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Residents, alumnae protest pending demolition of former Incarnate Word convent

About 40 people rallied to save the former Incarnate Word convent on Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
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About 40 people rallied to save the former Incarnate Word convent on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

Advocates of preserving the former Incarnate Word convent continue to call on the University of Missouri-St. Louis to reverse its decision to demolish the building.

Built in 1922 to house the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, the university acquired the convent 20 years ago. It's located in the Village of Ben-Nor, south of the UMSL campus, across the street from the Normandie Golf Course.

About 40 people gathered on the steps of the convent Sunday to protest its upcoming demolition.

“I think tearing it down is going to create a hole in the streetscape. It’s destroying a huge part of the neighborhood’s history. And the truth of the matter is they’re throwing away an asset to both the university and the community,” said David Ruth, a longtime neighborhood resident.

Sheila Boul attended Incarnate Word Academy when she was a girl. Her daughter Maggie Boul is a senior at the school.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
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Sheila Boul attended Incarnate Word Academy when she was a girl. Her daughter Maggie Boul is a senior at the school.

Generations of Sheila Boul’s family have gone to the Incarnate Word Academy next door, so for her losing the convent is personal.

“It’s been an important piece of history for the neighborhood and my family. My sister’s been an Incarnate Word nun for 50 years; this is kind of where she started out,” Boul said, adding that her sister used to live in the convent.

Boul also praised the architecture and beauty of the building — a sentiment echoed by Dan Riley, who organized the protest.

“It was built with the finest materials; I mean this is beautiful stone, beautiful brick. If you go around the back you can see all of the archways,” said Riley, who calls himself an “architecture buff” and studied urbanism in college.

UMSL has stated that given the university’s backlog of building repairs estimated at $300 million, the Incarnate Word Convent  does not have the “strategic value” to make renovating it a priority.

Dan Riley speaks to rally-goers about the convent as they brainstorm ways to get the attention of university power-brokers.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
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Dan Riley speaks to rally-goers about the convent as they brainstorm ways to get the attention of university power-brokers.

Asked whether his group had offered to help raise the money needed for renovations, Riley said no.

“We don’t think we should have to tell a public entity to do the right thing with our money,” Riley said. “But if we have to then we have to. And we certainly don’t think we should have to be offering money to a public entity that has hundreds of millions of dollars in construction already going. And the reality is that it would cost them nothing to do a number of proposals that we’ve recommended.”

Four buildings costing an estimated $113 million total are currently under construction at UMSL, largely paid for with bonds, student fees and private gifts.

After meeting last year with Riley and others who want to save the convent, the university agreed to put out a request for renovation proposals.

Bel-Nor chairman and developer Kevin Buchek was the only one who responded. He proposed turning the top three floors into apartments for seniors and renting the bottom floor to Incarnate Word Academy as office space.

But the university denied his proposal.

Campus spokesman Bob Samples told St. Louis Public Radio the proposal was denied due to concerns with the budget, construction timeline, lease terms and Buchek’s management experience. Buchek said those concerns were not valid and UMSL’s desired timeline was unreasonable.

On Friday Samples said the university’s stance on razing the convent had not changed.

“We are currently seeking bids to have the buildings removed during this calendar year,” he said in a written statement.

Buchek said it would have cost the university nothing to accept his proposal because it would have been his responsibility to pay for the renovations.

Bel-Nor chairman Kevin Bucheck, left, was the only developer to submit a renovation proposal to the university.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
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Bel-Nor chairman Kevin Bucheck, left, was the only developer to submit a renovation proposal to the university.

“They would have to actually put up no cash at all. They’re planning on spending a million dollars to tear it down, so it would not only have saved them a million dollars but would have generated an additional million and a half in revenue in lease payments from me,” Buchek said.

St. Louis Public Radio was unable to confirm the exact cost of demolition with the university.

Buchek’s proposal submitted a $7.5 million price tag to turn the convent into senior apartments and office space; the university estimates the cost of renovating both the convent and St. Agnes Hall, another university building, at $11 million.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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