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EarthWays Center heading to a new home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2010 - A stately Victorian house in Grand Center has long been the home of the EarthWays Center, which demonstrates how people can adapt their dwellings to be energy efficient and environmentally smart. But this month's tours -- Nov. 20 & 21 -- will be the last ... at that location.

EarthWays Center is moving to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has operated the building at 3617 Grandel Square for 10 years.

"While the home is closing for tours, the EarthWays Center is not closing," said Glenda Abney, the center's director. The center's staff of 10, with 30-some volunteers, will continue its projects and programs from the garden, she added.

Vince Schoemehl, president of Grand Center Inc., which owns the building, said his organization has known for a couple of years that the center planned to leave.

"They've been great tenants," Schoemehl said. In recent years, the center scheduled its Green Homes Festival to coincide with "Dancing in the Street," Grand Center's performing and visual arts festival in September. "It was just something more for people to do when they come to the dance festival," he said.

What will happen to the house? One report has the Grand Center Arts Academy, a charter school now operating out of the Third Baptist Church at Grand and Washington, acquiring the home for administrative offices. The EarthWays house is just west of the Beaux Arts Building, which is being renovated for classrooms for the school. But a deal that has the school's offices in the building has not been completed.

EarthWays Center's move from the beautiful three-story house that many have come to love will be bittersweet for some.

"We love this location," Abney said from her office on Grandel Square. "This building here -- this three-story Victorian -- is beautiful. It has been a phenomenal tool to explain and promote these things to the public."

The house served as a "visible hook for people to better understand the concepts we promote" but the center's programs can happen "wherever we are," Abney said.

Still, it helped that the house provided a concrete demonstration of what people could do in their own homes. For example, seven kinds of sustainable flooring is used in the house. "We loved the fact that we could bring people in here and tell them how the cork has worn over the thousands of kids that come through," Abney said "We can tell you what it's like to keep the bamboo up."

But she says three problems -- parking, inaccessibility and space -- plagued the center and continue to grow the longer it is at its current location.

"No matter how great the information was, how great the tour was, or how great the class was -- if they go out and find a ticket on their car, that's what they're going to remember," she said. "We can't control that."

Equally problematic is accessibility, Abney said. "This beautiful old Victorian building can only be entered if you go up or down stairs -- literally."

The more popular the center became, the more of an issue accessibility became, too, she said. "This is not just about people who may have limited abilities and are, for instance, in wheelchairs. This is about people who have limited abilities in terms of hip problems or knee problems."

The cost of installing an elevator in the building would be "phenomenally prohibitive," she said. Add to that the fact that Grand Center, not the Garden, owns the building and adding a lift was a non-starter.

While the hallways and stairwell of the house are wide enough allow tour groups to pass through, the room sizes restrict how many people could take the tour at one time and the small conference room limited the size of classes. In addition, staff space is "maxed out," Abney said.

"It's been fabulous for us but we've reached a point where those problems will do nothing but grow in their negative impact on us," she said.

As the staff realized it wanted to help people understand the plant-based reasons the center is promoting sustainability, they "realized one of the best ways we could do that is to simply bring these messages home to the garden," Abney said.

While the center's programs will continue and even expand, Abney said visitors may have to go to several places in the garden to get the information they used to get at the house. On the plus side, moving to the Garden means the EarthWays Center's message will have a much bigger audience.

Last year about 7,000 people visited the Grandel Square home, according to Kim Petzing, supervisor of EarthWays Center Education Programs. That number climbed to 8,000 through October of this year, she added. Petzing said the Center's offsite programs reached 19,000 people in 2009 and more than 21,000 through October 2010.

"Nearly a million people go to the Garden every year," Abney said. "We can nowhere come close to reaching that number of people here in Grandel Square. Our ability to reach people will increase exponentially by being in the Garden."

Deb Frank, the garden's vice president of sustainability, echoed Abney's comments calling the move a "huge opportunity given the volume of folks who come to the garden."

Relocating the EarthWays program will "more closely align sustainable lifestyle choices to the garden's core mission of promoting biodiversity and environmental health," she said. "We have an opportunity here to promote the garden's mission and demonstrate to our visitors choices they can make and ways that they can better support that overall mission."

How the demonstrations will be done at the garden is still being worked out, Frank said. "We will constantly be in pursuit of ways to better demonstrate residential applications of these choices.

It may not look the same" but the garden will continue to support EarthWays programs, which are "vital and critical." The staff offices will relocate to the garden's Commerce Bank Center for Science Education at 4651 Shaw Blvd.

"If dreams could come true, I would figure out a way to pick that house up and move it over to the garden," Frank said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful place."

Some of the public demonstration areas will be in the Kemper Center, which already has a home focus, and the center already holds some of its programs there, Abney said. "There are already so many things there that totally mimic what you'll find here." Examples are the rain barrels and rain roofs. "But because the Garden is so big people may have overlooked them there," Abney said.

"Yes, it will be different," she said of the change. "We will no longer have a big house that is just a house that people can tour through. We will do it in a different way but we will get our same messages across to the people. It's more important to reach people with this message than to have a perfect location."

The staff will continue its off-site programs, she said.

With the home's 10-year lease expiring at the end of this year, officials began looking at alternatives four years ago, Abney said.

Although officials did not consider building a new EarthWays home on the Garden grounds -- there simply isn't room -- several alternatives were considered including purchasing a home near the garden was rejected because doing so would bring the same space, accessibility and parking problems, she said.

The faltering economy impacted the process causing officials to focus on its desire to reach the greatest number of people, Abney said. "When we focused on that, we realized it's the garden. It's perfect. The garden already brings nearly a million people in."

The EarthWays Center was built as a single-family residence in 1885 and was later sold it to the Block brothers, influential photographers in the early 1900s in St. Louis. They renovated the building into a photography studio, installing a skylight on the north facing side room to take advantage of the light.

When the last Block brother left in the 1970s, the house was sold to various developers and eventually to Grand Center. It sat vacant until the group that put on St. Louis' first Earth Day festival leased it. "The building was in such bad shape, they rented it for $1 a year to start with," Abney said. When they finished renovating it in 1994, they opened it to the public for tours. While it raised a half million dollars to renovate the building, the group failed to raise operating costs and went under. Shortly after opening, the group closed the building's doors.

Environmental groups came together trying to keep the building open, and Peter Raven, then director of the garden, decided to bring the house under the garden's umbrella. The garden took over the home in November 2000 opening it to the public the next spring.

Mid-America Energy and Resource Partners, a group Abney was with that did energy and resource education in schools, was tapped to make EarthWays Home part of the Garden. The group changed its name to the EarthWays Center and expanded its programs to reach businesses, municipalities and professional in the green building industry.

Along with its exhibits, components of the Grandel Square building that require on-going maintenance like the photovoltaic systems and its battery backup, will be moved out, Abney said. "But the building will continue to be the great energy-efficient building that it is," she said. "Whoever moves in here will have low utility bills."

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer.