Monday, August 29, 2005

Hubert Wheeler Site Gets New Life

Hubert Wheeler Site Gets New Life

Remember the Hubert Wheeler State School? Built in 1970 at 5707 Wilson Ave. just east of Hampton Ave. in the industrial/institutional western section of The Hill neighborhood, it was a school serving severely disabled children operated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as part of its network of state schools for the severely handicapped.

In 1994 or '95, I believe, the school was found to have severe soil contamination of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from a coal/coke processing facility located on the site nearly 100 years ago. When toxic reminders of the coal/coke plant started oozing up through the ground in the school playground, state officials decided to close the school and relocate its students into another state school, Gateway State School at 100 S. Garrison Ave. off Market St. in Midtown. At some point, that school was officially renamed Gateway/Hubert Wheeler State School. It also serves as the main office for all the state schools in eastern Missouri. One can also find an address of 3815 Magnolia Ave. for Hubert Wheeler in some sources, which suggests that some students may have been served at the Missouri School for the Blind campus in the Shaw neighborhood for some period of time.

The current Gateway/Hubert Wheeler State School facility, built in 1978 on a site at one point intended for a retail center supporting the Laclede Town development, is located practically on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University.

As it happens, that same institution is now utilizing the space formerly occupied by Hubert Wheeler. The soil was cleaned up in 1996-97 or so with a specific appropriation from the state budget; and in 2002 the state legislature gave DESE permission to sell the property. Instead, apparently Dr. Henry Givens and his staff found a way to use the property - at least temporarily - as a site for the rapidly growing Harris-Stowe Business Administration program.

The Wilson Ave. 'campus' now even sports a Harris-Stowe sign on the roof, visible to passing motorists on I-44. There is hourly shuttle service connecting the old Hubert Wheeler facility - now called the Busch Temporary Business School (BTBS), or sometimes simply the South Campus - with the main campus on Laclede Ave. in Midtown, as well as with the Grand and Union Station MetroLink stations. While it is certainly not an ideal situation for students, it is an innovative way to use existing space - probably rent-free - until the business school facility on the HSSU campus can be completed.

Also, the main Harris-Stowe building - built in 1927 as Vashon High School - is now officially known as the Dr. Henry J. Givens Jr Administration Building (HGA). A brief, if somewhat biased, history of Vashon tells of the community pride in that facility, once the very heart of the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood.

While the name Hubert Wheeler probably doesn't elicit much community pride, it is nevertheless a facility worth using rather than demolishing. It is good that HSSU has seen fit to make it useful; hopefully it will still be useful to some entity even after HSSU vacates it.

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