Architectural competition reinvents St. Francis de Sales children’s theater

St. Francis de Sales church, popularly known as “the Cathedral of South St. Louis,” has been a local landmark since the end of the Civil War. Its six-building campus — located at 2653 Ohio Ave. — is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes the elegant Gothic revival church as well as a rectory, a former convent, two former school buildings and a gymnasium.

The St. Francis de Sales school, built in 1888, houses the theater that was the centerpiece of the architecture competition.

One of those school buildings includes an 8,000-square-foot children’s theater in urgent need of renovation. This fall, five teams of architecture students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts have worked to develop plans for the theater as part of the Sam Fox School’s Community Service Competition.

“The agenda for this project was to create a schematic design proposal that can be used by St. Francis de Sales as both a fund-raising tool and as a basis for construction documents,” said graduate student in architecture Eric Cesal, who organized the competition with classmate Ali Lang. “The theater is located in a well-preserved 19th-century building. The historical quality of the space as well as its state of preservation and the enthusiasm of the community offers an opportunity to create something really special.”

Jon R. Roche, office administrator for the church, said the theater is located on the third floor of an 1888 structure that once housed a girls school. In the 1920s, the theater served as home to the Benton Park Drama Club but in the 1940s was subdivided into classrooms, and the two-story stage was split horizontally by dropped-in ceilings.

“When you go into the attic you can still see the intricate handwork,” said Roche, whose grandfather graduated from St. Francis de Sales High School. “It’s a very beautiful space. At some point, it will be restored and would certainly be great if we could use one of the students’ designs.”

St. Francis de Sales parish was formed in 1867 by seven German immigrant dairymen and named in honor of St. Francis de Sales, a French Jesuit missionary who served as bishop of Geneva and was canonized in 1665.

The original church was dedicated in 1868; the current structure — the second-largest church in the St. Louis area and the only one built in the German Gothic style — was dedicated in 1908.

In 1869, the parish opened an elementary school and, in 1939, added a junior high school; the latter was later expanded to include a high school, with the first class graduating in 1947. Yet in the 1950s and ’60s, developing suburbs drew population away from St. Louis city neighborhoods, and the parish’s numbers began to decline.

In January 2005, the parish was closed and the church and campus were scheduled for demolition.

The complex was saved thanks to the intervention of former archbishop of St. Louis Raymond Burke and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which took possession in July 2005. Currently the Institute is raising funds to restore the building’s 300-foot steeple — the tallest in St. Louis.

Detail from the winning design in the Sam Fox School competition.

Other planned renovations include roof repairs and conservation of the church’s frescos and stained glass windows, the latter created by Emil Frei Sr., a German immigrant widely considered to be St. Louis’ premier stained glass artist.

The Sam Fox School launched the Community Service Competition Aug. 23 as a one-day design charrette (a sort of architectural brainstorming session). After a brief history and tour of the site, 55 architectural students spent five hours developing initial design concepts, which were then presented to the competition jury.

The jury short-listed four teams, with the fifth team added in mid-September. Over the next eight weeks, each team expanded its ideas into workable schematic designs — detailed on a pair of 24- by 36-inch presentation boards — culminating in a presentation Oct. 17 to the St. Francis faithful, local architects and interested community members. Following the presentation, a competition jury composed of faculty, local architects and church leaders convened for final judging.

The first-place prize of $300 was awarded to a team led by graduate teaching assistant Ellen Leuenberger, which included students Denny Burke, Alexander Harner, Michael Heller, Rachel Kerr and June Kim.

Their design focused on the theater’s entry sequence, creating a large exterior courtyard filled with organic gardens and meeting areas. Pathways would direct worshippers to the church and theatergoers to a pair of reconfigured staircases rising up to the renovated proscenium.

The theater itself is designed for maximum flexibility, with nonfixed seating and large windows that create a visual and implied connection back to the church and the greater community.

“The City of St. Louis has an extremely rich architectural heritage, one that still has much to teach us,” said Bruce Lindsey, dean of the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, who sat on the jury. “As a society, I think we sometimes forget how much architecture matters — how its expressive and spiritual aspects can inspire us, connect us and enhance people’s lives.

“As architects, I think we have a responsibility to help build communities as well as buildings,” Lindsey said.