St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church
5629 South Magnolia Ave. (the Hill)
Built: 1925-26 (main church)
Smaller churches are scattered throughout the everyday fabric of the city. They are important social institutions, and serve as landmarks for their neighborhoods. St. Aloysius, a Romanesque brick building on the city's south side, is outstanding among such churches, for its scale, its placement, and its unique relationship to the neighborhood around it. What would otherwise be undifferentiated city streets are turned into a remarkable composition by this modest Romanesque building.
The church stands centered in view as one drives west down Magnolia Avenue, a modest street of modest homes; it is a punctuation mark, a point of reference that makes this hidden pocket of the city into something remarkable. It is flanked on both sides by two 2-story buildings, formerly the convent and rectory, both designed the style of a modest turn-of-the-century residence. Magnolia Avenue splits and flows around the church's lot on both sides; the narrow streets slow traffic and create a pedestrian-friendly environment. The land around the church and its outbuildings forms a space reminiscent of a park or small town square.
The church itself is not outstanding for ornament or style, though it does boast a healthy dose of St. Louis's characteristic ornamental brickwork. It is, however, thoughfully scaled to the small houses around it. It is a landmark among them, yet it does not overpower them. Everything about the church and the blocks around it are intimate, cozy and inviting.
Unfortunately, this delightful urban ensemble is in danger. The archdiocese closed the parish, and has sold the buildings to developers who want to demolish the entire complex for new housing. Furthermore, underhanded efforts have been made to push this proposal through: input from the neighborhood has been effectively discouraged by treating the demolition as a foregone conclusion, and several attempts have been made to circumvent the city's preservation review ordinances. When I visited (Dec. 23, 2005), many old-growth trees on the site had already been cut down, a damaging blow to the neighborhood no matter the site's ultimate fate.
The gymnasium and 1964 Modernist school building to the rear of the site could be torn down without much loss; however, destroying the church and its flanking rectory and convent buildings will obliterate the sense of place that makes this little corner of the city so special.
Steve Patterson has been leading and documenting the charge to counter these proposals at his Urban Review StL blog. More photos of the church are also online at Ecology of Absence.
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