St. Paul panel wants preservation of Como church building that charter school wants to raze

St. Paul panel wants preservation of Como church building that charter school wants to raze
Former St. Paul church now housing German Immersion School seeks historic designation
After three hours of testimony that pitted a school’s wishes to do a better job educating its students against a neighborhood’s desire to preserve its history, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission voted to recommend the former St. Andrew’s Catholic Church be given historic designation.

It will eventually be up to the St. Paul City Council to decide whether the Twin Cities German Immersion School, which bought the church in 2013, will be allowed to raze it and replace it with a modern, multistory addition.

Neighbors seeking to save the iconic Como Park structure from the wrecking ball took their pleas to the city’s Preservation Commission on Monday. The commission’s job, however, was limited to a key question: Does St. Andrew’s meet the criteria necessary to be designated a historic site? After hours of testimony, it said yes.

“That designation threatens the very life of our school,” said Kelly Laudon, a member of the charter school’s board who has four children at the school.

The Twin Cities German Immersion School has been using what it calls “the Aula” as cafeteria, gymnasium and performance space. Officials are seeking to replace the 1927 building with an 18,000-square-foot addition that school leaders say will be better for their growing student body. St. Andrew’s closed in 2011, when the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis merged its parish with a neighboring church.

A group of neighbors, however, has fought the demolition. Rolf Anderson, an architectural historian, was part of a team of consultants that determined the former church deserves historic designation and might even merit nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Besides its architecture — Romanesque Revival style — the building is significant because of the man who designed it. Charles Hausler, St. Paul’s first city architect, also designed several other St. Paul buildings, including five that are on the National Register.

“We certainly concluded that St. Andrew’s deserves additional attention,” Anderson said.

Joe Peroutka, a commission member, said he believes the church is significant and that its place in St. Paul history is significant. The city’s West Side, he said, at one time had 11 synagogues. Now there are none.

But Ted Anderson, the school’s director, said city and county officials taking an inventory of historic properties years ago did not deem St. Andrew’s worthy of mention. And it wasn’t deemed historic by the archdiocese, which sold it. It doesn’t deserve the designation, he said.

“If it did, then the congregation would still be in existence and our school would be elsewhere,” Ted Anderson said.

The matter will go to the St. Paul Planning Commission, then a review by state historic preservation officials, before it returns to the City Council. The council will need to decide whether it should force a property owner that did not ask for historic designation to scuttle its plans for a larger school because of it. School officials are planning to begin work on the school expansion in May.

Minnesota’s only German-immersion school has seen explosive growth since it started with just 46 students in 2005. It now enrolls more than 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the school anticipates 100 more in the future.

James Walsh is a reporter covering St. Paul and its neighborhoods. He has had myriad assignments in nearly 30 years at the Star Tribune, including federal courts and St. Paul schools.

In St. Paul’s Como neighborhood, St. Andrew’s Church could be demolished to make room for a three-story expansion of the popular German Immersion School next door. Or the imposing, 91-year-old former worship space could be preserved as-is due to a local historic designation that took a step closer to reality on Monday night.

“Clearly, its a significant historic building, at least in my mind, said St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission member Stuart MacDonald.

With dozens of audience members filling seats and crammed against walls, teachers, parents, students, neighbors and school board members argued their case during a nearly 3 1/2-hour public hearing before a panel of historic preservationists at St. Paul City Hall. A granddaughter of building architect Charles Hausler flew in from Florida to testify against demolition. Taking the opposite tack, Anthony Radecki, whose children attend the growing charter school, wore a poster affixed to his torso that said “vote kids not bricks.”

A granddaughter of architect Charles Hausler came from Florida to testify in favor of saving St. Andrews Church. Audience member feels just the opposite.

The Heritage Preservation Commission met to consider whether to designate St. Andrew’s a St. Paul Heritage Preservation site, as requested by a community coalition and supported by the citys heritage preservation staff. Following 3 1/2 hours of public comments, the commission voted 8-1 in favor of the designation. Citing concerns about interior alterations to the structure and the integrity of the building, Commissioner Casie Radford was the sole “no” vote against the historic designation.

Thats step one of many. The decision over whether to institute a historic designation will also rest with the St. Paul Planning Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office and finally the St. Paul City Council, which are all likely to take up the question in the coming weeks.

St. Andrew’s dwindling Catholic parish stopped holding services at the church at the end of 2010. The German Immersion School bought the 1927-era Romanesque Revival-style building and the land and structures around it in 2013, spending $9 million or more to outfit it and construct a new school facility next door.

School officials said neither the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis nor the Ramsey County Historical Society had made much effort to preserve the structure in years past, and a historic designation would effectively force a secular charter school to spend tax dollars on maintaining the poorly insulated church building for the pleasure of a shrinking religious community. With classes spilling into hallways and students slipping on marble floors, they’re eager to see the K-8 charter school grow to accommodate the larger-than-anticipated student body.

State education funding “should be going toward making sure that we prepare our children to be informed citizens and leaders of tomorrow,” Samuel Walling, chair of the German Immersion School board, said in an interview. “It shouldn’t be used to make sure the terracotta tiles are in the same condition 30 years from now that they’re in today.”

Walling and board secretary Kelly Laudon were joined Monday by the opposition — Como neighbors intent on saving the church at 1031 W. Como Ave., as well as its elaborate bays, wings and bell tower, from the proverbial wrecking ball.

“Churches have been our most famous landmarks,” said Bob Roscoe, a member of the Save Historic St. Andrew’s coalition. “In a time of increasing urban change, churches give us a sense of pride and permanence.”

Fellow coalition member Roy Neal said the church once anchored both Hungarian and German festival nights, and a healthy school and historic building could co-exist. Were searching for a win-win solution here, he said. Theres no going back from demolition.

Student: My brother has gotten hurt in the gym. Ive slipped and hurt myself. … its a beautiful building and Ill be sad to lose it but it isnt a significant landmark. It isnt the James J. Hill House or Split Rock Lighthouse. Several speakers called St. Andrews unsafe.

In their application, the Save Historic St. Andrew’s coalition pointed to the writings of architectural historian Larry Millett, who noted in the American Institute of Architects Guide to the Architecture of the Twin Cities that St. Andrews Church is “one of St. Pauls best period revival churches and hailed “the quality of design and its beautiful detailing.” The Romanesque Revival-style church draws some inspiration from northern Italy, southern France and the Byzantine period.

Walling and Laudon pointed to small-group discussions and special education instruction held in hallways, a cafeteria that doubles as a second gym, and student enrollment that has grown to exceed 580 students since the inaugural class in 2005. They noted a difficult search for alternative locations in or near the, where some families have moved into the area so their kids can live within walking distance.

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