As a girl growing up in Bel-Nor, Melanie Ziebatree recalls riding her bicycle around the neighborhood and taking in the majestic view of the Incarnate Word convent on Normandy Drive, across from the Normandie golf course.
She even joined classmates on field trips to the building, and members of her family attended Incarnate Word Academy. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Ziebatree remembers the building being the home of the campus Honors College.
Now, as she works on her Ph.D. at UMSL’s school of education on its south campus, she knows the building in a different way – closed and targeted for demolition, a potential casualty of the school’s big backlog of maintenance and repair costs and small budget to cover the work.
Ziebatree feels the school’s plan to knock the structure down is a mistake, for a lot of reasons.
“The building has stature and presence in the community,” she said in a recent interview. “It conveys a sense of history and connection with the neighborhood around it. When I’m walking there, I feel like I’m at a university.
“I understand being modern and having the latest state-of-the-art, up-to-date technology and infrastructure. But UMSL is really missing a chance to update older buildings and convey both a sense of history and modernization within one building.”
Ziebatree is not alone in her admiration for the former convent, which was built in the 1920s and acquired by the university 70 years later. UMSL had planned to knock it down last year, but in response to a community outcry, the campus agreed to seek proposals to rehab it instead. But it got only one response and rejected it as inadequate, so the school has reaffirmed its plans to raze the building later this year.
Now, more than 1,500 people have signed an online petition urging otherwise. Citing the former convent’s “wood parquet floors, arched doorways and grand, colonnaded chapel,” the petition says such features “have inspired residents and patrons with reverence and awe.”
A letter to UMSL Chancellor Tom George and other university officials urges them to “re-consider options that would allow this piece of our city's history to stand another 100 years.” Opponents of demolition are planning a rally and other ways to advance their cause.
But campus spokesman Bob Samples says a change of course is unlikely. He said with $300 million of maintenance and repair needed on UMSL buildings, the convent doesn’t have the kind of “strategic” value to the campus to spend the estimated $11 million it would take to bring it and a companion building, St. Agnes Hall, back to proper shape.
With the one proposal to rehab the convent rejected, Samples added, “we’ve turned back to the process of removing the building.” He said the demolition would be put out for bid this spring, with the project to be completed by the end of 2015.
Too many repairs, too few dollars
UMSL concluded last year that given the needs of buildings on campus, renovation of the convent was not feasible. Working with the adjacent Incarnate Word Academy “to ensure a positive outcome for this outstanding private girls high school,” the university began planning to knock the building down, according to a summary of the situation issued by the campus.
“Demolition of these facilities was seen as a major step forward in addressing UMSL’s maintenance and repair issues and – along with new buildings under construction – creating a long-term sustainability model for campus building maintenance,” it said.
But demolition was not acceptable to backers of the building, many of whom are the same area residents who had been questioning the university’s motives concerning the Normandie golf course, right next to the convent. The university purchased that land earlier this year with $1.4 million in private funds from an anonymous donor and has pledged to maintain it as a golf course, signing a 10-year lease.
In response to their opposition to the convent’s demise, the university agreed to put out a request for proposals to rehab the building. The 153-page document laid out a detailed plan for how proposals would be judged, as well as a list of unacceptable uses for the property, ranging from a dollar store to a tattoo parlor to a crematory to an “adult peep show.”
Only one response came back, from developer Kevin Buchek, who wanted to turn the convent into 47 apartments for residents age 55 or older, plus 10,000 square feet of commercial space. His 32-page proposal had a budget of $7.7 million and would be carried out by a team "comprised of members with several decades of experience in the construction and real estate field.”
But UMSL rejected the plan. A three-paragraph letter in January from Larry Eisenberg, the campus’ assistant vice chancellor for managerial and technological services gave no specific reasons for turning down the proposal, saying only:
“After much discussion and deliberation, the university has decided not to proceed with the project at this time.”
Asked to expand on that statement, Samples, the campus spokesman, gave four reasons: the timeline for construction, the budget for construction, the minimum lease payment and the Buchek team’s lack of management expertise with residential facilities for the elderly.
He added that even with more than 1,500 petition signatures against demolition of the convent, UMSL doesn’t think there is unanimity in favor of saving the building.
“I think that there are varied views on the long-term viability,” Samples said, “and we’re trying to make sure that we do what’s best for the community and for the university.”
'UMSL has abused this community'
Not surprisingly, Buchek disputes the university’s reasons for turning down his proposal, and he calls the whole process a sham. He said the school set an impossible timeline for construction, his budget is more reasonable than theirs and his management team has just the experience needed for the job.
“That’s what I do for a living,” he said. “I renovate historic buildings. I’ve done hundreds or actually thousands of units of housing. I know exactly what it costs to turn a building like that into apartments.”
Buchek said there is a lack of community trust in the campus leadership that is getting worse, but he is determined not to back down on the convent issue.
“I’m absolutely not giving up,” he said. “I’m giving up on trusting the current leadership at UMSL. I’m definitely giving up on that. I’m not giving up on saving the golf course. I’m not giving up on saving the convent.”
And if he were talking about the Incarnate Word site at this time next year, would he be talking about green space or an existing building?
“I think UMSL will succumb to the public pressure at some point,” Buchek said. “I think the convent will still be there.”
Melanie Ziebatree hopes he’s right.
“St. Louis has some beautiful architecture,” she said. “Certainly the university would be wise to do their best to try to uphold the tradition and really ingratiate itself to the community around it. I think people appreciate a sense of history.”
St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger