Decade of transformation reshapes Millstone Campus

Philanthropists I.E. Millstone (left) and Michael Staenberg look on during a 2007 groundbreaking for the Jewish Community Center’s planned Staenberg Family Complex. The J’s new fitness and wellness building would open in 2009, marking the start of a series of major construction and renovation projects of Jewish community institutions on the Millstone Campus during the past decade. File photo: Mike Sherwin


Filled with energy-friendly features such as water-retaining xeriscaping, high-performance fluorescent lighting and thermal equalizers in the gym, the Staenberg Family Complex was a model of efficiency. Though the complex’s footprint was smaller than the J’s previous building, it still offered far more capability for dynamic programming and services its users wanted. 

“I think that is really the most important part of these changes,” said Lynn Wittels, who became president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center the same year the Staenberg/Millstone photo was taken. “We’re not just changing facilities because we want to. We’re doing it because the needs of the community have changed, so the facilities have to change to keep up with consumer demand.”

In the J’s case, the change went deeper than just a physical transformation. The J’s revamp was part of an overall rebranding and reorganization, which helped stem sagging membership numbers, reinvigorate its top ranks and bring the ailing agency back to financial sustainability.  

“It didn’t have the right programs,” Staenberg recalled of the organization. “It didn’t have the right professional lay people, and it didn’t have the facility.” 

The new building was only the beginning of changes for the J, which would include relocating the swimming pool, building a new day camp pavilion, and redoing the soccer and softball fields. 

“They’re beautiful,” Wittels said of the latter, which were redesigned so the outfields no longer backed into one another. “Now we have two fields that are separate and distinct.”

Meanwhile, the organization was rebranded around five lines of business: early childhood education, day and resident camping, Jewish culture and socialization, group social services and fitness and wellness.      

“I think our J is a shining light for J’s across the country,” Wittels said. “I think it reflects the best of what can happen when staff and lay leaders work together toward a well thought out strategic plan.”

Modernized senior living

During the past decade, strategic planning was on the mind of leadership at the old Covenant House apartment complex. Now called Covenant Place, the 355-apartment facility for seniors has replaced two of its three buildings and introduced  new services, capabilities and programming. 

“The redevelopment of the Covenant Place properties has ensured that there will be affordable and dignified housing for the next several generations of older adults at a time when our older adult population is growing exponentially and living longer,” said Joan Denison, Covenant president and CEO. 

Research began in 2012 and work started the following year. The old Strike ’n Spare bowling alley overlooking Lindbergh Boulevard had already been razed, which made space for construction of a replacement for Covenant I. The new structure, the $21.9-million Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, opened in 2016. 

The old Covenant I was razed the next year and ground was broken on that site for the second building, the $34 million, 102-unit Cahn Family Building, which opened in June, effectively replacing the old Covenant II. 

Fundraising and planning continues for Phase 3, replacement of the old Chai Apartments Building. 

Though costly, the overall effort, funded partly through tax credits, was seen as necessary compared with the cost of repairing and renovating the 1970s-era structures.

“This building project was never a vanity project,” Denison said. “There were significant issues with the older properties that needed to be addressed.” 

The complex boasts new features, such as at the Cahn building, which includes the 19,000-square-foot Mirowitz Center. 

“It is a new resource for our community with medical center care, physical therapy, a café with kosher and nonkosher food, and a great meeting place for people in our community and beyond,” Denison said. “We’ve seen wonderful participation from the greater community.” 

Nineteen-year resident Dee Wolf, 82, said she’s already begun to take advantage of the center, having switched from her doctor on Mason Road to a physician onsite. 

She’s also aware of Covenant Place’s strategy of attracting seniors from the surrounding area, which is designated as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) because of its demographics. 

“It has worked,” said Wolf, who is president of the Tenant Council. “People from the outside are coming in.” 

She said she sees folks playing cards in the dining room two or three times a week. She called her new apartment “fabulous” and praised the expanded programming options, additional classes and the café — although she’d like to see expanded hours for the latter. 

“I think it is still in the figuring-out stages,” Wolf said. 

For Covenant Place’s executive, the changes have gone beyond her role as head of the organization. 

“I grew up in St. Louis, and I really grew up on this campus,” said Denison, who participated in theater and day camp at Millstone-housed facilities and had family members living at Covenant. 

She even remembers bowling frames at the old Strike ’n Spare. 

“This is really part of my personal history,” Denison said. “It has been exciting to see the renewal of this campus and its resources for our community. At some point, everything needs a refresh. I think it means we have a new energy and a new vibrancy on this campus, and we have the ability to serve our community going forward.”

A model campus

The J and Covenant Place may be the most obvious changes to the Millstone campus, but they aren’t the only ones. Last year, the Jewish Federation’s Kopolow Building was redesigned and got a new roof, staircase and name: the Kaplan Feldman Complex.

“It has really invigorated the Federation building as a community space,” said Don Hannon, chief operating officer of the umbrella agency. “With the enhancements, it is just a nicer place to be.” 

The 30-year-old building got new windows and a widened front entrance with a glass vestibule; the elevator was relocated; and the atrium acquired more natural light and a new openness that Hannon said has made it more popular as a spot for meetings. Outside, some tuckpointing was done and aluminum composite trim was added.

Security enhancements also were part of the plan. 

“For example, visibility around the building,” he said. “The windows draw in light but they also create a better line of sight as well.”

The rest of the campus also has been given a face-lift. New landscaping, signage, lighting and art can be found everywhere. The main entrance was widened to four lanes, and a second entry was put in off Schuetz Road as part of the Covenant Place project, an idea Denison credited to Staenberg. 

Denison said that all of the changes have built a true locus for Jewish communal life and that the different entities that share space along Millstone Campus Drive have begun to feel connected to one another. She recalled attendees during the Jewish Book Festival visiting the café in the Mirowitz Center to have lunch. 

“It feels like there is more interaction on the campus since these redevelopment plans have taken place, and that’s just a great thing for our community as a whole,” she said. 

Perhaps one of the least talked about changes can be found in the dimensions of the campus itself. Two sales, including a 52-acre transaction that turned the old forested day camp area into private homes, have dramatically reduced the size of Millstone’s original tract to 56 acres, just under half of its initial size. 

Much like the J itself, the campus has found value in the idea that less is more. 

“It has shrunk, but it is more efficient, so it is bigger than ever,” Staenberg said. “We have more on less ground because we’ve maximized and utilized the space appropriately.”

As 2020 takes hold, the changes are set to continue. Staenberg said that a revamp of the mikvah is on the agenda for the near future and that as much as 30,000 square feet could soon be added to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, currently a small facility on the lowest floor of Kaplan Feldman. The addition would quadruple the center’s size. 

The Federation’s Hannon said an announcement is set for later this month. 

“We think it is a world-class facility and resource for the St. Louis community and the region,” Hannon said. “We’re excited about the opportunity.”

Hannon believes the changes at Millstone are pointing the way to the future.

“I think we are creating a model campus, not only for the St. Louis community, but a model for a lot of other Jewish communities around the country,” he said. 

Staenberg, who has played a pivotal role in almost all of the changes, agreed. A decade ago, he said, there was some talk that entities might be considering leaving the site. But today St. Louis’ Jewish community campus could represent a blueprint for other places grappling with similar challenges. 

“When we centralize core functions and facilities of the Jewish community, there’s a synergy,” he said. “That is really special.” 

Staenberg said it was the result of a lot of work from many people.

“We’re really doing a lot to be respectful of Mr. Millstone’s vision,” he said. “The connectivity of all the different pieces is there. It wasn’t there before.”