– UMSL responds to community concerns about plans to demolish former Incarnate Word Convent and Alumni Center.
PHOTO: Normandie Hall, part of the former Incarnate Word Convent but now vacant, is on UMSL’s South campus. Photo by Ryan Brooks for The Current 2014 ©

 

By Simonne Kimble, Staff Writer and Cate Marquis, A&E Editor for The Current

The old Alumni Center, now unused, sits at the main entrance to the UMSL North campus. Photo by Ryan Brooks for The Current 2014 (c)

University of Missouri—St. Louis’ summer plans to demolish their first dormitories on campus, Normandie and St. Agnes Halls, which were previously part of the Incarnate Word Convent, have changed. The fate of the old Alumni Center, a historic home at the corner of Natural Bridge and Arlmont at the entrance of North campus, which was also slated for demolition, is less clear but demolition this summer appears to be on hold.

A March 22 article in the Post-Dispatch revealed plans by the university to demolish several unused buildings on the campus, including these historic ones, because it would be too costly to renovate them. The Sisters of Charity had sold the convent buildings to UMSL in 1993 but the buildings are no longer in use.

The demolition plans brought objections from people in the surrounding Bel-Nor neighborhood. Dan Riley, a Bel-Nor resident, started a petition to save the former Incarnate Word Convent and the Alumni Center, which attracted supporters from around the St. Louis area.

On April 14, university officials met with members of the North County community who had expressed concern over the planned demolition.

Bob Samples, associate vice chancellor of advancement for university communications, stated in a Post-Dispatch article on April 16, that the university “would hold off on demolition of the old convent site and issue a request for proposals to see if individuals are interested in renovating the facility and putting it to a positive use.”

“We listened to people, we listened to the petitions and responded accordingly,” UMSL Chancellor Thomas George said.

“We decided that we’re going to basically put it up for sale. If there is a buyer out there who would like to buy it, and they are going to have to fix it up and put it to a good use, we’d be open to that,” Chancellor George said. “So we’ve got probably up to the next half year to be out there and see if there is a buyer. We’re not going to sell the land, we would rent the land, but we would sell the facility.”

The re-developer would lease the land from UMSL but buy the buildings. The new owner would be responsible for renovations to the buildings.

A major factor that contributed to UMSL’s initial decision about the former convent was the cost to keep the buildings up-to-date. The estimated cost to upkeep the building without emergency repairs can run between $130,000 and $170,000.

“Normandie and St. Agnes Halls (the former convent) were up for being demolished because it would cost us about $11 million to bring it back to code and really be able to work with it and use it,” Chancellor George said. “To replace it, we had an estimate of $25 million – if we had wanted to replace it.”

At this moment, there are no plans for a building at the location. Instead it would have become green space.  “Green space is the best strategy for the University,” said Samples, before the decision to delay demolition was announced. “This is the best way [for UMSL] to move forward.”

UMSL is about $3 million behind in deferred maintenance. The system-wide need is priced at over $1 billion. Renovating the Social Sciences & Business Building (SSB) building is one of UMSL’s top priorities, the cost for which is estimated at $60 million.

Many residents of the Bel-Nor neighborhood that surrounds the campus were upset that UMSL was considering to demolishing a beautiful building that has been in their community for almost 100 years.

“Communication with the community is so important,” Riley said. “There’s been a lot of activity happening without much interest in educating or engaging the neighboring community.”

“We’re not quite saved, but we’ve at least delayed any demolition plans,” Riley said. He added he will not be satisfied until the demolition decision is canceled completely.

The fate of the Alumni Center is less clear. Riley started a Facebook campaign and a petition to stop the demolition of both buildings and to inform others on how important the former convent is to the community. The electronic petition has almost 1,000 signatures and his Facebook page has over 1,000 likes from people who are trying to protect the existence of the nearly 100-year-old former convent.

The community, including Bel-Nor’s mayor, Kevin Buchek, came up with four proposals for the future use of the former convent. The proposals included making it into an assisted living facility for the elderly, a bed-and-breakfast-style boutique hotel, shared space for Incarnate Word Academy and other organizations and a central government center for the area municipalities, which include Bel-Nor, Greendale, and Normandy.

Buchek has also made offers to buy or rent the old Alumni Center to use as Bel-Nor’s city hall. UMSL has declined these offers.

“The Alumni Center is not even part of the conversation. We’re just not looking at that right now,” Chancellor George said.

The Alumni Center is stately brick home built in 1930 in the classic style of the 1920s, with a green glazed tile roof, curved top windows, and black-and-white marble floor in the den and other classic ’20s features. It was once used for meetings and receptions.

“It is really neat, I wish it were handicap-accessible,” Chancellor George said. “That was one of our major challenges because we are under the gun by so many different places to have more of our facilities be handicap-accessible.”

©  The Current 2014