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Plan to build Ronald McDonald House on historic St. Louis church site stalls

The historic, Gothic revival church on Tower Grove and Chouteau avenues would need to be demolished for Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis to build their new 60-bed facility.
St. Louis Preservation Board
The historic, Gothic revival church on Tower Grove and Chouteau avenues would need to be demolished for Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis to build a 60-bed facility.

Officials from Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis thought they found a perfect spot to build a new facility to house families of hospitalized children. But their plan for a 60-bedroom building has hit a snag.

Earlier this year, the charity bought 2.6 acres of land in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood — a nearly equal drive from the city’s two children’s hospitals. But the plot of land includes an abandoned 19th century church, and the city’s Preservation Board has said the organization’s plan can’t justify tearing down a historic building.

Because the planned development is in a city-designated preservation review district and the church on the property is classified as a “high merit” building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the St. Louis Preservation Board must approve its demolition.

Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis offers living arrangements so families of sick children can stay close to their hospitalized relatives. The organization has two facilities in the city of St. Louis – one near SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital on South Grand and another near St. Louis Children’s Hospital in the Central West End. The charity also has a suburban location near Mercy Children's Hospital in Creve Coeur.

Even with multiple housing facilities, the organization is constantly in need of more space, President Dan Harbaugh said.

“Right now we have 39 bedrooms in the city and on any given night we need an additional 20 to 25 bedrooms,” he said.

The 60-bed facility would be in what he describes as a perfect location: Exactly in between the two urban children’s hospitals.

Harbaugh said if the city denied its plans to demolish the church, the charity would most likely look for another location.

The organization’s plans have been met with enthusiasm by local developers and Alderman Joe Roddy, who represents the city’s 17th Ward, Harbaugh said.

The small, Gothic revival church was built in 1897 and operated for decades as Emmaus German Evangelical Lutheran Church. Planning Board documents indicate the building has been vacant for “many years.”

According to St. Louis Cultural Resources Office Director Dan Krasnoff, the church is considered historically significant in part because of its age and its history as a Lutheran outpost.

There is another warehouse building on the property, which Ronald Mcdonald House could tear down without approval, according to the board.

At its Oct. 22nd meeting, Krasnoff said the board denied the charity’s request during a process called a “preliminary review,” which is a more casual process than a formal demolition permit application.

The Ronald McDonald House doesn’t have a plan for what the facility would look like, only a massing study that shows how much space it would fill. Charity officials plan to create a more specific development plan and come back to the Preservation Board to ask for permission again, Harbaugh said.

That could potentially make a difference in the approval process, Krasnoff said.

“They can flesh out their plans more and come back for another preliminary review,” he said.

However, Harbaugh implied a plan to incorporate the church into the new development could be prohibitively expensive.

“We have a track record in this community of doing good things, and we want to do the right thing,” he said. “But again, we’re not-for-profit, and if there’s going to be so many hurdles where it’s not financially conducive to do it, then we’re not going to do it.”

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