116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This was the last school year for Calvin Coolidge Elementary, which has welcomed west-side kids for 54 years.
Students at the school, 6225 First Ave. SW, watched this year as a new elementary — to be called West Willow — went up on the school’s athletic field. That’s where they’ll start classes this fall.
The old Coolidge school building will be razed. It is the first of 10 new elementaries to be built in Cedar Rapids, funded by the statewide 1 percent sales tax for school facilities.
The Cedar Rapids school board bought the land for Coolidge and for Kennedy High School in 1966.
The cost estimate for the Coolidge building was a little over $727,000 — about $6.2 million in today’s dollars.
Architect Leo Peiffer designed a three-level building for the 10-acre, sloping site, with ramps instead of stairs between the school’s three wings.
Plans hit a snag in January 1967, when ”unstable soil“ and ”some pockets of quicksand“ were discovered at the site, The Gazette reported. An additional $6,000 was spent to haul in rock and add a crew to stabilize the area.
The extra work — plus a problem with getting precast concrete from a Wisconsin supplier — put in doubt whether Coolidge could open in the fall. School Superintendent Arnold Salisbury was concerned about a severe lack of classroom space, but General Contractor O.F. Paulson said the job would be done on time.
Coolidge, built to accommodate 600 students, opened Sept. 5 with 571 students.
The school was dedicated during an open house Dec. 10, 1967, with Principal Robert Eppel, school board member Ben Trickey and Student Council President Debbie Ehresmann on the program. More than 600 people attended.
Coolidge was designed for open-space, team-teaching instruction.
Principal Eppel, in a 1975 interview, said the open-space concept initially “ran into a problem. It was equated with the free classroom of England where students do anything they want to. That wasn’t the philosophy at that time or now.”
Instead, he said, self-discipline was stressed, as well as helping students “identify some of (their) own goals and take responsibility of meeting those goals, rather than the educator taking the responsibility and being a policeman.”
Coolidge had sliding partitions to close off a corner of the open classroom, but Eppel said they hadn’t been used for several years.
First library, but no AC
Coolidge was the first school to have a school library — called an Instructional Materials Center — under the direction of Media Specialist Donna Koch. After organizing Coolidge’s center, she set up libraries at Hiawatha, Eisenhower, Noelridge and Taylor elementaries.
While an eight-room addition to Coolidge was approved in 1969, the proposal to air-condition the school was not. The addition cost $170,361. Air conditioning would have added another $34,000, and the money wasn’t in the budget, school board President Ernest Pence said.
Air conditioning was back on the table for Coolidge in 1981 when the district advertised for bidders. Again, it didn’t happen.
And it still was on the wish list in 1999, along with requests for a new phone system and an upgraded electrical system.
The Cedar Rapids school board on Jan. 22, 2018, approved a 20-year master facilities plan that will close eight aging elementary schools and replace them with 10 new schools. Coolidge was first in line.
As the $25 million West Willow school began to rise, Coolidge educators and school staffers said they looked forward to “working in a building with fewer ant outbreaks, level floors, consistent heat and more space for parking,” The Gazette reported in 2018.
The employees said the heating was uneven in the building, sometimes leaving frost on the windows. The media center had standing water. Floors sloped toward the center.
Perhaps the “unstable soil” and “quicksand” finally won out.