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On May 27, 1998, the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents requested and received approval from the University Foundation to purchase the buildings and grounds of St. Vincent’s College and Seminary from the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Fathers), a Roman Catholic religious community established in France by Saint Vincent DePaul. The property had been for sale for several years, and the buildings had been unoccupied since the early 1980s. Nearly nine years later, after many feasibility studies and arduous planning, Southeast Missouri State University moved its Earl and Margie Holland College of Arts and Media to the River Campus.
Founded in 1838 and situated on the banks of the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau, St. Vincent’s College and Seminary was responsible for the education of thousands of students, especially young men aspiring to the priesthood. The cornerstone of the first building of the Seminary was laid in spring 1843. In 1871, a three-story west wing was added to provide dormitory space and to create a large chapel and lecture room. Jerry Ford, Cape Girardeau businessman and musician, wrote a history of the Seminary entitled Honor to St. Vincent’s, A History of St. Vincent’s College and the River Campus, where he describes catastrophes which befell the school including a major flood in 1844, an explosion of the gunboat Seabird which was tied up near the Seminary grounds, and a tornado in 1850 which damaged main buildings and the Civil War. Mark Twain chronicles the Seminary in his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi. He remarks, “There is a great Jesuit school for boys at the foot of town by the river. Uncle Mumford said it has as high a reputation for thoroughness as any similar institution in Missouri.”
Declining enrollments in the 1890s nearly forced the closing of the college. Around 1910, however, the role of the school was redefined, and it became a type of preparatory school for the priesthood. Relatively healthy enrollments of 70 to 80 students became the norm. Young students at the college seemed to integrate increasingly into the local culture in the 1950s and years following, particularly as participants in sports activities.
The property acquired by Southeast in 1998 included 60,000 square feet of existing interior building space and 16.6 acres of real estate. Dr. Dale Nitzschke, Southeast Missouri State University’s President at the time, observed, “The Vincentians provided us with a very attractive option to purchase the property as long as we maintain the historical nature of the structures and the educational mission of the facility. We have cooperated with the Vincentians in that they had a vision for a continuing educational use of the facility. There has been an educational mission at this site for more than 150 years, and we at Southeast will continue that rich tradition and hope to provide educational opportunities there at that location for at least another 150 years.”
Mr. B.W. Harrison, a local businessman and long-time supporter of the University, donated the funds allowing the purchase of the property. In addition, he provided monies to allow the planning process to begin. From the outset, Mr. Harrison expressed his wish that the property be preserved and used for educational purposes. Raised in Salem, Mo., Harrison graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1936 and enjoyed a 40-year career with the Missouri Extension Service before opening his own business in Cape Girardeau.
Donald Dickerson, president of the University Board of Regents in 1998, noted that during negotiations for the acquisition of the Seminary property, meetings were held with civic and community leaders of Cape Girardeau.
“This venture is a great opportunity for a shared effort on behalf of the University and the entire region,” Dickerson said. Eventually, the University and the City of Cape Girardeau came together in a joint partnership to provide public and private funding for the new facility which would be home to a newly-created College of Arts and Media, comprised of the academic departments of Art, Music, and Theatre/Dance. Also included were plans to bring the University Museum into the River Campus complex.
The University developed preliminary plans and a conceptual model of the new campus in summer of 1998 to arrive at a configuration of buildings that would best serve the delivery of academic programs while providing suitable venues for performances by outside touring shows. There had been keen interest expressed by both the citizens of the southeast Missouri region and the University to build a venue which would serve not only as a training ground for students, but also a location at which to offer cultural events of a national and international magnitude. Earliest configurations included a large performance theatre, a museum with a regional history focus, a 500-seat theatre, a 150-seat recital hall, and classrooms, offices and studios. In November 1998, the citizens of Cape Girardeau voted to help fund the River Campus project by approving the contribution of $8.9 million in restaurant and motel taxes to support the project in return for some public use of the facility.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held at the River Campus May 27, 2003. In attendance were U.S. Senator Kit Bond, Congresswoman Jo Anne Emerson, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, Missouri Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Kinder, University President Kenneth Dobbins, and University Board of Regents President Don Dickerson, as well as representatives of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Also attending were many private donors and over 700 citizens from the Southeast Missouri region. A final schematic design was presented Oct. 15, 2003, by Jacobs Facilities, Inc.of St. Louis. Theatre Project Consultants of South Norwalk, Conn., was contracted to configure the performance spaces. Plans included a large proscenium theatre with acoustic variability of 950 seats, a flexible theatre of 204 seats with telescopic risers and platforms in the seating pit, and a dance studio of about 1,835 square feet. The Seminary chapel was earmarked to be the new Music Recital Hall with special acoustical design proposed by Ove Arup & Partners, Ltd., of California.
In January 2005, construction documents were completed to the extent that advertisements
for demolition of the old gymnasium and site work packages could be distributed for
bid. Initial estimates indicated the three-year renovation/construction phase would
generate some 263 new jobs for two years and 132 jobs in the third year, with the
construction alone generating approximately $23.1 million in direct and indirect personal
income. The economic boost to the community by visitors to the Regional Museum and
other arts events could generate an additional $900,000 in the Cape Girardeau region.
At nearly the same time, the Seminary was awarded special status by being listed on the National Registry of Historical Places. The renovation and reconfiguration of old buildings presents special challenges. The Seminary building underwent rigorous inspection during the course of the renovation. Because Cape Girardeau is located on the New Madrid fault line, the likelihood of a future seismic event could not be discounted. As a result, BSI Constructors of St. Louis drilled 55,000 horizontal holes into existing brick walls into which steel rods were secured with epoxy. These walls were then covered with “shot-crete” to create walls within walls. Carl Cooper, the Project Manager for BSI, relates that the structures are designed to survive a “Level I” seismic event.
Since the Seminary building is located adjacent to a highway bridge and a railroad, special care was taken to insulate offices, studios, and performance spaces from outside noise. In most instances, specially constructed sound isolated double-paned windows have been installed at the facility. Special sound insulation is also used around the music practice rooms and the studios of music instructors. All theatre entry is through double-doored “sound and light locks.” The spacious Seminary Chapel, now converted to the Shuck Music Recital Hall, also has sound-insulated windows. As a special feature, the old stained glass from the original chapel has been remounted and is placed on the inside of the chapel window frames.
Work on the Seminary, including landscaping was completed by the end of April, 2007. The move of faculty offices of the Departments of Art, Music, and Theatre/Dance was completed mid-summer, 2007. Fall classes began in the Seminary Building Aug. 20, 2007. The University Board of Regents met for the first time in the new Seminary Building May 11, 2007, to officially name various venues on the campus including The Earl and Margie Holland College of Arts and Media, the Donald C. Bedell Peformance Hall, the Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum, the Wendy Kurka Rust Flexible Theatre and the Robert F. and Gertrude L. Shuck Music Recital Hall.
A grand opening of the entire facility, including the University Museum, was held Oct. 23, 2007, to coincide with Homecoming. Special speakers at the celebration included Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, University President Kenneth W. Dobbins, the Very Rev. James Swift, C.M., Provincial Superior of the Congregation of Mission Midwest Province, former Board of Regents President Donald L.Dickerson, Student Regent Leni Fluegge, Dr. Gary L. Miller, associate dean of the College of Arts and Media, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, current Board of Regents President Brad Bedell, Kathy Swain, chair of the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education, and Albert M. Spradling III, vice president of the Board of Regents.