© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Historic Harris-Stowe rec center to get $1.7 million renovation

Harris-Stowe State University
The Vashon Community Center previously received a $1-million grant to stabilize the exterior.

Harris-Stowe State University’s historic Vashon Community Center is getting an upgrade.

The university has received a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service to renovate the interior of the 1936 building, along with $1.2 million from the state of Missouri. The building has most recently been used for storage, but after the $1.7-million renovations, the former public recreation center will again be open to the public.

“It’s a building on our campus that has great historic significance. To be able to ensure that the building is open and able to serve the community again is wonderful,” said Heather Bostic, who’s vice president in the Harris-Stowe State University department that writes grants.

Credit Harris-Stowe State University

Because of segregation, Vashon Community Center was one of few public recreational facilities open to African-American St. Louisans when it was built.

“It was really only one of four places in the city that African-American youth and adults could go swim, work on crafts,” said Bostic. “And many people have told us that it was a big part of their youth growing up.”

University officials expect the refurbished building to store historic documents and become the venue for the Don and Heide Wolff Jazz Institute and the National Black Radio Hall of Fame.

The National Parks Service grant is part of a $8.6-million grant program that preserves “significant historic structures” on historically black college and university campuses. According to officials, the fund comes from off-shore oil lease revenue instead of taxes.

The grant office selected projects from 18 campuses that have buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Officials said Harris-Stowe State University’s project was selected because they’ve maintained the site well over time.

“We’re not trying to take it back perfectly to a point in time — to where it’s usable but still maintaining the historic character,” said Megan Brown, chief of state, tribal, local plans and grants for the National Park Service. Her office manages the historic preservation fund.

Brown also said that the grant fund values projects that will be open to the public.

“The use as a community center also carries a lot of weight for it.”

The college previously received a $1-million grant from the National Park Service to stabilize the exterior with tuck pointing and a roof replacement, but the interior still contains hazardous materials like lead and is not accessible under the American Disabilities Act.

The renovation will focus on updating mechanical features like the electric system, making it accessible to wheelchairs and people with disabilities, and remediating lead and asbestos.

Credit Harris-Stowe State University
The building is not currently open to the public because it contains hazardous materials.

The 15,000-square-foot center was designed by City of St. Louis architect Albert Osburg, who also designed the Soulard Market.

The building’s description in the historic register called the building “an excellent example of restrained Art-Deco architecture,” Bostic said.

The project still has a ways to go. Any changes have to be approved by state and national historic preservation offices, Bostic said.

After the National Park Service signs the contract later this year, the university will work with the park service to select a historic architect and engineer. Bostic expects the planning and design phase to begin in January 2019. Construction could begin as soon as fall of 2019.

Bostic said the university hopes to complete the project by October 2020.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.