Founded as an all-women’s college in the early 1800s, Lindenwood University rests on a beautiful campus in one of the historical sections of St. Charles. While the university is now coeducational, it was once touted as the “Wellesley of the West,” with an appropriately rich and storied past.
A perfect example of this rich past is a magnificent brick water tower dating from 1883 that sits in a commanding position on Lindenwood’s campus. Given its historic value, Lindenwood acquired this structure from the city of St. Charles in 1971 in order to preserve it and, in 1980, it was designated a St. Charles historic landmark. Throughout its history, the water tower has been in various states of disrepair, but Lindenwood fully restored it in 1997 when, describing the university’s role in preserving the water tower, one school official said, “We take our responsibility seriously.”
Evidently, this is no longer true. After happening upon a local Facebook group this past weekend, I learned that the water tower is yet again in need of restoration. But this time Lindenwood plans to destroy it. You might assume that since this is registered as a historic landmark, it is protected by law. But this is incorrect: There’s a city law that allows the destruction of historic monuments if an engineer deems the structure unsafe. In light of this, Lindenwood hired an engineer who declared the structure to be dangerous. Without further review, city officials approved the demolition plan at the end of last week.
As I’ve come to discover, this has all taken place quietly over the past few months. My first reaction was to reach out to the mayor of St. Charles to see if anything could be done, as well as to gain some insight concerning why the city would approve this demolition without requiring a second opinion, or without exploring ways the structure might be preserved. Yet after engaging in what proved to be a fruitless conversation, I was told that the city government is unable to protect historic landmarks if they are on private property. (This even though the city must give its approval to permit the demolition.) Why anyone would say something so patently false, I will set aside here. There is something more pressing at stake.
Suppose Lindenwood doesn’t have the funds to restore this water tower, but officials nevertheless value history, seek to maintain the public responsibility they assumed in the past, and endeavor to keep their campus beautiful.
Why then would they not reach out to alumni seeking financial aid? Why not publicize this to the local community and ask for donations? Why not explore all possible avenues before destroying a historic structure? I can’t speak for everyone, but as an alumnus, I receive countless requests for donations. Yet neither I nor any alumni friends have been contacted about this. Worse, most in the community haven’t even heard that this is about to take place. Instead, Lindenwood has surreptitiously gained approval to demolish an important part of local history.
Lindenwood’s timing proved to be perfect. Not only were they able to obtain the necessary approvals quickly, but this process has taken place when the few who have heard about this are preoccupied with personal safety during the pandemic.
If, like me, you would like to see this historic monument preserved, then I would encourage you to reach out to the leadership team at Lindenwood immediately and ask them to halt, or at least delay, this demolition until every alternative option is publicly explored. The city government either cannot or will not do anything to protect this structure, so its preservation depends on the choices of current officials at a private university, and perhaps the pleadings of those of us without any political power.
Demolition is moving forward so swiftly that, by the time you read this, it may already be too late to save the water tower. If so, then we should take this opportunity to reflect on what’s important, and strive to prevent those who devalue and demolish history from occupying positions of power. Yet if we value history and the lessons it teaches, then we may have cause to hope. The voice of the people has commanded attention before, and it may be the best chance to save this piece of history now.
James Kintz, an assistant professor of philosophy at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, is a former resident of St. Charles who received his bachelor’s degree from Lindenwood and Ph.D. from St. Louis University.
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