Personal Architecture: Northland Day Nursery School

Hudson Road & College Drive
Ferguson, MO

Yesterday while driving from Alton, IL back to South St. Louis, I made a quick detour to check on the state of a beloved, vacant building. The scene above is what I found:
a blank spot.

Here’s what used to be there. From the 1950s to 1985 it was the Northland Day Nursery School, owned and operated by Ruth Meyer, who lived in the house next door. The first part of the building went up in 1940 and was added onto several times over the years, including an in-ground swimming pool added in 1961.

I attended this nursery school off and on from 1969 to 1974. I went here in lieu of kindergarten, and even in the first few years of grade school, they’d let my mother drop me off for a couple weeks during summer vacation. This wasn’t all that odd, as several of the kids I grew up with here also did the same. If they liked you (i.e., you didn’t cause too much trouble) you were always welcome to come back when a babysitter wasn’t available.

It sat on 1.63 acres of land, and was a complete wonderland of exploration, inside and out. Take a look at the map above and see how large the yard was for us to run around in. It was like a little village, with a rabbit hutch, 2 playhouses, a sandbox, a jungle gym and that glorious pool during the summer. There was plenty of pavement for riding tricycles, trees for climbing and hiding behind.

Our parents would drop us off at this gate, and for the rest of the day we belonged to Miss Ruth (who had one finger permanently stained from applying Mercurochrome to scrapes and cuts), Miss Audrey, Miss Dorothy and Miss Joanne. That’s what we were taught to call them, and I’ve retained that habit of referring to ladies of all ages in a position of authority by adding Miss to their first name, regardless of their marital status. It’s an old southern trait that still serves well in the modern age.

Inside, the building was a a rambling labyrinth, constantly changing floor levels and ceiling heights.  Some rooms were lined with shelves of toys, where Weebles wobbled but never fell down, or set up with a kid-sized metal kitchen with an old rotary phone where we called David Cassidy to sing “I Think I Love You” to him.

Down a set of steep stairs that we could only peer down, Miss Dorothy worked in a small kitchen making buckets of Kraft macaroni and cheese and pulling handfuls of potato chips from a giant metal tub. We got a mid-morning snack and a big lunch. Then it was nap time, with folding army cots lined up in several different rooms throughout, even in the far back room that was supposedly haunted.

That’s me on the far right, top row (note that the girl next to me has on a Mrs. Beasley costume). My best friend, Cathy Meeker, is the bride all the way to the left in the top row. We knew every nuance of all the Partridge Family and Sonny & Cher songs, and sang them loud and often until we were told to pipe down. This Halloween was the first time I ever saw a vampire movie, a Christopher Lee film shown on the afternoon program Dialing for Dollars. Cathy and I decided fangs were ultra cool, and that’s what I wanted my costume to be, but had to be a fairy instead. The wand helped soothe any disappointment.

And Santa came every Christmas, with presents galore. This year I got a knock-off Barbie doll which I then traded for a Liddle Kiddle locket. This was also the same room where we watched the 1969 moon landing, were scared to death of accidental blindness when learning about solar eclipses, and I got in trouble for heckling Alfie about one of the lamest Show ‘n Tell tricks ever performed.

Speaking of Alfie…
In 1993, some friends came over to my apartment, and one of them brought her boyfriend, Al. During the course of partying, Al said a few things that blipped my radar, and I got this vision of a tiny boy with a large head with Tweety Bird eyes and I asked him: “Does anyone ever call you Alfie?”
“Umm…yeah, my folks do.”
“Did you go to Northland Day Nursery School?”
“Hey Alfie, it’s me Toby!”

His eyes returned to Tweety Bird proportions, his jaw dropped and he turned beet red. Turns out he clearly remembered me and Cathy Meeker. Or to be more accurate, he remembered how we tortured him ceaselessly. He recounted a long list of wrongs I’d completely forgotten about. We were little shits, I guess, but he and I made amends during our impromptu Nursery School Reunion.  Later I learned that his girlfriend got jealous of this occurrence and they never came around again, and I never got a chance to tell her, “Are you kidding? I’m still not into Alfie – he ate boogers!”

From this December 2006 photo, the bones of one of the playhouses remains. Inside this structure, we tarted ourselves up with kiddy make-up and perfume, or had round-robin choruses of Melanie’s “Brand New Key.” From here you could see the rabbit hutch under that closest tree, the ground under them covered in pellets that looked like chocolate chips, and caterpillars crawling up the trunk that looked like mustard when they were smashed by the boys.

To the very right in this photo is the remains of the other playhouse which was next to the pool, the remains of which are outlined by the red fence posts. In the adjacent basement, we had little changing stations with our names written in marker, where we kept our towel, swimsuit and swimming caps. Even as I stood in the cold on this day, I could hear us singing Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” underwater in that pool.

And that very gate, that very same fence is where I used to stand and peer out longingly at the cars passing by on College Drive, which was – and is – the back way into Florissant Valley Community College. From early on, I always wanted to be anyplace else but where I was, and those kids driving by to college equaled freedom in my mind. It’s poignant to think back to feeling I was missing out on something better during what were the easiest and merriest days of my childhood. By the time I came back here in 2006, I had been working hard on learning to be here – now, to stay present. It was a meaningful full circle moment to be back there, on the other side of the fence looking in, fully in the present and the past. Time stood still, and it was peaceful.

By 1986, the nursery school had closed. Miss Ruth’s daughter, Ruth Ann, took over her house, and the school sat vacant ever since. My memory is cloudy about it, but somewhere in 2009 I learned the property was for sale, and I continued to come visit.

There are several places from my past that I visit when needing to chill out and gain a healthier perspective. Being in the tangible presence of safe and happy places lets me see the timeline of life, and re-connect to the purer parts of the soul. It’s another form of why people keep mementos – a physical piece of the past that conjures memories and emotions. Buildings are an important part of this historical perspective of the lives we live, proof that we did and do exist, that we grow and change while staying connected to the root of our hearts and souls.

And now a physical piece of childhood is gone forever, my first deeply personal architecture to be demolished. Now I understand the stunned silence of our parents and grandparents when they return to see their childhood architecture gone. It’s an uncomfortable milestone of aging, and the ghost images those now-empty spaces conjure make you feel momentarily older than you actually are.

When standing, these buildings dutifully house our memories so we can cruise by from time to time to rummage through the toy box of time. When they’re gone, those memories become toys in the attic of already crowded minds. And now “I’m never going back to my old school.”

Ferguson’s David & Goliath Moment


One of the most prominent intersections in Ferguson, MO has lately become notorious. CVS is mining the St. Louis area, and as they require being near an existing Walgreens, they want to move into the intersection of Hereford and North Florissant, on the spot of the now-vacant Sinclair gas station (shown above).   The issue is covered in depth here at NOCO StL, and that post also includes comments that capture the tone of the debate.

In essence, CVS wants to buy and tear down 8 homes and receive a 5-year TIF in order to build a new store on the northeast corner of a desirable intersection, and have been working on procuring the homes and advancing the plans since spring of 2009.  Ferguson neighborhood associations did not learn of these plans until September 2009.  It’s become a case of who in Ferguson City Hall knew of these plans (and when did they know it), and were they purposely trying to usher in this development without public discourse?


The group Preserve Our Ferguson Neighborhood’s concisely explains why they are opposed to the plan here, and note that they are not opposed to CVS coming to Ferguson, just opposed to this plan.

The photo above – and the next two that follow – are photos I took in May 2007 as part of a personal photographic survey of Hereford/Chambers Road from N. Florissant east to Halls Ferry Road (I hope to document straight through to Riverview Dr.).  These homes atop the hill on the northside of Hereford are a long-standing, iconic representation of Ferguson.  Even though everything to the southwest of them long ago turned commercial, these houses remained.  Meaning, that even during the boom years of Ferguson’s mid-century development, planners left this stretch of homes alone.

From 1945 – 1970, the clear delineation of commercial and residential in Ferguson is what made it so desirable for St. Louis city dwellers looking to relocate to the suburbs, and the long-standing respect for that pattern is a huge contributor to the renaissance Ferguson is now experiencing.  There is a growing and tangible St. Louis population reclaiming both our city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs because of the distinct flavor (and existing infrastructures) they retain.  It is an organic reaction against anonymous homogenization that depletes resources and a reclamation of community that is at the core of the human experience.  Ferguson is quickly becoming a poster child for inner-ring possibility, which is a responsible balance of respecting the past while moving forward.


From casual observation of how CVS has grown in the Midwest, it is clear that there is a corporate game plan that requires their stores to be in close proximity to a Walgreens.   I’m not debating their strategy – it must work for them or they wouldn’t insist upon it – but I am noting that there stubborn adherence to this strategy finds them offering lame excuses when faced with community opposition.

For instance, in the Ferguson situation, the community has suggested other nearby commercial sites that could most likely be had without disrupting residential, and most of these  sites are within eyesight of the Walgreens.  But CVS corporate responds that there might be a lease restriction on the site, and they want to work only on the Sinclair site they have been working on for almost a year.

The City of Ferguson may have already offered them a 5-year TIF, and CVS might also get a Brownfield tax credit for building on the site of a gas station.  Note that Ferguson can extend TIF to most any location it desires, so that’s not a crucial factor for CVS staying put with the Sinclair Plan.  But one thing is very clear from our brief history of the company in St. Louis: they want empty commercial and seemingly expendable residential buildings near a Walgreens because dealing with an existing corporation can get tricky.


For instance, their Ferguson plan procures 8 occupied homes, but spares the Little Caesar’s pizza building at the northern end of the block on N. Florissant.  It is cheaper to pay above-market price for private homes than wrangle with an existing business that full-well knows the rules of the real estate game.  This may be why the Aaron Rents site mentioned as another possible location for CVS at the same intersection was immediately dismissed; who wants to tangle with evicting a retail chain when the goal is to get in, get what you need and seal the deal as quickly as possible?

From the CVS perspective, these location strategies are logical, and it worked perfectly for them at the intersection of  Gravois and Hampton in South St. Louis City, the former site of a vacant Amoco station that also required 3 homes to be demolished.  The Ferguson site is a repetition of that same game plan, so why not?  But there’s another example that Ferguson needs to keep in mind: the failed attempt for a CVS at Lindell and Sarah in the Central West End.

Yes,  the plan took place over vacant commercial buildings, but this property was not in eyesight of the existing Walgreens, just a few blocks east on the same side of the street.  So, not the most ideal way to meet the corporate mandate, but still a viable property on a valuable street.  But the next problem was persistent community opposition.  In general, the majority of residents affected were not opposing the store being there,  but rather the layout and design of the store.  CVS played ball for one inning with some design modifications, but residents still weren’t satisfied and asked for further revisions.  Without fanfare, CVS took their ball and left the game, and the CWE CVS plan was abandoned.

Simply because a corporation with deep pockets says it should be so does not make it fait accompli, especially within a proud community committed to the safe-keeping of their town’s present and future.


It is easy to understand the need to increase the Ferguson tax base, and this is classically accomplished in two ways: more residents and more business.  It is a delicate balance, and Ferguson is once again facing the hefty kid on the playground who wants to plop down on the other end of their seesaw.  The important message of this “controversy” is that Ferguson residents are expecting transparency and fair negotiations about developments that will produce the most good for their city, and that is the sign of a community with healthy self-esteem and optimism about their future potential.  Ferguson’s heartbeat is gaining strength, and it is now healthy enough to fight for a fair deal.

There is valid concern about what to do with the Sinclair site if the CVS deal should fall through.  Size-wise, old gas station plots can be problematic if you’re thinking inside the retail box.  Though, considering the current revitalization in the heart of Downtown Ferguson, extending that line of thought a few blocks up to Hereford is not a stretch of the imagination.

And when it comes to revitalizing odd-shaped, vacant gas station sites in Ferguson, I do need to point out the photo above, also taken in May 2007.  This is at Ames Pl. and (Hereford turns into) Chambers Road, less than a mile east of the Sinclair intersection.  I once lived within walking distance of this former gas station, and was always intrigued by it because it appeared to be growing out of the side of a hill.  Plus, those people above it could walk out their side door and onto the gas station roof, if they wanted to (and I really wanted to).

The building is short and narrow, while the lot is long but very narrow.  So when the gas station finally folded many a year ago, it sat in this forlorn, vacant state.  The asphalt was removed, and once the grass grew in, it really looked odd, like a cedar and glass carbuncle growing out of the greenery.  But the last time I drove by, the site was back in use as a used car lot, which was a pleasant shock because I thought that plot of land and the building was a goner.  Instead, against all odds, it’s reborn!

I am not at all suggesting that the Sinclair site should become a used car lot.  I am just pointing out that even the oddest, and seemingly hopeless sites can find another life when it’s in a community that works together to make such things possible.