Update Demolition of the handball court began on Tuesday, March 12, 2013. The ca. 1840s masonry structure could be the oldest in the United States and is a National Register-listed sturcute on the SEMO campus. The demo crew was instructed to save as many bricks as possible; their new intended use it not known. More info: http://www.semissourian.com/story/1949126.html.
Southeast Missouri State University offers one of the few undergraduate historic preservation programs in the country. As a graduate of the historic preservation program of Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO), I strongly support and believe in the historic preservation program. While the preservation program, its coordinator and students embrace preservation and sustainability of local historic resources, the university often seems to prefers a wrecking ball over the community’s heritage.
Despite spending millions to preserve its own history embodied in the restoration and rehabilitation of its main academic building, Academic Hall, it often fails to see the value of the community’s heritage and has been responsible for the demolition of numerous historic homes. Additionally, the university could elect to become a community leader by the means of one of our most vital and effective tools for economic revitalization, and community development: historic preservation and sustainability of the built environment.
However, SEMO has once again decided that one of Cape Girardeau’s historic resources, a c. 1843 brick handball court listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 as part of the former St. Vincent’s College Building, will be demolished in the near future for the expansion of the River Campus.
Historic buildings and structures are works of art, showcasing irreplaceable artistry and craftsmanship. So it seems a bit ironic, that the endangered handball court is located on SEMO’s River Campus, home to the visual and performing arts. Instead of preserving this work of art by Joseph Lansman, the powers that be within the university have decided it should be destroyed. With the destruction of the handball court, the community loses another thread in its historic fabric.
Historic Significance of America’s Oldest Handball Court
From the National Register nomination by Historic Preservation Services, LLC from Kansas City, MO:
The handball court is quite possibly the oldest handball court remaining in the United States. Research shows that the oldest court was thought to be located in San Francisco, but that court dates to ca. 1873. The first handball court on the campus of St. Vincent College in Cape Girardeau was built by the Vincentians around 1843 (now the site of the River Campus).
Handball was a sport that has been historically linked to coming to America via Ireland and Catholic teaching orders. However, the National Register nomination for St. Vincent College explains that hand-played ball games originated in ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. Alexander the Great introduced the game to the Greek colonies in Italy in 450 BC, from which it spread to Spain and France. Variations of the game are found throughout Europe by the sixteenth century and are often near church buildings to encourage play away from the church. In France, which is home to the Vincentian order, a version of the game invented by monks evolved into tennis.
Because of its date of construction and associations with the Vincentians, it is possible that the structure’s design has associations with the French antecedents. The handball court represents the work of local builder Joseph Lansman who has been lauded as the “Man that Built Cape Girardeau.” Lansman’s achievements are great and some of his most notable Cape Girardeau creations are St. Vincents College, Old St. Vincents Church, the Common Pleas Court House, the Bufordville Covered Bridge and many more not listed here.
More on the history of the court and the backstory of how we got to this point is available at two articles on the Southeast Missourian at seMissourian.com by James Baugh; “Cape Girardeau might have the nation’s oldest handball court” and ”Another historic landmark is about to get crushed, courtesy of the university.”
A University with a Record of Demolition
This is not the first time the university has favored the wrecking ball over preservation of historic resources. Demolition is a common activity of the university. So it is not a question of if a building will be razed by the university, but more akin to which building or structure will fall next at the hands of the university. In today’s time, numerous historic buildings are demolished because so many people view buildings as disposable and not as one of our country’s most sustainable resources. But maybe it is time for the university to understand the importance of sustainable resources and the value to save one of these resources.
Buildings Demolished by Southeast Missouri
- Albert Hall
- Charles W. and Helen Russell Boutin House
- Dr. D.H. Hope/Joseph H. Quatmann IV House
- Henry S. Moore House
- L.B. Houck House
- Leming Hall
- Rush H. Limbaugh House
- Werner’s CGA Super Market
- Washington School
- Willie’s Bakery at 1215 Broadway
- Howard’s Athletic Goods
Buildings Renovated/Reused by Southeast Missouri
The historic preservation programs at the University convey the importance of preserving historic resources. SEMO’s preservation program students have been active for many years in preserving the community, documenting buildings, conducting historic resources inventories, researching community history, and preparing National Register nominations. Working together Southeast’s faculty and students have listed over twenty properties in the last sixteen years.
Southeast Missouri State University has an undergraduate program in Historic Preservation with approximately 70 enrolled students, an MA program in Public History with a focus on historic preservation, and a graduate-level certificate program meshing historic preservation and heritage education.
While the historic preservation program is a role model for the community and surrounding area, the University itself has not truly embraced preservation. Southeast Missouri State University has the opportunity to become a role model to the local community, local schools, and across the country by embracing historic preservation and integrating its historic buildings and structures into its education facilities.
Let’s Save This!
Representatives from SEMO recently went before the Historic Preservation Commission and presented the condition of the handball court and offered no suggestions for repair or relocation, causing concern by preservationists that demolition was eminent. Here’s what we all can do to apply pressure to SEMO to at least look into options beyond demolition:
- Sign this online petition at Change.org started by Chaffee, MO resident Samantha Kluesner.
- Oppose the demolition in a phone call or email to, Ken Dobbins, the President of the Board of Regents at SEMO at 573-651-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Contact Kathy Mangles, V.P. Finance & Administration, who represented SEMO at the Historic Preservation Commission at 573-651-2570 or email@example.com.
- Share your ideas for reuse with Bill Hart, Field Representative for Missouri Preservation at firstname.lastname@example.org.