The building at the corner of Compton Avenue and Market St. has a long history.
For decades after its construction in 1936, the Vashon Community Center was one of the only public recreational facilities in St. Louis for African Americans. It was added to the register of National Historic Places in 2005. For some time, though, it has sat underutilized–until now.
Harris-Stowe State University announced Dec. 16 the Vashon Community Center would be renovated and reutilized as the home to the Don and Heide Wolff Jazz Institute and the National Black Radio Hall of Fame. Renovations are estimated to cost $3 million.
Funded by a grant from the Public Works Administration and a local bond issue, the Vashon Community Center was, at the time of its construction, one of only four recreational facilities accessible to Black St. Louisans. After its opening in 1937, the Center became a source for recreation, Black cultural events, and community gatherings.
Renovations of the building are expected to be completed in August 2022. Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith, interim president of Harris-Stowe State University, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning, described the music history and education facilities that will be housed in the building as “food for the soul.”
“As all around us the pandemic swirls and the climate wreaks havoc, we will have this new center to inspire us,” Smith said. “We can revel in the music greats of yesterday and those we admire today. We can restore our souls.”
The National Black Radio Hall of Fame, relocating to the Vashon Center building, is a nonprofit focused on uplifting Black radio history. It is headquartered in St. Louis, with branches across the country. Now, it will be connecting with Harris-Stowe, the only HBCU in St. Louis.
Michael B. Kennedy, president of architectural firm KAI Design and Build, says the Vashon Community Center project was inspired by the storied history of Black musical prowess in this city and beyond.
“When you think about…jazz and blues, and why it became so popular…it’s because you could feel the music, you could feel what was happening in history during that time,” Kennedy said. “It’s the passion in that music that came to life. And the things that happen on this campus, and that are going to be happening in this building, are going to come to life as you walk through.”
Along with the Black Radio Hall of Fame, the building will include the Wolff Jazz Institute, where students will be able to learn more about the history and future of jazz. It will also involve collaborative workspaces where students and community members will engage in music and media-making themselves, including gathering spaces and podcast-recording rooms. Overall, according to Smith, the renovations will “elevate the cultural life on campus.”
Smith expressed gratitude to some major players in the development and execution of this project: former Congressman Lacy Clay and Senator Roy Blunt, who supported funding for it early on, as well as KAI Design, the Parks Department, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Henry Givens Jr., the former president of Harris-Stowe, who passed away earlier this year. A symbolic hard hat and shovel were set aside for Givens at the groundbreaking ceremony.
According to Kennedy, this is a project of great importance – both historically and contributing to the future of Black music, media, and culture.
“The historical importance of this project, having it happen on this campus, and it being a national destination, is something to be very proud of,” he said. “It is truly a great day to be a hornet.”