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During its peak enrollment in the 1930s, St. Louis Public Schools had 115,000 students. As families migrated to the suburbs, that number dwindled. It's now around 27,000. That means St. Louis finds itself with too few students and too many schools.

Many of those schools, now falling in to disrepair, were once gorgeous buildings designed by pioneering architect William Ittner. What's more, they were anchors of urban life, and many residents wonder if their neighborhoods can thrive without them.

From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Adam Allington reports.

ADAM ALLINGTON: It's an early spring morning in south St. Louis, and principal Brian Zimmerman bends his 6-foot frame to collect high fives as students filter through the front door of Horace Mann Elementary.

BRIAN ZIMMERMAN: Hey, good morning. Good morning. Good morning. Good morning.

ALLINGTON: Built in 1901, Mann is one of 17 public schools that will be sold, demolished or repurposed over the next several years. In determining the school's fate, Zimmerman says it came down to the building's lack of central air.

ZIMMERMAN: It can get kind of warm in here, you know, when you have those 100-degree days because you're really pushing the air conditioners, the window units and...

ALLINGTON: What would the students used to do in 1945?

ZIMMERMAN: They used to survive.

ALLINGTON: Like most of St. Louis' 100-year schools, Mann Elementary was built by architect William Ittner, whose H-shaped designs with open floor plans and 15-foot ceilings became a hallmark of American educational architecture.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Basically, Ittner opened up the schools. You know, he created volume.

ALLINGTON: Michael Allen is the assistant director of the St. Louis Landmarks Association. We're walking through Arlington School, Ittner's first project for the St. Louis School District, completed in 1898 and closed in 1994. In one classroom, even with broken chalkboards and graffitied walls, it's easy to feel the room's soothing character.

ALLEN: Just coming in the doorway and looking to the corner, we are flanked with three tall windows on one wall, three tall windows on the other wall. And this room is, even on an overcast day, bathed in a very beautiful, natural light.

ALLINGTON: Walking through a building like Arlington, the cliche one wants to reach for is they just don't build them like this anymore. And unfortunately, after a decade and a half of neglect, Arlington's brick walls are starting to collapse. The hardwood flooring is cracked and warped, and the brass lion heads that once decorated the roof's corners have been hacked off.

ALLEN: You really can't quantify the impact in the neighborhood of a large abandoned building with no certain future. I mean, residents of this neighborhood probably didn't envision when this building closed in 1994 that 15 years later, it would still be sitting vacant with no end in sight.

ALLINGTON: Allen says now is probably the worst time for the district to unload so many historic properties. In years past, Ittner's schools have found new life as senior living communities or loft-style apartments. But in reality, there are only a few city neighborhoods where loft dwelling hipsters are likely to live.

LEE OTIS WILLIAMS: Not here. Can you see a loft across the street? You know, the way the neighborhood is, people can hardly afford their rent around here now, let alone like, paying some money for a loft.

ALLINGTON: Lee Otis Williams runs a convenience store across the street from Mark Twain Elementary, one of 14 schools closing at the end of the year. With its brick arches and striking cupolas, it's easy to see why the neighborhood and school had become synonymous.

OTIS WILLIAMS: But without the school being open, I don't know if they want to call it Mark Twain, you know, anymore, because that's a big part of here is that Mark Twain school.

ALLINGTON: As it stands, one of the few groups showing interest in buying old schools are charter 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 those offering to keep children in William Ittner's schools.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Allington in St. Louis.

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