Former Jefferson School makes state list of 'most endangered' historical places

Thursday, June 9, 2011
The old Jefferson School building at 731 Jefferson Ave. in Cape Girardeau has made the list of Missouri's 10 most endangered historic places. (Kristin Eberts)

Open windows, busted or boarded up. Obscenities, painted across the building's fading red brick. Litter, along with haphazardly placed lumber and other debris.

And, most noticeably, the roof and its gaping hole, allowing all of Mother Nature into the 107-year-old south Cape Girardeau structure.

It doesn't get much more "at-risk" than old Jefferson School.

The roof is caving in at the old Jefferson School building at 731 Jefferson Ave. in Cape Girardeau. The building made the list of Missouri's 10 most endangered historic places. (Kristin Eberts)

The deteriorating condition of the historic building that served black students for a time before desegregation has qualified it to be named one of Missouri's most endangered historic places. Missouri Preservation, the not-for-profit organization that promotes historic preservation, released its list Tuesday.

The designation is intended to call attention to threatened historic resources throughout the state, said Bill Hart, the field representative for the organization.

"It's a call to the community that somebody needs to push the panic button," Hart said. "This building is definitely in danger."

The building at 731 Jefferson Ave. is for sale with a listing price of $69,400. Hart said that a developer has expressed interest in the building but found that asking price too steep. But the best way to save the building, he said, is for someone from the private sector to buy it and renovate it.

Jefferson School was built in 1904 as an elementary school, according to the application for endangered status. The building served as the only school in Cape Girardeau for African-American students from 1953 to 1955, after the only black school, John Cobb School, was destroyed by a suspicious fire. The former Jefferson School, not the existing Jefferson Elementary School on Minnesota Avenue, is the oldest public school building in Cape Girardeau still standing. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school was built with a 10-cent levy and a loan of $10,000 before construction began at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Ellis Street. For its first 50 years, it was an elementary school for white children, who came from working-class parents and fathers who were largely railroad or factory workers. In 1953, the city's schools were still segregated. When the Cobb School caught fire after a basketball game, the white students at Jefferson were sent to May Greene School and the 108 black first- through fifth-graders were moved to Jefferson. After Brown vs. the Board of Education required desegregation, the small schoolhouse was closed.

Such rich local history was the reason Terri Foley, a historic preservation consultant, prepared the application to get old Jefferson on the list of endangered historic places.

"It's the only historic structure that dates back to the African-American period of segregation and desegregation," she said.

Hart agreed.

"It's not a glamorous point of our history," he said. "But it's an important part that should be remembered."

Which makes its state of disrepair all the more tragic, she said. Foley's watched it deteriorate over the years until some concerned citizens approached her last year to see if something could be done. While the designation has preceded restoration in the past -- the Marquette building and the Reynolds House have made the list in the past -- all it really does is draw attention.

"I hope that somebody would step in and buy it, rehab it and find a functional use for the building," she said. "In the past six years or so, the condition that it's in and the asking price has always been a problem to make it economically feasible. It's in really horrible shape on the inside."

Foley said it could be apartments, which it has been in the past, along with a union hall.

The building is owned by Guy and Rene Tomasino, who bought it a few years back before moving to Florida, said real estate agent Jane Clark, who has been trying to sell it. She has hyped that money -- 45 cents for every dollar a developer spends -- is available in state historic tax credits to renovate the two-story building. But that money is only available for remodeling and restoration, not demolition.

Clark said there has been some interest, but potential buyers could not obtain the financing or an agreement on price could not be reached. The Tomasinos had intended to convert it into student housing, but the recession made financing impossible for them, she said. The listing price is not firm and she said the Tomasinos are willing to negotiate.

"They gave quite a bit for it, and they're trying to recoup their investment," she said.

But Foley and Hart both said the asking price is too high considering the shape the building is in.

"As a preservationist, I know that not all buildings can be saved," Foley said. "We have to be realistic. But this building should be saved. It has a very unique history to Cape Girardeau that no other building has."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

731 Jefferson Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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