Historic St. Louis Schools Face Uncertain Future

Mark Twain Elementary School in St. Louis

Mark Twain Elementary anchors the neighborhood of the same name in St. Louis. The school is slated for closure this year. Courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis
Arlington School i i

Arlington School has been empty since 1994. It is one of the schools designed by William Ittner now up for sale. Adam Allington for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Allington for NPR
Arlington School

Arlington School has been empty since 1994. It is one of the schools designed by William Ittner now up for sale.

Adam Allington for NPR

The city of St. Louis is trying to decide what will become of many of its historic school buildings and the neighborhoods that they anchor.

Some of the schools were designed by architect William Ittner. His buildings — from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — dot St. Louis' landscape. Open-floor plans, 15-foot ceilings and hardwood floors are hallmarks of Ittner's designs. His concepts influenced the way schools were built around the country.

Now, the city is planning to sell 10 of Ittner's schools. Five are already on the market, and five more are slated for closing as the St. Louis Public School District cuts back. At its peak enrollment in the 1930s, 115,000 students went to St. Louis public schools. Now it is more like 27,000.

This year, the district is closing 14 schools, including some that Ittner did not design.

Troubled Old Buildings

Among the Ittner schools that will be sold, demolished or repurposed is Horace Mann Elementary, built in 1901. Principal Brian Zimmerman says the decision to close Mann came down to its lack of central air-conditioning.

Ittner's first project for the St. Louis school district — Arlington School — is one of those already up for sale. It was completed in 1898 and closed in 1994. After a decade and a half of neglect, its walls are collapsing and floorboards are cracked and warped. Brass lion heads that once decorated the roof's cornice have been hacked off.

Despite the broken chalkboards and graffiti-covered walls, the rooms have a soothing character.

On a recent visit, Michael Allen, assistant director of the St. Louis Landmarks Association, noted three tall windows in one classroom.

"Even on an overcast day," he said, the room "is bathed in a very beautiful natural light."

Remaking Ittner's Schools

The elegance of Ittner's buildings makes it easy to imagine them used in other ways. Some of his schools have found new life as senior living communities, or loft-style apartments.

Allen says, however, now is probably the worst time for the district to unload so many historic properties. And, in reality, there are only a few city neighborhoods where loft-dwelling hipsters are likely to live.

"Not here!" he says of the Arlington School. "You know, the way the neighborhood is, people can barely afford their rent, let alone paying some money for a loft."

The closing of a school can have other implications for the neighborhood that surrounds it.

In one part of St. Louis, a shopkeeper wonders if the neighborhood's name — Mark Twain — will still make sense after the local elementary school of the same name closes its doors. The school's brick arches and striking cupolas make it a distinct neighborhood landmark.

"But without the school being open, I don't know if they want to call it Mark Twain anymore," says Lee Otis Williams, who runs the convenience store across the street. "That's a big part of here is that Mark Twain School."

As it stands, charter schools are among the few groups showing interest in buying old schools. In years past, district administrators have resisted selling to charters. But with budgets tight and pressure from neighborhoods to keep the buildings occupied, it will be hard to turn away any serious buyer, especially one that is offering to keep children in William Ittner's schools.

Adam Allington reports for member station KWMU.

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