Landmarks Urges Preservation Safeguards for Historic Schools
January 30, 2009
The Board of Directors of Landmarks Association adopted this position statement at its January meeting.
Landmarks Association of St. Louis strongly urges the Special Administrative Board and the St. Louis Public Schools to include sensible provisions for historic preservation in the Facilities Management Plan that it will adopt early this year. The majority of schools in the St. Louis Public Schools' inventory are historic buildings that are among the finest in the country, and they deserve our careful stewardship. We acknowledge that closures are necessary in order to responsibly advance the mission of the school district. However, this does not necessarily mandate a sacrifice of these fine buildings to neglect, demolition or inappropriate alterations.
The historic schools of the district represent a nationally recognized contribution to the design of academic facilities. Buildings designed by district architects August Kirchner, William B. Ittner and Rockwell Milligan resolved age-old problems of light, ventilation, circulation and space in educational architecture. These schools are pleasant, humane environments suitable to the purpose of public education. One of the most remarkable features of the schools is that they are as suitable for contemporary needs as they were for past ones.
Schools also provide neighborhoods with irreplaceable institutional and architectural anchors. The buildings are sources of student and neighborhood pride, demonstrate the important role of education in our communities, and serve as cornerstones for neighborhood renewal. Furthermore, the district's continued use of these buildings has conserved the energy resources that would have gone into demolition and new construction. The district's historic schools truly are gifts from our ancestors that we cannot afford to squander.
In 1988, Landmarks Association surveyed the entire inventory of district schools built before 1938. Landmarks identified 110 district buildings with architectural significance, of which at least seven have since been demolished and many more have been sold. Subsequently, Landmarks developed and listed the St. Louis Public Schools of William B. Ittner Multiple Property Documentation Form to streamline listing these important schools on the National Register of Historic Places. Under that document or individually, 25 historic schools built by the district are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the designations have gone to decommissioned schools that have been adapted to new uses, however.
In 1989, Landmarks Association and the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects forged a unique partnership with the St. Louis Public Schools during its $200 million Capital Improvement Program. Working with the district and its architects, Landmarks' staff and board members and architects from the AIA chapter advised the district on maintenance and replacement of windows, renovation work and new additions to historic schools. The results of this collaboration ensured that needs of the district were met while the integrity of the schools was maintained. Much of the historic rehabilitation work, especially decisions to save or replicate wooden windows, actually led to cost reductions. Most of the district's current historic schools have had massive investment and total lead abatement within the last 25 years due to the Capital Improvement Program, a fact that must be remembered today.
Rounds of school closings that occurred in 1993, 1996, 2003 and 2007 have left mixed results. Some schools closed in prior rounds remain vacant, and some have experienced heavy deterioration and vandalism. Many that are now rehabilitated, like Franklin School and Grant School, were abandoned for nearly a decade before developers purchased them. In 2003, the district nearly sold the historic Theresa School to a developer who planned to demolish it. Landmarks Association worked with members of the Board of Education to reverse that decision and find a new buyer that has rehabilitated the school into housing. Because of this incident, the Board adopted a policy preventing sale of closed schools to any party that would demolish them.
Unfortunately, the five schools closed in 2007 remain vacant. While developers have found creative uses for closed schools, the district has not always been prompt in selling closed schools and large waves of closures can overwhelm the market demand for reuse projects. Currently, the district needs to reduce the number of schools while upgrading technology and improving educational results. None of the district's needs preclude continued use of historic schools. In fact, maintenance of historic schools already in use offers the district the chance to reduce capital expenditures on buildings and instead invest funds in technology, supplies and personnel.
Landmarks Association recommends that the SAB include the following principles in the final facilities management plan:
1. That District not demolish any school identified as historically or architecturally significant in the 1988 schools survey;
2. That the District place all eligible schools in the National Register of Historic Places to recognize their significance and to ensure demolition review under municipal ordinance;
3. That the District make all changes or additions to buildings (especially those included in the 1988 schools survey) respectful of defining architectural features and landscaped settings;
4. That the District obtain detailed bids from qualified contractors and architects with historic renovation work experience when evaluating the cost of retaining existing buildings, to avoid the assumption that renovating historic schools necessarily costs more than building new schools;
5. That the District consult with design professionals experienced in historic renovation work when making plans to renovate any existing schools included in the 1988 survey;
6. That the District develop, in concert with preservation consultants, a realistic maintenance plan for all the historic school buildings and incorporate them into a capital funding plan with rigorous follow through.
1. That the District consider leasing schools to public or private entities as an alternative to sale;
2. That the District include in all sales contracts a clause forbidding demolition of schools included in the 1988 survey;
3. That the District reverse its policy of forbidding sales to charter schools or other educational entities, since such sale is preferable to abandonment or demolition;
4. That the District make every attempt to sell or lease buildings and avoid mothballing buildings, for the sake of neighborhood stabilization;
5. That the District properly secure and monitor any historic school closed but retained for future use.