by Michael R. Allen
Preservationists should send their thanks to Better Family Life, a cultural and educational organization that is uplifting African-American St. Louis while rehabilitating one of our city’s irreplaceable historic schools. In 2005, Better Family Life purchased the shuttered Ralph Waldo Emerson School at 5415 Page Boulevard. This year, the organization began a $4.5 million rehabilitation that will convert the school into an educational and cultural center.
Currently, a construction fence surrounds the school. Workers are on site most days, and a lift was in front today. The daily activity at Emerson School has not been this high since the school’s last day of classes in June 2003. When the school closed, few predicted that any serious buyer would step forward so soon. The landmark could have become an abandoned wreck.
Designed by William B. Ittner and completed in 1901, the brick school is one of the earliest of Ittner’s schools in the hybrid “Jacobethan” style that he helped popularize. Ittner began working for the St. Louis Board of Education in 1898, and did not turn to the Renaissance styles until a few years into his tenure. Emerson School is a handsome early work utilizing the architect’s open floor plan. The grace of the landmark shall be with us for generations, thanks to Better Family Life.
If only all good news from St. Louis’ built environment did not have to be counterbalanced by bad news. Just two blocks east of Emerson on the south side of mighty Page Boulevard at Union Boulevards, another north side landmark is meeting a sad end. The corner commercial block at 5986-98 Page Boulevard, written about on this blog several times before, is finally falling to the wreckers. I offer here an image of the building in better days, and will spare readers yet another demolition photograph.
The corner building is a younger building than Emerson School, with a completion date at 1905. The two-story building is part of the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District and could have been reused utilizing historic tax credit programs. Surely, commercial storefronts and apartments enjoy far more demand in the city than cultural centers. However, the building had the wrong owner, the Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church, which will be building a parking lot on the site.
In February 2008, the city’s Preservation Board voted 5-2 to deny a demolition permit for this building. Then, in June 2009, the city’s Planning Commission arbitrarily overturned the Preservation Board decision.
The story got stranger after that when the church failed to meet the requirements of the Planning Commission decision but began demolition this summer without a permit. City officials called a halt to the wrecking, but the wreckers had already delivered fatal damage by removing most of the roof. Now the rest of the building will be removed legally. Page Boulevard will have a completely disjointed, unhinged intersection with Union Boulevard. Two prominent thoroughfares shall meet at an intersection as full of character as any generic suburban intersection anywhere in the United States. This city, it should be stated, deserves better. It deserves what it had before.