity. When the new majority hired the private company Alvarez and Marsal to manage the district, and placed the firm’s obnoxious William Roberti as Acting Superintendent, the people reacted harshly. School board meetings will never be the same as before.

Yet the meetings may never be any different than they are now, either. What began as a radical crest of descent has dwindled into a ritual of signification. The logic of board meetings used to be disrupted by odd events: one man’s jumping on a table in front of Roberti, Moore’s hapless threats to fellow board members and the building energy of the audience at meetings all spelled out a plan of revolt. Furthermore, the parents and teachers banded together and started an organization called The Community that aimed to use the schools issue as a way to revive popular radicalism among the city residents — largely people of color — affected by the school board majority’s destructive acts.

Now, however, the plan of revolt has not materialized. The energetic promise of hundreds of hecklers has not done much to stop the board from approving the wholesale destruction of the city schools with endless 5-2 votes. The meetings once felt like instances of democratic repossession of public meetings, but now feel like tired rituals in which dominance and dissent are predictably scripted (that is, utterly devoid of transformative meaning).

On Tuesday, the audience jeered, heckled and booed Roberti and the school board majority. We applauded students and others who spoke critically of the district’s management. We managed to get Schoemehl to walk out in a huff. Yet the whole meeting probably accomplished almost nothing in the way of improving a single city child’s education. The audience has fallen into accepting the signification of dissent for the thing itself, and the result may take awhile to realize but could be neutralization (through neglect) of the radical force of the populace that created disruption before.

Obviously, the board majority has recuperated some of the audience tactics. Board members have apologized for rudeness and often offer a disarming smile when their remarks lead to heckling. Yet they still stumble into ritual from time to time, given that the one move they won’t make is to compromise on their elitist agenda. Thus they continue to enrage audiences, even though they are better at appearing undeserving of such rage then before. After all, who could be moved to rage at their moderate agenda? The way the majority argues, one can only disagree with them — a move in which the dissident rescinds ownership of the district to the board majority.

The dissenting audience has not yet adapted to this recuperation of their rage with any identifiable strategy. They seem to be the predictable crowd on the other side of the proscenium, and their gestures are no longer pregnant with any imminent meaning. Many people were quieter on Tuesday, but that seemed due to a general weariness in the perpetual opposition than in any strategic refusal to “play along.” Most members of the audience continue to boldly signify their dissent through booing the almost all of the majority’s statements, even the introduction of commonplace agenda items. The audience feels powerless, but is almost now resigned to that feeling. Unfortunately, mainstream media will portray this resignation as a sign that the majority’s agenda has proven necessary, and that the popular resistance has died out.

The audience at the school board meetings may be quietly involved in The Community’s efforts to recall the board majority, or other less-obvious measures. Perhaps they really do have the upper hand. Yet that upper hand is not evident in their discursive present at the board meetings. The audience is engaging in a tired ritual in which their dissent exists only through signification — not through direct action. Their dissent is so easy to dismiss to the nonbeliever when it is only present in ritual; one does not want to learn to decode the already-static codes of the audience unless one is highly opposed to the board majority’s agenda.

The situation is discursively polarized, which represents a momentary victory for the board majority and friends because they have the power. Even though the masses and the board majority are both stifled in this discourse, the majority still has the power of action that transforms the discursive environment (the city schools). The masses lack that power, although they once had it. They need to reclaim the meetings space through creative distractions and discursive challenges, unless they plan on some political action (recall?) that will alter the political space of the school board meetings in a manner impossible to effect from within.

The audience at the meetings has no reason to hesitate or tire. The board majority’s agenda can only be successful if the school board’s decision-making process is predicated on its own malleability; that is, if there are no blocks to their discourse becoming the district near-monologue that allows for their proclaiming that their actions are the unavoidable result of consensus (among the monologists) . The audience — as well as Haas and Moore — needs to create genuine discursive interference so that the monologue is impossible. Without monologue, the board meetings would allow for polyphony, and every truly democratic action would be possible (because compromise among the legitimate owners of the district would be a process-inscribed precondition to any action). Power would collapse the moment that the audience started to break out of the ritual and transgress the proscenium, as they have done before.

This article was first published April 30, 2004 in mprsnd.