One day recently I decided to take a look around a part of Tower Grove East, near the intersection of Gravois and Arsenal, that I hadn’t explored in years. When I drove past the Grant School Apartments at 3009 Pennsylvania, it struck me that I had lost track of the old school many years earlier when it was abandoned, boarded up and dilapidated. I assumed back then that it would be demolished; however, after a while, when a blue tarp appeared on the roof, it seemed that someone must be interested in rehabbing the building.

Now I saw a very attractive place, with gated parking on one side and beautifully landscaped with roses, lawns, bushes and trees. A sign outside advertised one and two- bedroom apartments for seniors. I drove around the building onto Minnesota Avenue and saw in the back, beyond what must have been the old playground, a thriving vegetable garden. Who worked in this garden? Was it for the apartments? For the community? I decided to find out more about the transformation of this handsome old school and about the chapters in its life story.

Since 1868, this neighborhood, known as Marquette-Cherokee, had relied on the small four-room Gravois School at Gravois and Wyoming. By the 1890’s, with the population growing rapidly because of immigration, it was clear that a new school was needed. Grant School, a late Victorian structure in the Romanesque style, was built in 1893, and named for President Ulysses S. Grant. It was designed by architect August H. Kirchner and is said to be a fine example of his early work. Victorian school architecture reflected the best details and materials of residential buildings of the time, both inside and out. The importance of education in the community was signified by stately, ornamental entry-ways. This aspect is certainly present in the ornate main entrance, with “Grant School” imposingly carved in stone above the door. Kirchner designed the school to let in plenty of natural light and fresh air. He installed large skylights over the stairwells, outside windows in the wardrobe closets and ventilation through central flues. The school was built on high ground, with a stone retaining wall. It had brick walkways, ornamental iron fencing and a brick outhouse.

The new Grant School was a great improvement over the old Gravois School: with 12 classrooms, it was three times the size of the old building. Soon, however, even this spacious new school was deemed too small to accommodate all the area children as the population continued to grow.

By 1900, all the classrooms were filled and it was clear that further expansion was needed for the school. A new addition at the south end, designed by school architect William B. Ittner, was completed in 1901. In 1913, Ittner built another addition as the demand for more space continued. Finally, in 1968, one more room was added at the south end — a one-story flat-roofed multipurpose structure. In addition, several houses behind the school were removed to make way for a new playground and a parking lot.

Grant School, by then a middle school, was closed in 1993. I spoke recently with Jo Ann Perkins, who was the “closing principal.” She was at Grant for several years and thought that, although it was no longer in very good repair, the school had a real personality. She said that when you looked around at the classrooms in the original building, you were looking at history. The old tin ceilings were still in place and metal plates were set into the walls where there had once been wood-burning stoves. Mrs. Perkins recalled that when she arrived at the school, she was surprised that there was no information there about President Ulysses S. Grant, for whom the school had been named. Setting about to correct this deficit, she partnered with Grant’s Farm (White Haven) to provide educational materials and installed a large portrait of Grant outside the school office. Despite what the school may have lacked in physical attributes, she said, the kids were the best she ever worked with. They got along with each other while they were in school, and they respected and appreciated the faculty. She thought very highly of the teachers, and said they worked as a cohesive group to give the students a solid preparation for high school.

Grant School actively served its neighborhood for a full 100 years, as an elementary school for most of its life and ending as a middle school. After it closed in 1993, it was abandoned and left open to the elements, and was eventually deemed a blight on the neighborhood. To our good fortune, however, this historic building was saved from demolition. In 2005, the old school was bought by a private developer who planned to rehabilitate it and convert it to an apartment building. In 2006, because of its architectural significance and historical importance in the neighborhood, Grant School received certification to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In its new incarnation as Grant School Apartments, the old school building provides a gracious home for residents age 55 and older. The apartments, managed by Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Services, LLC, are spacious, comfortable and well appointed, with wide doorways and accessible kitchen counters, hardwood floors, carpeted bedrooms, ceiling fans and large windows. The parking area is gated and the building includes an elevator, laundry facilities and a community room. According to one website, the Grant School Apartments are “the best kept secret in Tower Grove.”

As for the vegetable garden on the Minnesota Avenue side where the school’s parking lot was, it is operated by Chris Shearman, proprietor of Gelateria Del Leone on South Grand. Now finishing its first growing season, the garden — known as Brick City Farm — has produced organically grown Heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, zucchini and basil. Chris gives credit to his associate Joanna Landis for maintaining the garden and recruiting extra “hands” to work when needed. The produce is available at the gelateria and can also be purchased by local restaurants. Chris hopes to be selling Brick City Farm vegetables at the Tower Grove Park Farmers’ Market next year.

Although it no longer provides education for the children of the neighborhood, it’s clear that the historic Grant School has

retained its value as it continues its mission of service to the community.

Thanks to Thomas J. Pickle, Executive Director, DeSales Community Housing Corporation and Andrew Weil, Executive Director, Landmarks Association, for their help. Source: National Register of Historic Places: Registration Form, including attachments.