Jefferson building demolition begins today

Friday, December 28, 2012
The old Jefferson School building at 731 Jefferson Ave. is seen Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. The building will be torn down. (Fred Lynch)

Cape Girardeau's oldest school building soon won't be standing anymore.

A demolition permit was issued Thursday for the old Jefferson Elementary School. The two-story brick and stone building has occupied the corner of Jefferson and Ellis streets since 1904. At one time it served as a segue for black students to begin attending the same schools as white students in Cape Girardeau.

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will be torn down using labor and equipment donated to its current owner, Prodigy Leadership Academy.

Prodigy, a private school that operates out of Red Star Baptist Church, took ownership of the building in November 2011 from previous owners Guy and Rene Tomasino. Prodigy's board of directors hoped to restore the building, but through evaluations by structural engineers found it wasn't salvageable.

"It was just basically too unsafe," said Jason Coalter, a member of the board. "It made more sense to take it down."

This is a rear view of the old Jefferson School building at 731 Jefferson Ave. on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. (Fred Lynch)

The building was condemned during the summer of 2011 and ordered by city inspectors to be either fully repaired or demolished after it was deemed too dangerous to remain standing. Efforts by the Tomasinos to sell the building were unsuccessful, leading the couple to donate it to Prodigy Leadership Academy.

Inspections found old Jefferson's roof to be 60 percent damaged, and the building contained substandard wiring and plumbing, along with a crumbling foundation.

Coalter said pieces of the roof were lifted to view the building's condition since Prodigy took ownership, and masonry underneath was in "terrible shape."

The decision to raze old Jefferson wasn't easy for the board, according to Coalter. It plans to save some materials from the 108-year-old school building -- brick and limestone will be kept for use in a structure for Prodigy Leadership Academy, he said. Plans and a location for a possible building have not been determined.

City planner Ryan Shrimplin said when the new owners took possession the city extended a timeline for the school to be torn down in hopes something could be done with the building.

"We certainly encouraged them to try to save it," he said. "But as you can see, its condition was only getting worse."

On Thursday, most windows of the old building, whether boarded up during the years or still with glass, gaped open, exposing the building's interior to the elements. Large holes were visible in the roof. Snow earlier in the week covered steps leading up to the bricked arch above the front door.

The Jefferson school building has been empty for many years, other than when it was used briefly for apartments. The school closed after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which ordered desegregation of schools. From 1953 to 1955, it was used as a school solely for black students after the John Cobb school mysteriously caught fire. White students were sent to finish the year at the May Greene School, according to a summary of the Jefferson school's history on file with the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation of the school on the National Register does not protect it from demolition, according to Dr. Steven Hoffman, Southeast Missouri State University's historic preservation program coordinator and a professor of history.

"It's an honor and it can provide property owners with incentives, but that's all," Hoffman said.

Hoffman believes the building could have been saved, but at the same time he understands Prodigy Leadership Academy was faced with not being able to pay for costly repairs the building needed.

"I understand their dilemma," he said. "Their mission is educating children, not saving buildings."

The main issue with saving the building was more about missed opportunity, Hoffman said. During the past 10 years the building did have a chance. It once was considered by developers as a centerpiece to a larger housing complex. But it came down to the cost of restoration.

"Nobody could find a use for it that was economically viable," Hoffman said.

Coalter said three local companies -- Landgraf & Sons, Kevin Williams Excavating and Fabick, a Caterpillar sales and rental company -- are donating labor and equipment to take down the building. Work should take about one week to complete.


Pertinent address:

731 Jefferson Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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