“An Unparalleled Cultural Treasure”: Remarks on the SLPS Facilities Management Plan
February 11, 2009
Landmarks Board Member William G. Seibert provided the following remarks at the public meeting on the St. Louis Public Schools facilities management plan held Saturday, February 7 at Vashon High School.
The school buildings that your predecessors commissioned between 1880 and 1940, many of which remain in your stewardship today, represent an unparalleled cultural treasure without equal anywhere in this country. Nothing comes close to it. These buildings are among St. Louis' most significant and most magnificent inheritances from the period when it was one of the half dozen greatest cities in the United States.
Clearly our city's situation has changed over the last 60 years, and clearly St. Louis Public Schools no longer has need for all of the buildings that remain in its inventory. Nevertheless, certain obligations of stewardship remain, and history and future generations of St. Louisans will bitterly condemn you should you ignore or walk away from these obligations.
First, you owe it to this community to ensure that any of these architecturally unsurpassed historic school buildings that you close and dispose of are conveyed to parties who will preserve and adaptively re-use them so that they continue to enrich the environment and the life of this city.
Second, you have a duty to ensure that all of the historic school buildings that remain in use by St. Louis Public Schools, are maintained or renovated in a manner that fully respects their defining architectural characteristics and features and the superb landscaped settings in which so many of them are situated.
The pernicious notion that the vendors of this facilities review have attempted to plant in the minds of the people, namely that our historic school buildings are outdated and unsuitable places for learning in the 21st century, should be rejected out of hand. The grotesque fallacy of this characterization is illustrated locally by the New City School, one of the most highly respected and innovative elementary schools in the United States. It is located in a 108-year-old building that is the object of great affection and fierce pride for students, teaching and administrative staff, parents, and alumni.
And on the subject of building condition, I would point out that less than 20 years ago, the people of this City authorized the expenditure of over $200 million dollars for a Capital Improvements Program that completely renovated more than 100 St. Louis Public Schools buildings - replacing windows and completely remediating lead therefrom, restoring masonry and roofs, building new gymnasium and cafeteria additions, totally renovating interior spaces, heating, electrical and plumbing systems, and more. The Administration then promised the voters to adopt a rigorous program of periodic maintenance to safeguard this enormous investment by the citizens in their school buildings. To date, and to the Administration's great shame, this promise has gone unfulfilled. Virtually zero exterior painting has taken place, and other maintenance has been purposefully and systematically deferred as well. The trust of the tax-paying public has been cynically broken and cast aside. The effort by the media and others to characterize these school buildings as dilapidated is a gross distortion of reality and one more example of floating the "big lie" and counting on public amnesia to lend it credence.
Finally, with regard to a specific building, I urge you not to dispose of Clark School, but rather to ensure its continuing use, if not as an elementary school then for some other appropriate purpose. The immediate juxtaposition of Clark and Soldan and their location on one of the City's, indeed the country's, most spectacular boulevards, is perhaps the greatest single legacy left to the St. Louis Public Schools and to us, the people of this community, by William B. Ittner. This legacy should be valued, respected, and preserved. Perhaps a sensible use for Clark would be to house the Ralph Bunche International Studies Middle School. Having this exemplary program next door to the equally outstanding International Studies High School at Soldan would seem to be a perfect arrangement.