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St. Elizabeth Academy’s Historic Structures Should Be Preserved

February 7, 2011 Guest, History/Preservation, South City 25 Comments

Contributed by Christian Saller

St. Elizabeth Academy, (SEA) located at 3401 Arsenal Street in the Tower Grove East neighborhood since the late 19th century, seeks to demolish its most historic campus structures. This long-term goal is referenced in brochures produced to promote a “master plan” for the institution. These buildings are structurally sound and have been well maintained. The Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association, while expressing support for and interest in assisting SEA, voted unanimously to oppose this demolition. This action was subsequently communicated to the leadership of SEA and to 6th Ward Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, herself a graduate of the school.

St. Elizabeth Academy
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's original structure from 1894. Photo by Steve Patterson

SEA contains historic structures that form the basis of a National Historic District established in the Tower Grove East neighborhood in 1983. The campus includes a 1914 gymnasium with the last known lamella roof in St. Louis. The original school building, facing west on Crittenden Street, was constructed in 1894, with adjacent wings dating from 1914 and 1922. The current plan to consolidate SEA in the 1957-vintage structure on Arsenal Street while abandoning and destroying the original historic structures will exert a negative impact on the established Historic District, the larger neighborhood of Tower Grove East, and the City of St. Louis.

The historic SEA campus fostered development of a distinctive two-block cul de sac, Crittenden Street, which runs from the west side of SEA to a gate at S. Grand Blvd. across from Tower Grove Park. The relationship of SEA to these residential structures is a key aspect of the historic district itself. The buildings on these two residential blocks are of unusually high-quality construction with a cohesiveness of scale, set-back, materials, and architectural detail. It is clear to even casual observers that builders and architects of Crittenden Street saw an opportunity to develop a charming residential district for residents of varying means, with picturesque structures that complement one another while varying in size and occupancy. The presence of SEA made this distinctive street possible, terminating as it does at S. Grand Blvd. near a main pedestrian entrance to Tower Grove Park. The significant relationship between the historic institution and the dwellings to its west was formally articulated in the National Register nomination for the district nearly 30 years ago. The character and atmosphere resulting from this architectural juxtaposition are perhaps unique in the City of St. Louis. From its inception, the Crittenden Historic District accommodated a variety of incomes, institutional, and residential uses that do not merely co-exist but complement one another in an intimate and gracious extended community. At the same time the district includes characteristics commonly seen in more exclusive private streets.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy gym, photo by Rene Saller
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy 1914 gymnasium, photo by Rene Saller

Loss of the historic core of SEA would be a detriment far beyond the loss of the structures themselves. The carefully conceived character of the entire Historic District would be permanently undermined and diminished. In the varying fortunes of the Tower Grove East neighborhood over the years, Crittenden Street was relatively stable and intact, due in part to its unique configuration and the ambiance afforded by the presence of historic SEA. Today, Crittenden Street is a highly desirable place to live and its stability has contributed to the revitalization of adjacent blocks, including Pestalozzi and Arsenal Streets, which border it on the south and north, respectively. Destruction of the core buildings in this district will alter the aesthetic character that makes it historic in the first place and will erode the value of its related structures. Their original, historical reference and context will be gone.

Understandably, institutions such as SEA face challenges in maintaining and utilizing historic structures, as do homeowners with houses of similar age. As part of an established Historic District, the SEA campus is eligible for historic tax credits that could provide 20% to 25% of total project renovation costs. The 1957-vintage structure where the school seeks to consolidate is itself also now potentially eligible for historic tax credits, which was not the case when the district was established. The executive director of Landmarks Association, Jefferson Mansell, has offered pro bono services of his organization to write a historic register nomination for the 1957 building, making it formally part of the historic district and eligible for these credits. If the historic campus behind the 1957 building is destroyed, this structure would not be eligible for credits without the original institutional fabric.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's 1957 structure
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's 1957 structure

The leaders of SEA should reconsider their stated course of action and recognize the importance of retaining these historic buildings. Practical alternatives to demolition exist and should be exhaustively explored. The costs of demolishing these buildings, preparing the site, and perhaps eventually constructing a new building are likely greater than those of renovating and improving the existing structures to more aptly suit the school’s contemporary requirements. I hope for SEA to prosper and thrive at its current location for generations of students yet to come, ideally in the handsome historic structures that give the school its distinctive atmosphere and identity. The most prudent stewardship of the millions of dollars in donations currently sought by SEA’s capital campaign would be to fund renovation and reuse of the historic buildings.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy original entry, photo by Rene Saller
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy original entry, photo by Rene Saller

If historic buildings of this caliber are not a priority for protection by the city’s Preservation Board and our elected officials, it is hard to imagine what historic structures should be saved anywhere in the City of St. Louis. These architecturally significant buildings are located in a neighborhood that has stabilized and substantially improved in value over recent decades, in no small measure because of investment in and renovation of historic buildings throughout the district. The structures in question are among the most historic and architecturally significant in the entire neighborhood. Needlessly demolishing them in the name of “progress” would be an antiquated and counterproductive approach to addressing the challenges posed by older buildings. The leadership of SEA wishes to strengthen its student enrollment and position in the St. Louis region and says that it is committed to the city and to the Tower Grove East neighborhood. I hope that it gives action to this commendable sentiment by embracing the valuable resource of its historic campus and the surrounding urban community of which it is an inextricable part.

- Christian Saller

Prior Post: St. Elizabeth Academy Raising Funds To Raze Historic Structures by Steve Patterson, October 2010

Chriustian & Rene Saller live on Crittenden


Currently there are "25 comments" on this Article:

  1. Sue K. says:

    I lived in the apartments at the corner of Crittenden and Arkansas for four years back in the mid-1980's. I loved having the 1894 building at the end of my street. It felt like living in Europe. I can't imagine tearing it down. It would be a crime. I no longer live in the City but wonder if there is anything I can do to protect these historic gems.

  2. Rick says:

    This post adds new detail to previous info about this situation. From previous posts, it sounded as if the main historic building with stone entrance was not on the chopping block. This post makes it sound like the entire structure save the 1957 building is slated for demolition. Please continue to provide more info on this matter, and details re. opportunities for community comment/support. Thanks.

  3. Lynn Josse says:

    Excellent commentary, Christian! It's staggering that an institution that has traditionally been an important part of its neighborhood would suddenly seem to be offering neighbors its metaphorical middle finger. A certain amount of damage is already done in the decision to remove all of the sisters to O'Fallon, MO; without religious on site, they may find a certain logic in just demolishing the convent buildings. It's a terrible decision, though, made without community input or any creative thinking about reuse. Also, it sounds like it was made without consideration of what the law actually will allow, meaning the school is setting itself up for a battle rather than a plan that has community support.

  4. SEA should absolutely not demolish these buildings. But they are not exactly eligible for state historic preservation tax credits. The building is owned by a non-profit entity. Even with a new (complex) legal ownership structure that would be acceptable for Federal HTC, SEA would be hard-pressed to get approval from MO DED. That said, there is still plenty of reason to maintain the building. But state HTC's aren't likely.

  5. Alex P. says:

    I certainly like having SEA in the neighborhood and would encourage them to keep these buildings. It seems that they are saying that they need newer bells and whistles to attract students, but I don't buy it. It is reputation of the teachers/staff that would make me want to send my daughter to school there. I have no idea of what their testing scores, college placement, etc. is, but perhaps they should concentrate on that first.

    I don't want to see this turn adversarial, yet. I think as encouragement, I would donate to the school but add these two strings to the donation.
    1. The donation would be revoked if these buildings were torn down.
    2. The donation would be revoked if they moved the school out of the city of St. Louis to O'Fallon or anywhere else.
    Perhaps if everyone that was going to donate added these caveats, SEA could see how important the school and buildings are to the neighborhood and that we are willing to support them, if they are willing to find a way to keep the buildings intact.

  6. JZ71 says:

    As (I assume) a nonprofit entity, aren't tax credits of far less value to SEA than they would be to a for-profit owner? Unless they're both transferable and there's a market for them, saving 25% on a $0 tax bill still is $0 . . .

    Bigger picture, you correctly point out that every older structure requires maintenance, which in turn requires someone or some entity to actually pay for it. While I get the preservationists desires and arguments for saving old buildings, I don't see a lot of willingness on their part to actually pay for any of the needed repairs themselves. The term unfunded mandate comes to mind, since it's pretty easy to tell someone else what they should be doing; most of us react pretty strongly when that someone else is telling you/me/us what we should be doing (“since 'they' know best”) . . .

  7. Douglas Duckworth says:

    I wonder how the Alderwoman will react given she has an viable opponent in this election?

  8. The tax credits are transferable only if the entity initially receiving them (i.e. SEA or some related entity) can prove they are a for-profit, because in exchange for the credits, they'll receive an equity infusion from the buyer and MO DED is being especially stringent when it comes to non-profit involvement.

    So, other than tax credits, what's the answer? The Sister's of Most Precious Blood are good with the idea of historic preservation, as their big mother house renovation/assisted living/senior low-income apartments development in O'Fallon has included a good bit of preservation. What is it about this building that makes them want to say, “we'd rather not”?

    • JZ71 says:

      While the neighbors might not like it, maybe the best answer would be the creation of a community improvement district (CID), much like a suburban home owners association (HOA). If the neighborhood actually believes that this is a critcal element worth maintaining, much like a subdivision's pool and clubhouse, why not tax themselves and give money to the sisters to help with maintenance costs? If you have 100 homes and each pay an additional $1000 in property taxes each year, that would be $100,000 each year tha can be spent keeping the old buildings' roofs fixed, windows and trim painted and the heat kept on to keep the pipes from freezing . . .

  9. gmichaud says:

    I think one important factor is the structure of Catholic School tuition. To his credit current Archbishop Carlson is very concerned, and ultimately the preservation of the building in part derives from a reasonable path of use. Catholic schools are expensive, no doubt. Nor can every damn building can be turned into condo's. So that is one issue.
    I agree about the significance of the buildings. I also have enough knowledge of architecture and planning to know that the buildings could be included in any future plans with a little effort.
    This is an overall question about the direction of St. Louis and in the end society. Buildings not much older than the original 1894 structure are being evacuated in St. Augustine Florida as treasures, but St. Louis has these buildings in real life, not just traces of foundations.
    Like Egypt, America is at a crossroads, there are many underlying problems that allow buildings like these to be demolished.
    Like Egypt, America has to ask what is happening? An article in the New York Times citing the gross corruption of the corporate sector and its buy out of government in Egypt sounded identical to the United States.
    That is why buildings like these continually come down. There is no rational reason for these buildings to be demolished. Only the perverse life that corporate capitalism has beget on this city and nation allows it. What is odd is that it goes against the tenant of churches, yet they accept it quietly.
    It is only on blogs like Urban Review express a diversity of opinion that is recorded. Major media from the Post Dispatch to Channel 5, 4 Fox and all of them toe the official corporate/governmental line.
    The corporate and media elite is does not concern themselves with the overall issues of life, diversity, growth and sustainability that are at stake with the demolition of these buildings. That does not mean these or other buildings shouldn't be demolished, but instead asks, where are we going as a culture? Where will we arrive?

    •  yes gmichaud, its the main part of the catholic school tuition… i agreed with you. this thing everybody’s mind that our culture is most important thing wherever we are

  10. Raneuner says:

    I am a graduate of SEA and I can't believe that they're demolishing such a wonderful part of the institution. All I heard throughout high school was that SEA was a core part of the S. Grand neighborhood. Absolutely ridiculous.

  11. Ann Konzen says:

    What follows is the comment I posted the last time you discussed this particular subject. It stands. The current campaign is one that addresses a tuition endowment and electrical and structural renovations to the current school building. The changes this article addresses are in phase two of a master plan which may or may not be instituted. It all depends on whether or not the school stays open.

    My daughter will graduate from St. Elizabeth Academy this year. She's received an excellent education from SEA and has a bright future. The current capital campaign addresses whether or not other urban girls will receive the same opportunity as my daughter has.

    No building in the entire city of St. Louis is worth more to me than the future any one of these girls which I know so well. That is what is at stake, the future education of these girls.

    “I live within a stone's throw of the old South Grand YMCA, which has become a blighted property and attracts a seriously dangerous element on a weekly basis. That's what happens when a building is to all intents and purposes abandoned because it is not adaptable to the needs of the institution.

    Here are these nuns who have contributed to the fabric of our neighborhood for 125 plus years and now they're dying out and trying to figure out way to continue their mission in our area. This building doesn't serve that need and they're using their best judgement in trying to move forward from here. That building is not worth more than the education of any single girl.

    The current campaign addresses only an endowment for tuition and renovations to the 1957 building. The demolition of the older building is in a master plan, but not a part of the current goal. Let's give the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon MO a chance to educate our girls rather than sticking a spoke in their wheels.”

    We're discussing bricks and mortar here and not children. I think we should be discussing children.

    • Rene Saller says:

      Perhaps the girls' educational needs would be better served if the millions of dollars necessary for demolishment (yes, demolishing the buildings costs a great deal of money, too, estimated at approximately 8 million dollars) were allocated to endowing scholarships and recruiting qualified teachers. Moreover, that money could be put toward renovating the historic buildings so they better suit the school's needs (yes, this can be done, and it *has* been done at other schools with more enlightened views regarding historic preservation). If the school administrators continue to maintain that they do not want to use the historic structures on their campus, they could easily sublet these buildings for another use, a possibility that they do not seem willing to entertain.

      It's not an either/or proposition. You're setting up a false dichotomy: either preserve the buildings or offer a high-quality education to the girls. This strikes me as disingenuous at best.

      I would be willing to do what I could to help the school, but only provided they take demolition off the table. However, they refuse to do so, which makes the “maybe Phase 2 won't even happen” scenario highly suspect to me. I can understand why they don't want this controversy to detract from their fundraising efforts, but surely you can understand why people who care about historic preservation might not want to donate money to an institution with the knowledge that it might someday go toward destroying the most historic structures in the Tower Grove East neighborhood.

      Rene Saller

      • Ann Konzen says:

        I reiterate: the current fundraising effort has two goals. First, an educational endowment in which the 4.5 million dollars raised are lawfully tied up to fund the continued education of girls at St. Elizabeth Academy. This account is not fungible. Second, 2 plus million to make improvements to the existing 1957 building. Again, not fungible — already bid out and spoken for. Period.

        I'm discussing a concrete situation, that at SEA, not a hypothetical situation wherein preservation was achieved, subletting, renovation or otherwise. Funding the school with an educational endowment will ensure that it stays open so that we can have the preservation conversation in 6 to 8 years, a conversation I'm more than willing to have by the way. The current conversation, however, must be one that realistically encompasses keeping the school as a functioning entity, something that is not assured.

        I applaud the sisters for taking the long view and trying to get the funding ducks in a row now when they still function in a position of strength. 10 years from now, well, many of them will be gone and few will be working to support this neighborhood gem. At which point we could have multiple acres of empty buildings on our hands. A much worse scenario. Ask the South City Y or St. Pius V church whether aging buildings built to suit specific needs are so easy to sublet or renovate.

        When you say that “they” refuse to take demolition off the table, to which table are you referring? The negotiating table? What negotiating table? This is private property, the owners of which have been excellent neighbors for 128 years. That the controversy this post and others like it engender make the fundraising for a very specific cause difficult is the point of my comment.

        • Rene Saller says:

          How about the table of the larger community to which the sisters purport to be dedicated? St. Elizabeth Academy is part of a national historic district, after all. Just because it is private property does not mean that the owners have the right to demolish the historic structures simply because maintaining them has become inconvenient or because they would prefer not to sell or lease the buildings to another entity. Sister Borgel and the board have stated that they would not consider allowing another school (either parochial or charter) to use the buildings. SEA's leadership would rather demolish the buildings, at considerable cost, than see them reused, and this does not strike me as good stewardship. We have laws and a preservation board for a reason. Surely you would object if your neighbor decided that his three-story turn-of-the-century home was too expensive to maintain and opted instead to replace it with a vinyl-clad double-wide. Do you really want to live in a city where private property rights trump all other ordinances, where the “historic district” designation is meaningless, where the city's preservation board is powerless?

          I also think you're getting ahead of yourself by saying that we could have multiple acres of empty buildings on our hands. Maybe the buildings are empty now because the current owners are not dedicated to repurposing them (or will not entertain the idea of allowing another entity to use them). There are many examples all over the city of similar buildings, in much worse states of repair, that have been rehabilitated and retrofitted for other uses. Consider the Messiah Lutheran school on Grand, which is being used by a charter school. That building didn't remain empty for any time at all, and it is nowhere near as attractive a building as the St. Elizabeth structures. Rosati-Kain is thriving, and its building is much older than the one St. Elizabeth is using now.

          As to your point that the controversy about demolition detracts from the immediate fundraising goal, it's not as if we're manufacturing this issue out of thin air. The fundraising brochure that the school sent out months ago states unequivocally that removal of the historic buildings is part of the master plan. If the people who wrote the fundraising literature are discussing the future demolition of these buildings, they obviously don't think it will hurt their short-term fundraising efforts. Are you suggesting that demolition can be discussed only by those in favor of it?

  12. Hickory says:

    I live 3 blocks away. My daughters are potential students (especially my older daughter as her high school career looms much closer). I live in a 1905 house; my parents live a block away. I love this neighborhood and I have fought for it in the past. These buildings are gorgeous, simply lovely structures and it would be a shame to see them go. But on the other hand, I believe the sisters are looking to the future. As we all know, old buildings require care and money. Lots. I would hate to see the school either give up on an urban campus or close entirely over strapped financial resources. We must understand this order is small and dying, as are many Catholic women's orders in the US. They want to leave this place in good shape when they eventually turn it over to other hands. An albatross of an 1894 structure is probably not in their best interest considering this.

    I speak from experience. My high school is no more–I graduated from Mt. Carmel High in Houston, Texas. The Carmelites turned the school over to the diocese when they no longer had the staff or funds to continue, with the promise from the bishop that he would not close the school. He didn't: his successor did. The reason sited? The crumbling state of the (old by Houston standards, 1940s/50s) buildings. My school was co-ed but otherwise similar to SEA. They accepted students who were perhaps not top-notch but still deserved a good education. Many, if not most, of the students were on financial aid and scholarships. And it is gone because the diocese did not want to support the aging facility.

    The sisters have to see this coming. They turn it over to the diocese when they are all too old to run the show, and then what? It's just a little south-side girls school. Don't for a millisecond believe it would rank high on the priority list of where to sink money. And then you have a beautiful set of empty dilapidated school and convent buildings. Hmm. Have we seen this before?

    • Christian says:

      Key neighborhood decisions should not be left exclusively to the purview of a “small and dying” religious order, as you describe them. These buildings do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of an established historic district and a larger, urban neighborhood that has thrived precisely because of its historic buildings, not in spite of them. It is depressing to read comments about how inevitably institutional structures must be demolished because they are old. Practical alternatives to demolition exist and could and should be explored. I believe that a school committed to its neighborhood would be willing to entertain all options. As for the phase-two-demolition-may-not-even-happen scenario, the school has already produced full-color fundraising literature unequivocally stating that demolition is their intention. “Removal” is the term stated regarding the historic structures. It is not something they reference under “to be determined” or “we are investigating all options”. Believe me, there would at least be less controversy if that were the case. As many readers here are well aware, numerous historic buildings, including many historic school buildings, have been renovated and constructively reused throughout this city. Many of these are in far less attractive locations and were in an advanced state of deterioration prior to being renovated. Spending upwards of $8 million in donations just to demolish solid, historic structures in a strong neighborhood has nothing to do with “looking to the future”. It sounds to me rather like looking to the past, specifically the failed era of urban renewal, which resulted in the wasteful destruction of individual buildings and entire neighborhoods in St. Louis and elsewhere. Why would an educational institution not prioritize identifying all viable, alternative solutions that are fiscally responsible and inclusive of community input? As has already been stated, if SEA does not itself have a use for the threatened historic structures, it could explore the possibility of other users that would be consistent with its institutional mission. As long as SEA is on record, in print, stating that demolition is its official goal and it consistently declines offers of assistance in exploring alternatives, then demolition is its steadfast, official goal. So, yes, we are talking about children, but we are also talking about historic buildings and districts, the integrity of Tower Grove East and a potential and unnecessary disaster that is neither inevitable nor respectful of the larger community.

  13. Julie Okenfuss '56 says:

    That is the most disgusting thing I have heard. I am a graduate of SEA and I thought I would never hear of the Board of Directors and the Srs. of the Most Precious Blood having such a disregard of their history. Please rethink such a move.

    • Christian says:

      Julie, you should contact the school directly and let the principal and SEA Board members know how you feel. Please let other people know what's being planned as well. This is not a matter of sentimental building huggers vs. practical, clear-thinking bean counters, though it may be presented that way by some. There are clear, viable alternatives to demolition of these structures, however, SEA must be willing to vigorously explore them.

  14.  yes gmichaud, its the main part of the catholic school tuition… i agreed with you. this thing everybody’s mind that our culture is most important thing wherever we are

  15. Great Post!!!  thanks for sharing this information. this is great blog.

  16. Great Post! you should also make sure other graduate students are aware of what’s going on. as the most likely members to any marketing, alums have a lot of power in this situation.


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