Old Elementary School in MO converted into Apartments in 1955 and now abandoned

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri
Date added: February 26, 2024 Categories: Missouri School
North facade from corner of Jefferson Avenue and South Ellis Street (2008)

Cape Girardeau has its beginnings as a late eighteenth-century trading post on the Mississippi River, with the city streets plotted in 1806 and incorporation occurring in 1843. Early development was focused around the riverfront, with the original city limits stretching from North Street south to William Street, and from the river west to Middle Street. The early economy focused on agriculture and related industries, and the fledgling city did not begin to prosper significantly until the arrival of steamboats in the 1830s. At that time, Cape Girardeau became a regional commercial, social, judicial, religious, and educational center and its population increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, the Civil War stunted the city's growth and nearly halted its commercial development until the 1880s. The clash between Union and Confederate ideals affected Missouri in a very unique way because the slave state stayed loyal to the Union. Opposing sides were taken within Cape Girardeau, and the city was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces during the war. When the fighting had ceased, and reconstruction of the country began, Cape Girardeau stood as one of the torn areas that needed rebuilding.

One of the most successful programs adopted during this period developed from the ideals of the new governing power in Missouri, the Radical Republican Party. Hoping to infuse the "southern element" with sentiments toward the unification of the country, the state began to pass legislation for free public education that would teach a standardized curriculum. The first of these laws was established in 1865, creating separate black and white schools and mandating that every county provide a free school for children ages 5-21. Though classes were taught by the county, support for a city school system began to grow strong around the same time, led by George H. Greene. Yet Cape Girardeau's businessmen and other citizens vocally opposed the "Yankee idea," preferring to send their children to private schools like St. Vincent's Academy or Trinity Lutheran School. The debate resulted in an election and the passing of an 1867 bond issue that used city taxes to construct a schoolhouse and begin a civic education program.

The first school building, Lorimier School, was opened in 1872, but not without objection. The tumultuous first day of classes featured armed supporters fighting back the opposition on the schoolhouse steps. But the assimilation of the southern supporters, as well as the local immigrant population, proved to be one of the successes of the new city school. The nearly stagnant population left the Lorimier School as the only school building for nearly twenty years, educating children that lived within the redrawn city limits: College Street on the south, Minnesota on the west, New Madrid and Amethyst on the north, and the Mississippi River to the east.

The arrival of the railroad in the 1880s sparked new hope for Cape Girardeau, and re-established the city as a regional leader in commerce. Though the original railroad lines did not run through Cape Girardeau, Louis Houck constructed a connection between the city and the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroads in 1881. By 1905 he had also connected Cape Girardeau's lines to Perry County on the north and he had a southern line that ran to Arkansas. Houck's lines were routed through the downtown district of Cape Girardeau, following the river. In 1902 a portion of Houck's lines were sold to the San Francisco Railroad, routing it through the southern portion of the city along the riverfront and with a connection to Houck's other lines near Elm Street.

The train routes brought not only a commercial boom to the city; it also increased the population to nearly 4300 people by 1890. That year the city opened its first school building for African American students, the Lincoln School. Located on Merriwether Street, Lincoln School offered the same curriculum that was taught in the Lorimier School, and was supervised by African American teachers. Ten years later the population had increased by a little more than 500 people, and city planners were anticipating a surge in population that would come as the railroad became more reliable. Subdivisions in the southern section of the city were already being plotted, with developers buying one or two city blocks south of Jefferson Avenue. Louis Houck had more than one subdivision near his railroad tracks, and other businessmen in the city were also establishing neighborhoods.

With a focus on development in the southern ward, the city chose the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Ellis Street for the location of its next school building. Using a ten-cent tax levy and a loan of $10,000, construction began on the Jefferson School in 1904. St. Louis architect Lewis B. Blackwood designed the building in the common H-Plan and construction was completed by W.W. Taylor & Son. When it opened that fall, the school taught children in the first to sixth grades, with three teachers as faculty and staff. By the first day of classes on September 4th of the following year, the faculty had been increased to allow for one teacher per grade, and also included a janitor and "memoir" teacher, who was a student at the State Normal School on the other side of town. Each class had between 25 and 35 students, and the course load included history, reading, writing, geography, music, arithmetic, and drawing. In addition, the Board of Education determined that the principal of the Jefferson School (who was Mr. W. H. Haupt at that time) would act as the assistant to the superintendent of schools.

The West Broadway School opened in 1906 and housed the overflow of students from the Lorimier School district. District lines were redrawn to account for the two new school buildings in 1907, with Jefferson School's district bounded by Minnesota, Independence, South Frederick, Good Hope, the Mississippi River, and College Street. Jefferson School expanded to include the seventh and eighth grades that year, with secondary students attending the high school department at the West Broadway School.

The students who attended Jefferson School came from a working-class neighborhood. For the most part the households were headed by male railroad and factory workers, some with specialized job titles, but many working as day laborers doing odd jobs. Few of the females in the neighborhood were employed, though some of the single women worked as cooks or laundry women for other families. The population of the city nearly doubled between 1900 and 1910 and had almost quadrupled by 1925 to 14,258. During that time the southern ward became more densely populated, and the city pushed its boundaries to the west and south.

Increased population within the city limits provided further funding for the public schools, but also created a demand for more buildings and staff. Between 1914 and 1926 three more schools were added to the city's list of institutional buildings, and the city paid for school nurses, substitute teachers, and cafeteria workers. Jefferson School retained a modest staff during this time, returning to a three-teacher system that would last from the 1920s until the building closed, but adding home economics to the curriculum in the 1930s. By the time World War II began, the public school system boasted six elementary schools.

In 1953 the education system in Cape Girardeau was still segregated, with African American students attending the Cobb School for elementary and secondary classes. Unfortunately, the Cobb School caught fire after a basketball game, leaving most of the building unusable. The white students attending the Jefferson School finished out the year at May Greene School, and the 108 black first through eighth graders were moved into the Jefferson School. The black elementary students utilized the building for the 1954 school year, but desegregation of the city schools in 1955 led to the redistribution of the students and the closing of the small schoolhouse.

Jefferson School was designed in a common central hall plan, with two classrooms on either side of the corridor, along the outer walls. The Lorimier School and Lincoln School both shared this form, and the West Broadway School was constructed in a variation of the design, though it was a much larger building. These buildings all featured large windows that would allow an abundance of light to fill each classroom, and arched front entrance doors in a central bay. Unfortunately, the Lorimier School was torn down in 1935, and replaced by the New Lorimier School in 1937. The Lincoln School was renamed the Cobb School, and after the 1953 fire destroyed most of the building, it was closed and the remaining portions were demolished. The West Broadway School is still standing, though the interior has been dramatically changed.

The Jefferson School is the oldest standing city school building in Cape Girardeau. Though it was later converted into an apartment building, the basic form has been retained, and the exterior looks much as it did when it was closed in 1955. Beginning in the early 1940s, the Board of Education undertook maintenance and repair of Jefferson School. Repainting, mortar patching, and detail stripping were done almost every spring between 1943 and 1952, and in 1946 Gerhardt Construction Company replaced the hipped roof and bell tower steeple with a lower-pitched hipped roof. Some interior changes were also made to the school in the 1940s, including the conversion of one of the classrooms to a library and the changing of the older fixtures to fluorescent lights.

Building Description

Jefferson School, located at 731 Jefferson Avenue, in Cape Girardeau, MO, is a 1904 two-story brick and stone elementary school building with a raised sandstone foundation and hipped roof. The symmetrical, north-facing facade is divided into three bays, with a tower rising above the roofline in the center bay. The main entrance is accessed by stone stairs, and can be found slightly recessed below squat columns and a rounded brick arch with a carved stone keystone. The doors, transoms, and sidelights are boarded over. Paired, one-over-one sash windows with rounded transoms and brick arched lintels are recessed on the second floor above the entrance, and a similar design is mimicked in the bell tower, though the openings have been bricked in. The remaining fenestration consists of six boarded-over openings on each level, with flat arched brick lintels and stone sills. The interior retains its original floor plan, consisting of a central hall and stairs with four classrooms on each level and an exit at the rear. The building has been converted into multi-family housing, though most of the original elements were retained within the building, including trims, windows, banisters, and doors.

Jefferson School sits just north of the center on a 110' X 120' tree-lined lot, with a gravel and concrete drive on the northwest corner and a grassy yard to the south and east. The area surrounding the school is primarily residential, and mostly composed of homes constructed around the turn of the century.

The symmetrical red brick school building is two stories tall with a bell tower rising above the roofline on the north facade. The north-facing main facade consists of three bays, with a brown sandstone raised basement and overhanging hipped roof. Concrete stairs surrounded by brick walls with stone coping and squat piers access the central entrance. The doors, transoms, and sidelights have been boarded over, leaving only the wood framing exposed. The entrance is slightly recessed below a round arch brick lintel, with a shaped keystone. Above the entrance, paired one-over-one sash windows with rounded arch transoms and lintels and stone sills are recessed on the second floor. The bell tower that rises above the roofline mimics the fenestration of the second level, though the openings have been bricked in. The outer bays of the main facade feature three boarded windows with segmental-arched brick lintels and stone sills. Boarded, four-pane hopper windows create the basement fenestration, with a modern wood door in the western bay.

The west elevation features four bays on each level. The first-level openings have been filled with steel siding, with a one-over-one sash window in the southern corner of each opening (the third bay contains an air conditioning unit). The second-level openings contain paired, one-over-one sash wood windows with stone sills. On the north end of the elevation is a one-and-a-half bay cinder block enclosure with a metal shed roof and swinging wood doors.

The rear, south-facing, elevation is also symmetrical, with a projecting central bay and a chimney that rises above the roof just west of center. Concrete stairs with metal handrails access the paired wood door entrance in the projection. A shingled shed roof covers the entrance, and paired, boarded-over, one-over-one sash windows with stone sills and segmental arched lintels create the fenestration for the second level. Two boarded, wood, one-over-one sash windows with segmental-arched brick lintels and stone sills create the fenestration on the first and second levels of the outer bays. Boarded windows fill the basement level, with an entrance door in the west bay covered by a shingled shed roof.

The east elevation is divided into four bays. A modern wood door is in the second bay in the basement, covered by a metal shed roof. A single, boarded window is found in the third bay of the basement. The first level openings contain paired, one-over-one sash windows that have been boarded in three bays, and a single, one-over-one wood window in the northern bay. The four openings of the second level contain wood one-over-one sash windows with segmental-arched brick lintels and stone sills that have been boarded in.

The building was designed with a central hall featuring two narrow stairwells, as well as four classrooms on each floor. The classrooms have been converted into living spaces, with two apartments on each level. Though wood paneling, bathrooms, and some dividing walls have been installed, the original interior doors have been retained. In addition, the wood trims, windows, and stairwells are intact, and the original front doors have been found in storage within the building. The original plaster walls can still be seen rising above the wood paneling and the original hard wood floors are intact. The basement is relatively unchanged since construction, with the brick walls intact.

The building has experienced neglect in recent years, which has resulted in the collapse of the roof over the west portion of the building and some damaged guttering. Another change to the roof includes the removal of a hipped roof and shaped piers from the tower. In addition, repair from vandalism and some water damage have caused discoloration on parts of the facade.

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri North facade from corner of Jefferson Avenue and South Ellis Street (2008)
North facade from corner of Jefferson Avenue and South Ellis Street (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri Main Entrance Bay (2008)
Main Entrance Bay (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri West Elevation from South Ellis Street (2008)
West Elevation from South Ellis Street (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri Rear (South) Elevation (2008)
Rear (South) Elevation (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri East Elevation from alley (2008)
East Elevation from alley (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri First Floor Hallway from Rear Entrance (2008)
First Floor Hallway from Rear Entrance (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri First Floor (2008)
First Floor (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri Second Floor Hallway Looking South (2008)
Second Floor Hallway Looking South (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri Second Floor Room Detail (2008)
Second Floor Room Detail (2008)

Jefferson School, Cape Girardeau Missouri Basement (2008)
Basement (2008)