by Michael R. Allen
In my capacity as Assistant Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, I delivered a version of this statement at Wednesday’s public meeting on the St. Louis Public Schools Facilities Management Plan. Please submit your own comments online at www.slps.org or at the next public meeting, tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) at 10:00 a.m. at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Avenue.
Among the findings of the November public meetings on this plan was that 74% of respondents consider historic preservation to be a somewhat to very important component of a facilities plan. That position is not well represented in the recommendations from MGT of America.
Of the 29 schools recommended for closure, 18 are identified as historically significant in a 1988 survey of District buildings built before 1938. Landmarks Association completed this survey working with the District and using funds from the State of Missouri, and this survey often has been the basis for wise decision-making for the District’s numerous historic buildings. We are blessed to have so many wonderful public school buildings, although that blessing may come into question when schools need to be closed.
The 1988 survey identified as historically significant not only the celebrated buildings designed by William B. Ittner but also those designed by his predecessors and his successors, Rockwell Milligan and George Sanger. Make no mistake — the architectural achievements of other district architects are as worth preservation as those of Ittner. Unfortunately, the closure list places this legacy in jeopardy, not to mention the buildings built since 1938 that have not been surveyed, including Nottingham and Gateway schools.
Currently, the District has an inventory of ten closed historic pre-1938 schools. The closure list adds 18 schools for a total of 28 historic schools at risk. Nineteen of these would have protection after sale against demolition under state and federal landmark designations, but nine would have no protection at all. And none have any protection under landmark laws if the Board of Education itself seeks demolition. The District needs to provide that protection in policy and by sales contract, but the draft facilities plan offers no recommendation for adopting these protections.
In fact, the recommended principles for repurposing would seem to condemn some schools to demolition. Nowhere in these principles is the policy that the Board of Education adopted in 2003, after Theresa School was nearly sold to a developer who planned to replace it with a Walgreens. The Board forbade sale of any historic schools to owners who planned demolition. Thanks to that policy, we have kept all of the historic schools closed in the 2003-4 and 2007 rounds standing, and many of these have found reuse using state and federal historic rehabilitation programs, including Theresa School.
The Special Administrative Board must adopt the past policy forbidding sales that would cause demolition as well as adopting a policy against demolition of historic district facilities. Neighborhoods that have enjoyed the architectural anchor a grand public school provides do not need park space, open space, parking or outdoor labs where the schools stand. The neighborhoods deserve to retain their irreplaceable landmarks. Thus, the facilities plan recommendations regarding demolition are troubling and should not be adopted.
Another provision of the facilities plan that is questionable is the recommendation to cluster three elementary school closures each in north and south city in order to build new elementary schools. Besides being costly, this recommendation maximizes the number of school closures in a plan that recommends a large number. Why not close two of each group and remodel and possibly expand the third? In the areas where a new school is recommended, assembling a large site might entail demolition of one of the three buildings, making this recommendation even worse. Cote Brilliante and Hickey have notably high combined scores, for instance. Given the short duration of preparation of this plan, I doubt that there has been full examination of use of an existing school in these combined groups.
Our historic schools are public buildings, cultural assets and neighborhood anchors. As the district’s needs change, the buildings should not be lost. One never knows when they will need to be called back into service, or when a new use will arise. Neighborhoods across the city need these buildings for their future.