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

Designs for 1888 space unveiled Oct. 17

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. (63118) — is listed on the National Registry 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.

St. Francis de Sales
Exterior of the former St. Francis de Sales parish girls’ school, built in 1888.

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

From 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, the five teams will present their designs at a reception for St. Francis de Sales faithful, local architects and interested community members. Following the presentation, a competition jury — comprised of faculty, local architects and church leaders — will convene for final judging, with the winning team receiving a $300 cash prize.

The reception — which is free and open to the public — will take place in the university’s Steinberg Hall, located near the intersection of Forsyth Boulevard and Hoyt Drive. For more information, call (314) 935-9300, or visit

“The agenda for this project is to create a schematic design proposal that can be used by St. Francis de Sales as both a fundraising tool and as a basis for construction documents,” said Eric Cesal, a graduate student in architecture, 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.”

St. Francis de Sales
The original two-story children’s theater was split by dropped-in ceilings, creating classroom space and an attic, pictured above.

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

“When you go into the attic you can still see the intricate handwork,” explains 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.”

The Sam Fox School launched the Community Service Competition August 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″ x 36″ presentation boards — culminating in the Oct. 17 presentation.

“The City of St. Louis has an extremely rich architectural heritage, one that still has much to teach us,” notes Bruce Lindsey, dean of the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, who chaired 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,” Lindsey adds. “As architects, I think we have a responsibility to help build communities as well as buildings.”


The 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. (In 1923 Pope Pius XI designated St. Francis de Sales as the patron saint of journalists, in recognition of his scholarly writings.) 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 1973 the elementary school was consolidated with three others and the high school closed in 1974. 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 Archbishop 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. Other planned renovations include roof repairs and conservation of the church’s frescos and stained glass windows, the latter created by Emil Frei, Sr. (1869-1942), a German immigrant widely considered to be St. Louis’ premier stained glass artist.