Winners announced in St. Francis de Sales architectural competition

Designs focus on renovating abandoned children's theater

A team of six graduate architecture students — led by Ellen Leuenberger and including Denny Burke, Alexander Harner, Michael Heller, Rachel Kerr and June Kim — has won the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts’ Community Service Competition.

Rendering of renovated children’s theater.

The competition, which includes a $300 cash prize, centered on an abandoned 8,000-square-foot children’s theater located on the campus of St. Francis de Sales church, 2653 Ohio Ave. (63118). Popularly known as “the Cathedral of South St. Louis,” St. Francis de Sales has been a local landmark since the end of the Civil War. Its six-building campus is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and includes the elegant Gothic revival church as well as a rectory, a former convent, a gymnasium and two former school buildings, one of which houses the theater.

“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.”

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.

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

“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 competition began August 23 as a one-day charrette (a sort of architectural brainstorming session). After a brief history and tour of the site, 55 students spent five hours developing initial concepts, which were then presented to the competition jury. The jury short-listed four teams, with the fifth team (originally an alternate) 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.

The competition culminated Oct. 17 in a series of presentations to St. Francis de Sales faithful, local architects and interested community members. A competition jury comprised of faculty, local architects and church leaders then convened for final judging.

Rendering of west entrance to courtyard.

The winning design, which focused on the theater’s entry sequence, would create a large exterior courtyard filled with organic gardens and meeting areas. Pathways would direct worshippers to the church and theater-goers to a pair of reconfigured staircases rising up to the renovated proscenium. The theater itself would be designed for maximum flexibility, with non-fixed seating and large windows creating a visual and implied connection back to the church and the greater community.

“We thought that the design proposals were all of very high architectural design quality,” noted jury chair Paul J. Donnelly, the Rebecca & John Voyles Professor of Architecture. “The jury ultimately decided that the winning entry should be the one that most directly addresses the church’s needs associated with their immediate and long planning efforts.”

Bruce Lindsey, dean of the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, added that, “the City of St. Louis has an extremely rich architectural heritage, one that still has much to teach us.”

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

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


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.