Sisters confirm demo plans for St. Scholastic Monastery; demo could begin in three weeks

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,549 views 

The Benedictine Sisters have rejected a flurry of requests and pleadings from state and local individuals and organizations and are moving ahead with demolishing the historic St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith.

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 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.

It is estimated the building would need $15 million just to get into a condition where renovation and restoration would be possible.

The Sisters rebuffed efforts by Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, community activist Ken Kupchick and others to stall demolition until a plan could be developed to save the structure. The Sisters, through spokeswoman Jennifer Burchett, sent the following note on Wednesday (June 1) to the media.

“Immediately upon Saint Scholastica Monastery’s announcement that our former home would be demolished, public opinion came pouring in. All have expressed sadness about the decision, which we expected and understand. We feel sadness, too, and greatly appreciate those who also included support, understanding, and respect for our heart-wrenching decision.

“After considering the suggestions made by people outside our monastic community to save the Former Monastery Building, we sisters feel that none of them offer a viable use for the building that satisfies the spiritual and economic constraints pertinent to our Benedictine community. We feel we have made the best decision we could as good stewards of our land and building, and we stand by that decision. The demolition, including preparation thereof, will take two to three months. We ask people to respect the safety perimeters set up for demolition.

“The public will be notified of milestones during the demolition, including the use of a wrecking ball. Implosion will not be used for this demolition.

“We ask you to remember that our monastery is not a building, but a community of Benedictine women who have served the people of Arkansas for 143 years. We sisters continue to live with you here in Fort Smith and pray for unity and healing during this difficult time. We also ask for you to pray for us.”

Jimmie Deer, director of building services for the city of Fort Smith, said Catoosa, Okla.-based DT Specialized Services has been contracted by the Sisters to demolish the building. Deer said he met Tuesday with DT officials to begin the process of getting documents together to obtain a demolition permit from the city. He said it will likely be about three weeks before DT is permitted to begin the demolition work.

Deer said a key part of the permit process will be an asbestos report from DT that meets Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality rules about removing asbestos. Deer said asbestos removal will be the first step in demolition, a process he said will take “several months.”

“It will really depend on how they are going to take it down,” Deer said when asked about the time needed for the demolition of the five-story structure. “Sometimes they try to save the bricks and granite and that kind of stuff. … But the first part of it all will be getting the asbestos out. That will take a while.”

Deer also said he and the rest of the city’s building services staff aren’t happy about having to issue a demolition permit for the historic monastery.

“You know, we’re like everybody else. We hate to see it happen. We’ve lost so many historical buildings here in Fort Smith over the years that would be great to still have around,” Deer said.

Rachel Patton also hates to see it happen.

Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, applied for and obtained a $10,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to assess the historic structure. The grant required the Benedictine Sisters to delay demolition and agree to an architectural assessment of the large, five-story structure.

The only response she received was a “cryptic email” from Burchett saying a forthcoming official statement would serve as the response to her grant offer. That statement turned out to be Wednesday’s note from the Sisters saying demolition would proceed.

“Obviously I’m very disappointed and I think everyone who has been trying to reach out and offer assistance is disappointed with their decision to move forward with demolition. I feel like it’s short-sighted,” Patton told Talk Business & Politics. “I just regret that they were unwilling to give us the opportunity to offer assistance.”

Patton said she hopes the Sisters will consider allowing the building to be photographed before demolition.

“They could still allow maybe someone to come in and take high-resolution photos for posterity and documentation if they haven’t done that on their own,” she said.

Patton also said the “sad” demolition of such a historic building should be a reminder to all in the state “that we lack a preservation ethic.”

“This should be a wake-up call for everyone in Fort Smith and all across the state that these historic places we have need to be valued and appreciated … instead of waiting until it’s too late.”