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Former Johnson County schoolhouse named as 'endangered' historic property

Local group hopes to convert building to arts, entertainment space

The two-story, two-room former high school in the unincorporated community of Sharon Center in Johnson County was added
The two-story, two-room former high school in the unincorporated community of Sharon Center in Johnson County was added to Preservation Iowa’s 2020 Most Endangered Properties list. A local coalition hopes to turn the property into a community center. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Historic Sharon Community Center.)
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A former high school in Johnson County — one of the only two-story country schoolhouses left in the state — was named as one of the most endangered historically significant properties in Iowa.

The former Sharon High School was one of nine properties added to Preservation Iowa’s Most Endangered Properties list this year, an annual designation of buildings and sites that are “gradually slipping away.”

The building is in Sharon Center, an unincorporated Johnson County community less than 10 miles southwest of Iowa City. It was built in 1899 by area residents who wanted a nearby high school for students who would otherwise have to travel to Iowa City or Kalona.

Only a small number of two-story country schoolhouses still are standing in Iowa, Preservation Iowa officials said.

Since the Most Endangered Properties program was created 25 years ago, Preservation Iowa has designated more than 150 homes, churches, commercial buildings, archaeological sites, landscapes and a variety of other properties to its list.

The organization aims to bring attention to the risks to historic properties through this program, introducing owners “to preservation advocacy and resources that can help preserve their historic property,” officials said in a news release.

For many properties, inclusion on the list has brought funding to restore these sites as well as needed attention for preservation efforts already underway.

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Members of the Friends of Historic Sharon Community Center hope this recognition will bring more local attention to their efforts to preserve and repurpose the building into a community center.

“We see an important story with connections to community to tell there,” said Dave Jackson, a member of the Friends of Historic Sharon Community Center.

When the former Sharon High School was built, it had a classroom on the first floor and an auditorium on the second floor. The building also served as a community center for Sharon Township, hosting community, entertainment and church-related events.

About two decades later, the number of students attending the school dwindled. The now-Frytown Masonic Lodge No. 549 purchased the building in 1918 and converted the second floor to a Fellowship Lodge, which remains to this day.

Local interest in maintaining a four-year high school resurged in the 1920s, and the Masons rented the first floor to the high school. Officials renovated the basement to host the school’s domestic sciences curricula.

Classes were held there until 1931.

The first floor has remained largely intact since then, retaining its original wood plank floor, plaster and lathe walls, wood trim, painted chalkboards and chalk trays, and pendant light fixtures. The second floor has the original woodwork, stairs and doors.

The building has suffered from deferred maintenance, according to officials. Water damage has caused the foundation to bow, and breaks in the block wall masonry have led to pest infiltration. Broken rafters in the attic likely contributed to a visibly sagging roofline.

The Friends of Historic Sharon Community Center plan to host community forums soon to draw attention to the historic property. They also hope to gauge whether local residents are interested in reinvesting in the property to turn it into an arts and entertainment space for the township.

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“We want to develop that culture further, that environment where people can return to history and really appreciate some of the local history programs that the group wants to bring,” Jackson said.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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