State official hopes for more time to ‘explore’ options to save St. Scholastica

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,055 views 

Stacy Hurst and Ken Kupchick want more time to explore options in an effort to save the historic St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith from a June 1 demolition date. They’ll need a real “Hail Mary” and likely more than $15 million to keep the building intact.

The monastery at 1301 S. Albert Pike Ave. – near Trinity Junior High School – is the former home of the Benedictine Sisters. The Sisters announced May 10 they would begin demolition of the almost 100-year-old building that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The decision to demolish the Former Monastery Building is not one that the Benedictine Sisters made lightly or without years of research and discernment. Since 2010, Saint Scholastica has engaged in communications with consultants, realtors, and friends of the community about feasible uses for the nearly 100-year-old building,” the news release said.

The first part of the old monastery building on Albert Pike was built in 1923-1924 in the late Gothic Revival style of architecture. F.W. Redlich from Oklahoma City was the architect of the five-story building. An addition was built on the north side of the original building in 1929, including a chapel, gym, swimming pool and chaplain’s quarters.

But the number of Sisters declined in recent decades, leaving the large historic structure vacant and without proper maintenance and upkeep. It is estimated the building would need $15 million just to get into a condition where renovation and restoration would be possible. Developers familiar with the property and its condition told Talk Business & Politics the costs to convert the structure into a hotel, apartments, condominiums or other possible uses were “astronomical” and “beyond what is financially practical.”

Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, told Talk Business & Politics she has talked to Fort Smith Mayor George McGill and other city residents about the structure’s future.

“I know he (McGill) is very interested in at least postponing it so there could be some better resolution,” Hurst said Tuesday (May 17). “I have heard from a few residents from the Fort Smith area who are really just distraught at the thought that the structure would be demolished. I know that the historic preservation community is equally distraught about the prospect of demolition.”

Community activist Ken Kupchick has reached out to numerous groups and individuals who might have ideas and/or resources about how to either postpone the demolition or save the structure. Among possible uses for the building, Kupchick believes it is a candidate “to be one of the most unique city halls” in the country.

“As a building on the national register, the loss of St. Scholastica isn’t just a loss to Fort Smith, it is a loss to Arkansas and a loss to the nation. Late Gothic/Tudor Revival architecture can be found in every major city and in practically every continent. In that sense, St. Scholastica connects Fort Smith to the world,” Kupchick said.

One of those groups he contacted was the Windgate Foundation which has generously supported numerous projects in the Fort Smith region, including the Windgate Art & Design building at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. Foundation officials declined to consider an application for the building.

“We certainly hope future plans and funding will be secured to save the building. It really would be a shame to see it gone and appreciate your valiant effort in trying to save it. We know this is a disappointment to you and kindly ask that you respect our board’s difficult decision,” the foundation noted in a response to Kupchick.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the city “does not have any designation on that building, historical or otherwise, that prohibits any actions taken by the Sisters.” Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen said there were discussions about future uses but nothing materialized.

“I have met with the nuns a couple of times. We had a Leadership Fort Smith retreat out there a couple of years ago and hoped that with that we could bring some awareness to the (monastery). When COVID first started, we met with the nuns about being able to use (St. Scholastica) as an overflow medical facility for COVID if the need arose, but it didn’t. No one has called or approached us in regards to the building or saving it,” Allen noted in a response to Talk Business & Politics.

Hurst said state and federal historic tax credits and grants are possible, but owners of the property have to work with state and federal officials to determine what is possible and how much financial support would be available. She also said “limited emergency funds” exist, but those come with several requirements that would require communications with the Sisters to determine eligibility. Hurst said she nor anyone in her department has been contacted by the Sisters or their representatives about saving the building.

“We would love to explore all of these things with them, and at least take a little time to explore either what we can do as a department or what partnerships might be available,” Hurst said. “I think there are some things certainly that could be explored that maybe hasn’t been fully discussed. I’m hopeful that the Sisters would at least take a little more time to engage the community. It is an iconic structure in the state of Arkansas, and we of course would love to see it preserved.”

Efforts to contact Jennifer Burchett, spokesperson for the Sisters, for this story were unsuccessful.

Talk Business & Politics Fort Smith Metro Reporter Tina Alvey Dale contributed to this story.