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St. Mary's Infirmary to fall in a month unless a resourceful developer appears

The old St. Mary’s Infirmary is on life support.

St. Mary's -- once a valuable component of the health-care structure of St. Louis and an institution of special importance to the community's African-American population -- has a month left, but after that month has passed, it’s marked for demolition. Even now it is considered an “an imminent threat to public safety."

The building, actually a complex of buildings, city engineers say, “cannot withstand more wind, another rainy season, or another round of freezing and thawing.” Unless a competent buyer is found who has resources enough to stabilize and to redevelop the five-building property, it will come down.

"If a developer is out there, now is the time to come forward," Mayor Francis Slay said in a prepared statement. "The city will work through any and all proposals that may come forward until the demolition date has arrived to restore public safety to the immediate area."

The complex sits on a prominence at 1526-1548 Papin St. looking north toward downtown. It long has been on the Landmarks Association of St. Louis’s “Endangered List,” and has been in a state of decline for years.

Cross detail near the front door reminds those who discover the building of its history.
Credit Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
Detail near the front door reminds those who discover the building of its history.

In 2006, preservationist Michael Allen prepared for Landmarks a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The ensemble subsequently was listed on the Register, and such a listing opens the door for access to tax credits. A developer, St. Mary’s Development LLC, which is also the owner of record, according to the mayor's office, was on deck to rehabilitate the buildings for housing. The economic downturn in 2008 nixed that possibility, however.

The buildings’ history dates back to 1889, although the Sisters of St. Mary of the Third Order of St. Francis were active on Papin Street before a building program was developed. They began to provide health care services for the poor in 1876, and initially the infirmary was housed in a mansion the nuns bought and transformed.

The two earliest and most prominent buildings were constructed in 1889 and 1896. Aloysius Gillick was architect for both, according to the nomination to the National Register.

In 2012, Allen, nowadays director of the Preservation Research Office, wrote, “Perhaps the most significant association of the building is its connection to African-American history. The hospital entered an important new phase in 1933, when it became the city’s second African-American hospital with the city’s first-ever racially integrated medical staff.

The facade of St. Mary's Infirmary
Credit Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
The facade of St. Mary's Infirmary

“Later that year,” Allen continued, “the Sisters of St. Mary also opened a nursing school for African-American candidates, creating the city’s second school of nursing open to African Americans and the nation’s first Catholic nursing school that admitted African Americans.”

Both Allen and Landmarks director Andrew Weil agree with the city that the deteriorated state of the infirmary buildings is lamentable and that demolition, like it or not, may be the only recourse. Both, however, decry variables bringing St. Mary’s to this pass.

Allen said he assumes demolition is the future at this point. "St. Mary’s Infirmary has been coming down for a long time." He said, for example, that its separation from downtown and Lafayette Square certainly contributed to its demise. “The condition of the buildings is dire, and we may have to accept demolition” as a remedy, he said.

Neither he nor Weil are happy with the situation.

“I have to admit it (the Infirmary) poses a hazard,” Weil said, “but it is disingenuous to say that now, because it has been being demolished [by neglect] for years – an ongoing demolition.”

The proposed demolition by the city, he said, “is not the story. The story is how the city of St. Louis can figure out how to prevent the erosion of its potential future tax base by allowing buildings like this that have, or once had, the potential to be redeveloped and to contribute to the city’s tax base” – and to save tax payers’ having to pay the cost of demolition, he said.

In the city’s statement, building commissioner Frank Oswald says his office had hoped “someone with redevelopment interest” would save the buildings, “but without a substantial immediate investment, they are too large and too unstable to remain as is."

The statement said also Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, along with the mayor's office and the St. Louis Development Corp., have partnered with the owner, St. Mary’s Development LLC, to find a buyer who can stabilize the building and redevelop the infirmary buildings. No one has stepped forward with the necessary resources to bring about a rescue.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.