116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — What do you do with an old school building that is no longer being used for classes?
It’s a question the Cedar Rapids school district and city officials are thinking about as old school buildings are retired and replaced by new ones.
Most recently, the question concerns Arthur and Garfield elementaries, which both opened in 1915.
A new elementary school will be built across the street on the Arthur “annex,” 2630 B Ave. NE. When it opens in 2024, students from Arthur and from Garfield Elementary, 1201 Maplewood Dr. NE, will attend the new school.
Both of the century-old buildings will close, with the city and school district beginning to investigate how they might be repurposed rather than demolished.
“I share a lot of sadness that these will not be used as schools anymore, but to me it’s worse when we lose the building itself,” Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said. “I think the school district is showing some real sensitivity in the Arthur and Garfield decision in allowing the community to invest in them and give them a new life.
“This is where the historic preservation community needs to step up,” he said. “How can we help the community find a new, positive purpose? … Really important decisions are being made about the future of other school buildings.”
Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny echoes that thought.
At a June meeting of a council committee trying for the third time to repurpose the city’s Ambroz Recreation Center — formerly Buchanan Elementary at 2000 Mount Vernon Rd. — Vanorny noted the school district’s master facilities plan calls for consolidating elementary schools, which could lead to other older school buildings needing to be repurposed.
“We need something like this to work,” Vanorny said. “Here we are at the third iteration of this, and it’s really challenging when the conversation that is generally bubbling up from the facility master plan is, ‘Oh, let’s just let the city turn it into housing.’ It’s not as easy as we would like it to be.”
When soldiers returned from World War II, many quickly married and started families. The baby boom had arrived.
The Cedar Rapids school district built 30 new schools between 1949 and 1974.
“They were reacting to a population explosion and still couldn’t keep up,” Stoffer Hunter said. “They could not build schools fast enough.”
Some school buildings — like the original Van Buren Elementary, at 14th Avenue and Third Street SW; the old Fillmore Elementary, at C Avenue and 10th Street NW; and the original Jackson Elementary, at Fourth Avenue and 12th Street SE — were kept operational longer than they should have been, Stoffer Hunter said.
“They couldn’t shut those down because they needed the classroom space,” he said. “They were perceived as fire traps at the time.”
The number of students fell off drastically in the 1970s and 1980s.
That changing enrollment and economic recessions both played a role in the repurposing and selling of school buildings, according to Matt Dunbar, custodial and grounds manager for the Cedar Rapids school district.
Adams Elementary at 1635 Linmar Dr. NE was one of the school buildings sold. It had been “packed to the rafters” with more than 600 students when it first opened, Stoffer Hunter said. It now houses the Isaac Newton Christian Academy.
Kenwood Elementary, built in 1927 at 327 35th St. NE, also was sold and housed the Kenwood Park Presbyterian Church for years. It now is home to Calvary Community Church.
Even when an old school is razed, efforts are made to save some of its relics.
Take, for example, the original Jackson Elementary, at Fourth Avenue and 12th Street, which opened in 1883 and was demolished in 1970 when the new Jackson Elementary opened at 1300 38th St. NW
The school district stored the ornamental limestone from outside the school for almost 30 years. The names of the school board members in 1883 — plus the names of the building’s architect and contractors — were carved into the stones.
In the 2000s, the stones were moved to The History Center’s former location, 615 First Ave. SE, and used in the landscaping.
In 2015, Stoffer Hunter, who once worked for The History Center, arranged to have the stones moved to the second Jackson Elementary,
With the second Jackson building set to be demolished this summer to make way for the new Maple Grove Elementary, the stones were moved in June to 847 Fourth Ave. SE, within view of the original Jackson Elementary site.
“The school district felt like one thing they could do was save pieces of some of these old buildings and they still survive today,” Stoffer Hunter said. “It’s not as good as having the old building around, but it’s still important for learning.”
As the district builds new schools, it is moving away from naming the schools after presidents. In Jackson’s case, he was a slave owner and led military campaigns against Native Americans.
“As a historian, I’m not opposed to removing the president’s names,” Stoffer Hunter said. “I’m fine with ‘Jackson’ going away. It is somewhat offensive.”
Stoffer Hunter said he hopes the school district can name some schools for underrecognized people from Cedar Rapids.
For example, Viola Gibson Elementary School at 6101 Gibson Dr. NE, which opened in 2002, was named after Viola Gibson, a Black woman who protested her nephew being barred from a Cedar Rapids swimming pool because of his race and then formed the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP.
“One presidential name exception I hope we make is for Herbert Hoover, being that he was the only president born in Iowa,” Hunter said.
As a historic preservationist, Stoffer Hunter would like to see McKinley, Roosevelt, Franklin and Harrison middle schools — which are part of the district’s new secondary facilities plan — remain standing if Cedar Rapids voters approve a bond issue to update the buildings in 2023.
He also would like to see Taft and Harding middle schools — with their domes — remain standing. While they are “weird looking buildings from the 1960s, they are 100 percent Cedar Rapids architectural design,” Stoffer Hunter said. “It’s a great use of historic storytelling.”
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