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One of the first encounters a person has with her community's history is through a public school. Long before adulthood, or museum visits or lectures, comes the first day of school. In the city of St. Louis, chances are that a student's first day of school involved walking up the steps into a historic school from the late 19th or early 20th century. That first day of school may be distant memory, but most people remember the schools themselves forever.
Public schools shape our perception of the importance of public education as well as our sense of the aspirations of our ancestors. The nature of education in a modern world constantly changes, but the great school buildings have remained constant. Schools are matched only by churches in creating a strong sense of place in city neighborhoods.
Obviously, the needs of the St. Louis Public Schools in 2008 are radically different than those that existed one hundred years ago. Clearly, we need fewer schools for a smaller population, and we need modern classrooms. However, we should not make decisions about our school buildings lightly.
Currently, the St. Louis Public Schools is conducting a facilities management plan that will completed by the end of January 2009. This plan will include recommendations for closures and disposition of closed schools. This plan must provide for preservation of schools designed by William B. Ittner and other talented architects who revolutionized American educational architecture here in St. Louis. While the district needs to close schools, neighborhoods and citizens still need a sense of place and history. Demolition should be out of the question. Each historic school is a gift from our ancestors that should be saved.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Michael Allen is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant working in private practice. Most recently he served as the Assistant Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the region's historic preservation advocacy organization. He is also editor of Ecology of Absence, a website with accompanying blog that documents and analyzes changes in the built environments of St. Louis, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. His articles on architecture and policy have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Beacon, St. Louis American, Arch City Chronicle and Omnitectural Forum. In addition to his professional work, Allen has been rehabilitating a house in the city's Old North St. Louis neighborhood for the past two years.