The emotional discussion over the fate of a former St. Paul church building is sharply dividing the Como Park neighborhood and school communities.
At issue: Should the former St. Andrew’s Catholic Church building remain standing as a historic, cultural tribute to those who built it, to immigrants and to others who considered it a neighborhood landmark? Or should the popular, growing charter school that currently owns the structure be able to raze it and replace it with a new school building?
The Twin Cities German Immersion School bought the deconsecrated church building in the Como area and began holding classes there in 2013. Now the board of the growing school wants to tear down the 1920s-era Romanesque structure to construct a building with an up-to-date gym, cafeteria and classrooms.
Outraged by the possibility of losing the building, neighbors, preservationists and others with ties to the former church asked the St. Paul City Council to designate it as a historic site. They believe the former church has historical and cultural value and should remain standing. However, after taking testimony from both sides the council decided last week to delay a vote until June 5.
If a reasonable compromise can’t be reached before then, the school should be allowed to proceed with its plans. The property owners shouldn’t be forced to spend millions now and in the future on repairing and maintaining the old structure. Those funds would be better spent on a new facility and on educating students.
The St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission has voted twice to support historic designation. In addition, the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office has said the former church building could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
However, the city’s Planning Commission voted against the historic designation, saying that saving the structure is not vital to St. Paul’s comprehensive plan. And school leaders and parents say they have in fact considered numerous alternatives, including finding another site or buying a school across the street from the church.
St. Andrew’s is a beautiful building from the outside, designed and built in the 1920s in the Romanesque revival style of the late 1800s. Still, is not the only church of its kind in St. Paul and the region; several with similar styles remain and are still being used as churches.
In addition, two of the original St. Andrew’s buildings — the convent and the rectory — were already torn down. A classroom building was built on the site in 1957, and another school addition was constructed by the current owners in 2013. The Catholic Church sold the sanctuary and school to TCGIS with the understanding that the property continue to be used as a school.
Efforts by the preservation groups are understandable. They don’t want to lose an iconic neighborhood building whose history tells the story of the architects, the builders, and early church members and their descendants. Family histories and community memories are attached to such buildings and places.
City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who represents the Como neighborhood, said she is concerned about how divisive the issue has become and expressed hope that the neighborhood can “work together to heal.”
And at last week’s council meeting, Brendmoen said she would ask both sides to try to find a resolution, possibly through alternative dispute resolution.
Though both the charter school and the preservationists raise important concerns, if they can’t make a deal the building’s owners should prevail.