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St. Elizabeth's Convent. Photograph by Chris Naffziger.
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Convent hallways, St. Elizabeth's. Photograph by Chris Naffziger.
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St. Elizabeth's Academy, front door. Photograph by Chris Naffziger.
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Gymnasium Building, St. Elizabeth's Academy. Photograph by Chris Naffziger.
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Chapel interior, St. Elizabeth's Academy. Photograph by Chris Naffziger.
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The hallways of St. Elizabeth's Academy. Photograph by Chris Naffziger
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Home economics classroom, St. Elizabeth's Academy. Photograph by Chris Naffziger
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Industrial kitchen, St. Elizabeth's Academy. Photograph by Chris Naffziger
The halls of St. Elizabeth Academy are silent now. 130 years after the founding of the all-girls high school at 3401 Arsenal, the Tower Grove East stalwart is now waiting its new role at the center of St. Louis’ immigrant community. The International Institute recently purchased the vacant high school and convent, and renovations to convert the historic buildings began in earnest in August. Work on replacing the roof has already begun. For the Institute's Director Anna Crosslin, the old St. Elizabeth's makes sense.
"St. Elizabeth Academy was founded to educate young immigrant women,” she says. “It seems fitting that, in its next life, it will once again be educating immigrants."
On a recent morning, the International Institute’s director of development, Kate Howell, gave SLM an exclusive tour of the campus in the final weeks of its former incarnation as a Catholic high school. While much of the school’s equipment was sold in a sale recently, most of the interior looks the same as the day the nuns moved out. Walking the halls, one sees an amazing glimpse into the late 19th century in the original convent buildings. Meanwhile, the height of 1950s Modernist design in the adjacent high school addition offers an interesting window into the optimism of post-World War II America.
Once threatened with demolition, the original convent buildings (built in 1894) preserve much of their original woodwork and stained glass. Back then, Tower Grove East was out in the country, and one can imagine fields and orchards spreading out beyond the walls of the convent. Several impressive paintings illustrating the life of St. Elizabeth still sit in the former choir room; the Institute plans on selling the paintings to generate funds for the renovation.
Down the hall, the 1950s era chapel facing Arsenal Street represents a fertile moment in St. Louis’ relationship with Modernist architecture. While sparse in ornamentation, the sanctuary possesses beautiful woodwork and several stained glass windows by the famous Emil Frei Studio. The windows, rather appropriately for a girl’s high school, depict famous Biblical matriarchs such as Judith.
The high school’s home economics classroom will continue to serve the same purpose, now teaching recent immigrants about American appliances. The original 1950s cupboards are all intact, making any lover of midcentury modern design envious of the Institute’s new digs. In an adjacent room, a row of sewing machines sits ready to serve new students. Downstairs, Crosslin explains, the industrial kitchen will serve as a training facility for refugees looking for food service jobs.
The gymnasium will also play an important role for the Institute’s outreach to the community. Completely intact, and possessing one of the last lamella roofs of its kind in Missouri (the now-demolished Arena featured a similar style of roof), the gym will hold events for the Institute and will possibly be available for rental to local groups.
While the closure of St. Elizabeth's was devastating to many in the St. Louis community, its new role as headquarters of one of St. Louis' most important nonprofits shows that the end of one chapter in a religious building's life need not be the last. As more and more churches close or move to the suburbs, creative reuse for the buildings left behind becomes essential to the stability of the neighborhoods around them. Due to the bold move of the Institute, Tower Grove East will no longer have a giant hole of emptiness in the center of the community. And in less than a year, the voices of immigrants will once again be echoing up and down the halls of the old convent.