St. Louis' Schools Closures Are Devastating — and Great For Loft Developers

Once community anchors, schoolhouses across the city have been closed and sold off to developers.
Once community anchors, schoolhouses across the city have been closed and sold off to developers. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

It is October 2019, and the old Lyon School is dark. It sits on the end of a quiet street in south St. Louis, fenced and forgotten, a three-story brick castle with boarded front doors and a checkerboard of plywood patches over missing windows. During the day, a few neighborhood kids slide through a gap in the fence to play basketball on a beat-up hoop with no net. They run and dribble on weed-cracked asphalt, the same ground touched by a century of St. Louis students.

And then one day something changes — and the lights go on at Lyon School. The hoop disappears and the fence is made sturdier. The kids are replaced by construction workers carrying furniture and climbing up ladders to the soaring slate rooftops.

One year later, the transformation is complete. Entering the former schoolhouse, up the wide stairs and cavernous hallways that carried generations of elementary school students, the classrooms are now bedrooms, kitchens and closets. The principal's office is a studio apartment. The playground has been graded and turned into a parking lot.

Matt Masiel, president of Screaming Eagle Development, opens the door to what used to be Lyon's kindergarten room. The design of the room reminds him of a turret, he says, complete with battlements and a curved wall of five tall windows that nearly reach the ceiling. They flood the room with warm autumn light.

Masiel pauses his tour to gaze out the windows. "This is one of my favorite spaces," he says.

Lyon isn't a trendsetter in St. Louis real estate. Rather, it is among a half-dozen schools that have emerged from vacancy in the last four years under new management and names. Developers like Masiel have taken some of the grandest and oldest structures in St. Louis and released them into the rental market for studios and one- and two-bedroom loft apartments. In general, the projects aim to leverage the building's character and history to attract tenants who can afford rents of about $1,000 per month.

In Lyon, though, the history still feels alive. When Masiel's construction crews began clearing out the former kindergarten, they found painted letters still clinging to the original floorboards, a remnant of some long-ago English lesson.

The developer crouches down and points to the trail of quarter-sized circles — dowel rods inserted into the floor — which trace a neat half-ring that terminates against a wall.

"They called it 'circle time.' It was something they did for kindergarten," he explains, noting that the rest of the circle continues beyond the newly built wall in the unit next door. "This was one big classroom," he marvels, "and they just built it into the ground."

Purpose-built buildings like the Lyon School just aren't made anymore. Built in 1910, at a time when the city was zooming past 700,000 residents, the school's grandiosity reflected that grand purpose, a kind of temple to the mission of educators in a city whose leaders expected its population to keep growing for decades.

More than a century later — now in a city with a population hovering around 300,000 — those expectations are still visible, from the Lyon kindergarten room's built-in seating chart to the massive, twelve-foot-wide hallways designed by famed architect William Ittner, who envisioned the need to contain and move many hundreds of students between classes and assemblies.

Today, those hallways lead to 32 loft apartments.

In 2010, the St. Louis Public School District closed Lyon amid budget cuts and decreasing enrollment, one of eleven schools SLPS closed that year. More followed over the next decade, and year by year, the emptied schools became "surplus properties" listed on the district website. Soon developers began buying up schools in neighborhoods with strong real-estate markets around the Central West End and Soulard.

The historic nature of the buildings come with restrictions. To qualify for certain tax credits, developers must retain the historic character of the structure, which means, for example, that they can't subdivide large hallways into offices or efficiency apartments.

A handful of SLPS surplus properties have been reopened as charter schools or bought by church groups, but of the 21 "success stories" listed by the SLPS website, nine have since reopened as apartments, and more are under development.

Lyon is listed among those success stories. In 2018, Masiel's company purchased the school for $300,000. He went on to spend more than $5 million converting the space into apartments with starting rentals at $920. The price point doesn't scream luxury apartment, though it's still higher to accommodate one or two people than the brick row houses being rented to entire families down the block.

But from the view of St. Louis' struggling school system, and for those still part of it, these success stories aren't storybook endings. Developments like Lyon are an example of the city's adaptation, but also its diminishment. It is a chapter in the serialized epic of erosion authored by each newly closed school, and together they tell the story of a city struggling, and failing, to support a school system that 100 years ago seemed as impressive and durable as the massive brick schoolhouses it oversaw.

And now, it seems like that old story is about to repeat itself all over again.

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