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.
The school board voted in July to raze the building after considering other options, such as buying a neighboring school. Officials say the old building, which has been extensively remodeled inside, is inefficient and would be too expensive to maintain.
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.
“It is significant. It is exceptional. It needs to be preserved,” he said.
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.