Snapshots of architecture

Monday, June 26, 2006
Catie Myer looking out of one of the 1843 bell tower windows at the old St. Vincent Seminary that is now being renovated as part of Southeast Missouri State University new River Campus. Katie Myers, of jackson, was one of two students that took hundreds of photographs for the university's historic preservation department before the renovation of the building began. (Diane L. Wilson)

From the outside, the brick building still looks ancient. But inside, it's being transformed into a modern campus building as part of Southeast Missouri State University's new River Campus arts school.

The interior walls, the massive wood ceilings and floors and the brick chimneys are being covered by new construction.

The only visible evidence of the former Catholic seminary's interior architectural heritage -- dating back to 1843 and to 1853 and 1871 in subsequent additions -- is in the hundreds of photographs taken by two of the university's historic preservation students over the past year.

Most are black and white photographs, although the two students took some color slides.

The students -- Catie Myers of Jackson and Allison Marshaus of St. Clair, Mo. -- placed the 4-by-6 black and white prints in two large, three-ring binders with a written description of the architectural element and its location in the historic building. They will be housed in the university archives at Kent Library.

Catie Myers looked around in amazement at the changes to the chapel in the old St. Vincent Seminary that is now being renovated as a concert hall for the Southeast Missouri State University's new River Campus. (Diane L. Wilson)

Black and white photos last longer, said Myers, explaining why such photos are preferred over the color variety when it comes to documenting buildings.

Wearing hard hats, the two students repeatedly visited the construction site from June 2005 to February of this year.

Initially, they visited the site every two weeks. But as construction proceeded, they made fewer visits.

They had less to photograph and document as the interior brickwork and other elements of the original structure were covered up. "There wasn't much of the historical fabric still there," Myers said.

"It's sad," she said, adding that the brick exterior will be the only part of the structure's past architecture that will be visible to the public once the project is completed.

"You are going to walk into it and it is going to look like a new structure," she said.

Myers and Marshaus said they feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see the seminary before the past architecture was obscured by modern drywall and elevators replaced stairs.

One of the black and white photographs shows a wooden peg that locked part of the flooring in place. "You obviously don't see that kind of construction any more," Myers said.

For Myers and Marshaus, who love old buildings and their craftsmanship, it was an emotional journey.

"We became very attached to the building," Myers said. Each time, they returned to find more of the old interior buried in new concrete or ripped out entirely.

Construction crews blocked up some of the old doorways and made new doorways.

"It got harder toward the end of the project because there was so little left," said Myers.

"As a preservationist, it did bother me a little bit," Marshaus said. "Some of the wood beams and things like that will never be seen again."

Both women loved the old bell tower with its round windows and its striking view of the new Mississippi River bridge. Few of today's residents have seen Cape Girardeau from that vantage point, they said.

As for the bell, it was relocated to St. Mary's of the Barrens in Perryville in 1989. The bell is stored at the former Perryville seminary which is now a retirement home for priests.

While not an integral part of the old structure, two wall paintings attracted the attention of the preservation students. "My absolute favorite thing was the paintings," Marshaus said.

The women spotted the two small paintings on the second floor of the 1843 structure in an area that had served as a student dormitory. The paintings appeared to be done with watercolors, Marshaus said.

They were painted directly onto the plaster wall. "It seemed to be almost kind of a primal type of painting with a priest and animals and possibly a native American," she said.

The Rev. Louis Derbes, a Catholic priest from Perryville, Mo., taught at the seminary for four years before the school closed in 1979. The seminary then was used by the church as an evangelization center until it was shuttered permanently in 1989.

Derbes said the walls were hidden by paneling in those years. Derbes surmises that's why he never saw the paintings.

Marshaus took the black and white photographs in the old seminary, but lighting was poor. "It was kind of a dark building," she said, making it harder to highlight some of the architecture even with flash photography.

The L-shaped building had numerous levels. Constructed and expanded over several decades, the levels didn't always line up. "It was very odd, just trying to line up where you were exactly," Marshaus said.

"It was definitely a unique experience," she said. "If I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat."

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