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After The Fire: What's Next For Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum?

The Karpeles Manuscript Library and Museum was badly damaged in the March 2019 fire in south St. Louis.
Andy Field | St. Louis Public Radio

The owner of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louiswants to rebuild following last month's fire that heavily damaged its home near the Compton Hill Reservoir Park.

Dr. David Karpeles said he is looking into fixing the windows and roof of the former church, but the interior walls will likely not be replaced. That would leave one large room in the back half of the building.

In an email conversation this week, Karpeles said full replacement value of the space is around $5 million.

Kerry Manderbach, the local museum director, expanded on those comments. He said a couple of options are being considered. One would renovate the building into essentially a big open room. The other would involve knocking down burned-out sections and putting up a new structure.

Cost could be a determining factor, and that could prompt the museum to turn to St. Louis residents.

"We might announce some sort of fundraising effort at some point in the future," Manderbach said.

He also pointed out the community has already rallied around the museum.

"It's sort of unbelievable. For Dr. Karpeles, it's warmed his heart to know that so many people cared about this little museum in St. Louis," he said.

Manderbach added he has not been told about any potential cause of the fire that devastated the museum. It was one of 14 such museums throughout the country, which hold what is believed to be the world's largest private collection of manuscripts. Much of Dr. Karpeles' collection usually rotates among the locations, but the local museum has some St. Louis-specific documents.

They include a letter from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a local rabbi commemorating that St. Louis had the first synagogue west of the Mississippi and a proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln about the arsenal in St. Louis during the Civil War.

Many of those documents are being stored locally. Some major exhibits have been shipped to Dr. Karpeles' home state of California for safekeeping.

Manderbach said a decision on the repair options should come in the next couple of months. If all goes well, the physical work at the building could begin in late summer.

Media Foundation Also Facing Decisions

While Dr. Karpeles mulls his options, an organization that used some of the museum's space is also trying to figure out what's next. And the search for a new home for the St. Louis Media History Foundation is underway.

"We don't have live options right now," Foundation Board President Eric Rothenbuhler said.

He also admitted it's been a difficult few weeks. "The whole thing was a labor of love, held together by the passion and interest of folks who care about media history."

The majority of the documents and exhibits kept by the organization, including old microphones and photographs, were saved from the flames. They are being kept in a few spots around the region.

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louis opened in August 2015.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louis opened in August 2015.

"I believe we're spread out in four or five places where people have volunteered to let us use part of their garage or part of their basement, or one thing or another," said Rothenbuhler, who is the dean of the School of Communications at Webster University.

The board will have to get together before any decision on a future location are made.

A meeting date has not been set.

Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter @WayneRadio


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Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.