by Emily Kozlowski
A quick pass down North 20th Street gives a glimpse of an unassuming brick school house, surrounded by a concrete lot and a chain-link fence. In front of the building is a small market and behind it is a residential street. Upon closer inspection, you begin to notice more. It is made of a deep red brick, thirteen bays wide, two stories tall, with a limestone clad foundation and a porch dressed in cast-iron.
Most recently used by the Youth and Family Center, but abandoned since 2009, the building has since not received much attention. This is obvious, as water damage has accumulated and now whole sections of walls are quickly crumbling. In a matter of weeks, the building’s stability drastically worsened and in late February the roof over the gymnasium collapsed, pulling down much of the second floor. As bad it the building looks, its history that would surprise most, with connections that reach farther than St. Louis. An inscription on a limestone block above the main entrance reads “Warheit Macht Frei: Schule aud Die Freien Congregation von Nord St. Louis” or “Truth Makes One Free: School of the Free Thinkers of North St. Louis.” The building, dating back to 1867 and expanded greatly in 1883, once housed the German-American group, Die Freie Gemeinde.
In 2011, Preservation Research Office completed the National Register of Historic Places listing for the St. Louis Place Historic District. Working under the direction of then-Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, we made special effort to extend the eastern boundary of the district to encompass this building. This effort allowed the building to be eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits, and everyone was hopeful that it would be a prime candidate for rehabilitation.
Beginning in 1848, German intellectuals began fleeing their country after a series of failed political and economic revolutions. The United States saw a sharp influx of immigration as a result, with a large German community settling in St. Louis. (Think Dutchtown, Hyde Park, Anheuser-Busch, etc.) The Midwest in particular became a home to the Freie Gemeinde, a school of German thought with foundations in the Catholic and Protestant churches, from which it ultimately separated. Their main purpose was “to unite the foes of clericalism, official dishonesty and hypocrisy, and to unite the friends of truth, uprightness, and honesty.” It was a philosophy that embraced the individual instead of institution.
The Freie Gemeinde, which translates to “the free congregation,” believed that man has the basic right of applying knowledge of history and science to religion, choosing which aspects of faith are reasonable and which should be disregarded. The church fought against this individualized idea of religion, instead defining faith as an acceptance of dogma without question. The Freie Gemeinde also applied individuality to religious institution. They removed the hierarchal structure of the church, allowing for each congregation of Free Thought to exist on its own without a superior body. Churches came to be referred to as halls and a pastor or priest became a “speaker.” In a Freie Gemeinde Hall, the congregation attended lectures on subjects ranging from science to philosophy instead of the traditional sermon, even encouraging discussion during lectures. The group was ahead of their time and influential as immigrants in the Midwest. Today, the last remaining Freie Gemeinde exists in Sauk City, Wisconsin.
The building at 2930 N. 21st Street was, at one time, referred to with a full German name – Freie Gemeinde von Nord St. Louis und Bremen. The first Freie Gemeinde group in the United States formed in St. Louis in 1850, a leading example to other congregations that sprang up across the country. This was the first community center in the neighborhood and boasted a library of over 3,000 books in German. It was a large meeting hall for discussions and education in philosophy, literature, science, and other topics.
Three men associated with the Freie Gemeinde von Nord St. Louis, Preetorious, Danzer, and Schurtz are famous for their association with local German newspapers. As editors of the Westliche Post and the Anzeiger des Westens, they openly criticized religious oppression and slavery. The Naked Truth Monument in Compton Reservoir Park is dedicated to these three free thinking Germans. The bronze woman symbolizes truth, holding torches of enlightenment for both Germany and America. The inscription, in both English and German, tells of the German-Americans dedication to their adopted country. Just north, nestled between a market and a row of houses, the building where these men and many other German-Americans met and formed a community is crumbling and slipping away from public memory. Little does St. Louis know, the real monument is falling.