Rebuild or relocate? Big decisions ahead for burnt-out museum

Rebuild or relocate? Big decisions ahead for burnt-out museum

SHAW — The owners of the burned-out Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum want to reopen in St. Louis, but they cannot come back to their old location at 3524 Russell Boulevard.

After a fire severely damaged the structure on March 26, the museum is considering whether to partially rebuild or simply relocate to another building, museum director Kerry Manderbach said. 

“It could be up to $5 million to totally renovate the building the way it was. That is totally not an option.” A decision will be made in the next few months, Manderbach said.

The fire in a former Christian Science church centered in the back area, in an auditorium once used as the church’s sanctuary. Exhibits were in the front area, where the lobby would be. Quick work by firefighters to remove those exhibits saved them from destruction. 

“We credit the firefighters for containing and putting out that fire before it spread to the most important items,” Manderbach said. “We’ve had teams going in to assess the damage and what could possibly be done.”

One possibility would be to build a shell around the burnt area, in the back and where the sanctuary was. The exhibit area in the front would be put back in operation. “The exhibit space is still intact. It was never burned. It was just flooded,” Manderbach said. 

“The second option would be to demolish the sections that were burned and to preserve the front and lower parts of the structure that weren’t burned.”

The final option would be to find a different building in case the current building can’t be saved. 

Insurance wouldn’t cover everything, Manderbach said. David Karpeles, the owner of the St. Louis museum and 13 in a group called the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums, would pay for the rest.

The group’s website lists museums in places like Fort Wayne, Ind., Duluth, Minn., Buffalo, N.Y., and Jacksonville, Fla. The website claims the group has the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents. 

Karpeles of Santa Barbara, Calif., is a retired mathematician and real estate person who has collected more than one million pieces over the last three decades or so, Manderbach said. Karpeles locates his museums in second tier cities that aren’t culturally oversaturated. Karpeles likes to acquire buildings that once were Christian Science churches, Manderbach said. They don’t have any religious imagery, he said. 

Items in the exhibits included a high school yearbook that showed Fidel Castro’s picture, a sheet with a picture of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara’s fingerprints, a CIA notebook detailing what was going on in Cuba when Castro came to power. There also was a medallion valued around $12,000 that commemorated the 1904 Olympics and Worlds Fair in St. Louis.

Documents and manuscripts the museum owns were sent back to the Karpeles museum’s headquarters in Santa Barbara. 

Firefighters also brought out at least eight or 10 filing cabinets with photos, biographies and newspaper clippings owned by the St. Louis Media History Foundation’s Hall of Fame. They also saved items like an antique radio, microphones and newspapers dating to the 1800s. Items like radio station T-shirts were lost. The salvaged items are being stored in various homes and garages in south St. Louis. 

The foundation’s board will discuss whether to display its material at the Karpeles museum or somewhere else when it meetings in late May or early June, foundation Executive Director Frank Absher said.

Also, work was underway at the time of the fire on an exhibit of KSHE Radio memorabilia, but nothing was installed at the time of the fire.

“We’ve had an outpouring of well wishers and support from the community,” Manderbach said. “We’ve had innumerable calls, many e-mails and people stopping by in front of the museum.”