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What to do with all those old schools?


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I decided to write a bit about this just because it is always something that has interested me (old buildings+statistics+problem solving=my strong interest).

Rural and urban America generally have lengthy histories to go with the communities that we often don't share with the suburbs, simply because the suburbs tend to be newer (post WWII) and don't have the problems of aging infrastructure quite yet.

One of the biggest problems, especially in rural America, is declining school enrollment. This has profound impacts already on rural economies as there are fewer and fewer children to take jobs in small communities, leaving larger, older generations behind with fewer young people to care for them and stagnate, free-falling economies. Immigrants have breathed a breath of fresh air into many communities, but not all. This also creates empty school buildings. Sometimes these old buildings are snatched up by a company or some other interest right away, but other times they sit empty for many years.

My mother's home city (Bloomington, MN) is an example of a district that sloughed off old buildings relatively easily to companies that were moving in like crazy during the 1970s and '80s. Bloomington's school enrollment fell from 26,000 in the early 1970s to about 11,000 by the mid 1980s, so the district had a large number of schools to get rid of. My mom's elementary school was torn down and a large office building sits on site today. Her junior high was sold in the late 1970s to a local company and eventually became a community college. Her high school was closed in 1983 and was sold to Control Data Corporation. Today, the building still serves defense contracting offices, and the old stadium is still used by the two remaining high school for football games.

Another district that faces huge problems is Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth's enrollment has fallen from nearly 30,000 in 1970 to just 11,000 today. Many buildings have simply been razed to make way for new development or green space but a few have found other purposes. The old central high school, built in 1893, was renovated and converted into the main offices in the early 1970s as they built a new central high school. This new Central High School has been on the verge of closing nearly every year since the late 1980s as high school enrollment has dropped precipitously. Strong community efforts to preserve a 3 high school system and restructuring (adding 9th grade to the high schools and finding more community uses for buildings) have allowed them to keep the schools open, but it is only a matter of a few years before the enrollment will fall to around 2600 high school students in 3 buildings with a capacity of 6000. One will have to go. Some have proposed building a new high school that will hold up to 3000 students and closing all three older buildings or turning them into middle schools. But what does Duluth do with these historic buildings? Surely you can't tear them down.

Even harder are the challenges that small communities face with empty school buildings. During the 1980s, many small towns combined their districts with neighboring towns and consolidated students to one community or one building in each community and closed the other buildings. These small towns can't find buyers and the districts are so cash strapped that they can't afford to maintain the buildings, so they "mothball" them, basically taking everything out, shutting the heat off, and letting the building slowly rot so it would not be too expensive to get ready again if they should ever need it in the future (unlikely without a major immigrant rush). My own community has two such school buildings (an elementary school closed in 2000 and the old high school, built in 1922 and vacated for a new building in 2001).

Our community has had fiery school board meetings including local legislators as the building sits empty. Finally, they tore down an old classroom annex that was built in the 1959 expansion and renovated the pool/gymnasium area into a "Boys and Girls Club" facility. The older, more historic building (1922) and the historic auditorium (built in 1932 as a means to put people to work that includes ornate Chandeliers, detailed decor, and seating for 1500) sit empty. When windows break, they are simply boarded up. The University has now offered to purchase the building and tear it down to add a parking lot and a practice field for football.

So, my main question is:

How do we reuse these buildings in a way that honors their historic value and yet adds economic value to the community?

Do you have suggestions?

I've heard a few:

Converting it into mixed-income apartments, as it would have great facilities for tenants (gymnasium, pool).

Converting them into assisted living homes for the elderly. This is not a good idea right now, but will be within the next 10 years. Currently, the number of elderly pepole (over 75) is not really growing, and so we are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. The demand for this will be there in 10 years, but we have to do something now.

Any others? Similar problems in your area?

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In Columbia, SC, one fairly large urban school was turned into assisted living condos, and I think it sold out relatively quickly. A few of the rural schools have been bought by private parties and turned into houses/ workshops. One guy has a woodworking shop, another has an art studio as the workshop.

More locally to me, a grammar school will be razed and replaced by 24 homes.

Sadly, I think a lot of these buildings will sit because a vast majority of them have asbestos abatement issues. If the cities really wanted to get rid of them, they'd help out with this. I think a lot more old schools would be saleable if this were true.

Its funny this topic came up, because my wife and I occasionally talk about finding an old rural school and converting it into our house.

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So far at least 2 public schools in Atlanta are now loft apartment / condos. There are plans to convert a few more, as the public school system in Atlanta has a surplus of property due to declining enrollment.

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I hate to see old schools go vacant. It seems some of the rural schools can be community centers, if they aren't too large. This makes me think of my mom's high school. It was built by the WPA of native rock in NW NC. It would make a nice hotel or retirement home, but the community is too small (pop. 194 and falling) to support it. It is privately owned now, and startign to fall into disrepair. I'll have to post a pic of it soon...

I think turning them into residences, churches, or community centers are the most viable options. In some communities, even commercial apps. It just depends on the location and community. :dontknow:

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A lot of old schools have become retirement homes, recreational and adult learning centers, apartments, or museums here. The post WWII ones will probably be replaced by newer construction or renovated. We have a lot of ugly 1950s school buildings. I couldn't see them being rehabbed into anything.

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There is one building in Bemidji, now called "The Old Schoolhouse" which was originally the Carr Lake School, which operated from the early 1900s until 1972, when it, along with several other small, rural schools were consolidated into a new building. The building was sold to a friend of the family and they converted it into a crafts and art supply shop that serves local university art students. They also converted the 3rd floor "gym" (quite small) into a dance studio. They also maintain the grounds (baseball diamond and field) where they host community functions for the "Carr Lake Community." It isn't like it sounds. There are no gates or luxury cars or golf courses here. Just a scattering of homes on a small lake that all pitched in to buy a nice "welcome" sign and still (God forbid) do things as a community.

Another school, the Nary School, that closed as a result of that consolidation went on to become a community center for Helga township and serves as a great place for wedding receptions and other events. A brief history of the area can be found here: http://www.township.helga.mn.us/history.html Take note of the names of the first township board. The area was settled largely by Norwegian immigrants.

The 4 classroom Solway School, which merged with the Bemidji district in the 1970s, was closed in the early 1980s when a new Solway Elementary school was built to accommodate a surge in younger students in the area. The old building was sold to a private holder and now serves as an antique store.

The old Lincoln Elementary School, built in 1916 and closed in 1999 when a new school was built, was sold to an area church for a low price. The church now maintains the playground equipment and basketball courts for neighborhood children to use. The School set up serves the church perfectly for Sunday School classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall, and a remodeled gym as the sanctuary.

One school, built in the early 1980s, was closed in 2000 and has sat empty since. The district has not sold the building as it does expect to re-open it in the future, as the area is growing in population and birth rates are rising again.

So, the school district has been pretty responsible in selling its vacated buildings. The buildings continue to serve their communities. It's like getting a second use out of a tea bag, if you will.

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I know in providence, Perry middle school is looking to shut down because htey built a new schoool down the road (springfield), but this school perry is in such a mess it will cost to much money to redo. Do you think they would redo it or just knock it down?

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My university has a fascinating architectural history. The school went through a couple distinct building styles and a few building booms.

The first was obviously when the university/monastery was founded in 1857 at its present location. Construction was begun on a new church and monastic residences along with classrooms and dormitories for students. The university expanded steadily throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century and many more buildings were built generally in the same style: Bricks fired on campus from clay "quarries" on the land surrounding campus. All furniture and wood was taken from the 2000 acre forest surrounding the campus. By the early 1900s after surviving severe damage from a tornado and a fire, the Quadrangle building was completed with the Church on the NE corner, monastic residence on the NW, and the health center and classrooms and refectory (dining hall) on the other side. In 1911, citing growth in the student population, Benet Hall was built on the north side of the Quad, offering 5 floors of rooms to house several hundred students. At the same time, Simons hall (controversy on whether it is pronounced "Simon" or like "Simmon") was built to house the natural sciences. When the new science building was built in the '60s, it began housing the social sciences.

Other buildings were built including a power plant, smaller office building, and barns. They had cow pastures and crop fields on campus, and serious alterations to the landscape were made by damming up the small Stumpf River and creating Stumpf Lake, where waste water was dumped. In the 1920s, a new performing arts/music building was added just to the north of Benet Hall and a new Gymnasium building was added.

After a building dearth during the depression, the university began to expand rapidly after WWII. By 1951, the open room dormitories on the 4th floor of the Quadrangle and Benet hall became filled to capacity and construction was begun on Mary Hall. Mary Hall was not built with bricks from the campus, but followed the same architectural style, though the bricks are a bit darker red. It was the last building of this style to be built for 40 years.

In the early 1950s the university began planning for a massive expansion. Plans were made for an exclusive prep school on the shores of Lake Sagatagan (the biggest lake on campus, at about 800 acres). Also planned was a new residence hall, a new Abbey Church, and the conversion of the basement of Mary into a Cafe and student union space.

By the late '50s, St. Thomas Hall was completed and is unique to the campus. Following modern style for the '50s, the building is boxy and utilitarian. It houses to this day some 450 Freshman and sophomore men. It was originally constructed to be temporary housing (they didn't think enrollment would grow that much more. By the time they could even think about tearing it down, they couldn't. It's protected as the first major work of a now famous architect, though his name escapes me.) The abbey church was completed in 1962, a few months before the 2nd Vatican Council, making the 30 chapels and many other features of the building obsolete months after it opened. The old church had its steeples removed and was desanctified, though masses are still occasionally held there at special events.

The old church was built in neo-Gothic style with large pillars that open up into a very tall alter with a dome painting of Christ looking down over the church.

The new church was built in the modern, utilitarian style. It is made almost completely of concrete, save for the entire front wall being comprised of hundreds of hexagonal stained glass windows. The front of the church was fitted with a 150 foot tall "Bell Banner" that holds the bells and a large cross that is visible from I-94, over a mile from campus. This and the smokestack are hte only two visible parts of campus from the freeway. The bell banner structure is actually free standing and is counter balanced by the free standing balcony inside the church.

After the easter Mass of 1962, when about 2000 people filed out of the church, the vibrations shook the bell banner so much that one of the bells came crashing to the ground. No one was injured.

Here is a picture of the new church's bell banner and the "stained glass wall" with the old church and Quadrangle building in the background:


The 1960s marked the biggest period of expansion as the baby boomers began to graduate high school and move into college.

A new library, science building, and 3 new dormitory buildings were built. Here is a picture of the campus with the church and library building denoted. All of the new buildings followed this style. At this point the architect proposed tearing the entire 4 storey quad building and replacing it with a concrete 2 floor building in the modern style.


In the picture, you can identify the Quad as the largest building towards the top. St. Mary Hall is the long, narrow brick building to the right of the library. The large grassy area in the center right portion of the picture is known as the "tundra" as it is murder to walk across it on a cold, windy January day. The white dorm on the top side of the Tundra is Tommy Hall and the 3 buildings closest to the lake were added in the late 1960s to house a growing student population. It now houses primarily sophomores and a few juniors. Also built during this time was the art studio (white vaulted building above the Sophomore dorms). A new addition to this building was completed in the late '90s.

Plans to replace the quad were scrapped and the University elected to remodel the building to serve the University better and to apply to have it placed on the historic buildings register.

During the 1970s, new housing was added for students to "Flynntown", the section of housing on the bottom side of the small lake. This had originally been a small neighborhood of houses for professors and their families, but as professors elected to live elsewhere and the student population grew, they began to tear down the old houses and replace them with new housing.

In the mid-70s, a new athletic facility was built and dedicated. It is now known as the "Palaestra".

In the early 1980s more housing was added, but this time with environmental friendliness in mind. Earthen apartments in the Flynntown area were added near the lake and programs were instituted for residents there to conserve energy. Today, they are simply used as primarily junior housing. A new Monastery residence building was also added behind the church and connected to the Quadrangle.

In the late 80s, another small apartment building was built on the main part of campus to house juniors and seniors on the north side (North is the bottom of the picture) of the Tundra. In the early '90s, Metton Court, a series of 4 apartments facing a court with seating and a fire pit were built. Flynntown was becoming the new place for upperclass housing on campus.

The early '90s also saw a major change to campus. Plans were made for a new student union center that would include cafe style eating, a pub, the book store, and student organization spaces along with study lounges complete with fireplaces. The proposed place for this building was right next to Mary Hall, but St. Joseph hall, a small building that had served as offices and then student housing and then offices again stood in the way and could not be torn down because it was on the list of historic places. The building was moved over a period of a week across campus on rollers and plopped down next to the power plant with a new pottery studio in the basement and student housing on the 2 floors above it.

The road, Stearns County 159, which had carried right through campus on the west side of Mary (the right side) and the Quad was rerouted around campus along Stumpf lake (the narrow lake on the right). The old roadbed was converted into a brick walk way and the basement of Mary was extended ot the new Sexton Commons student center, making space for the campus mail service. The vacation of the Mary Basement of many of the organizations that were housed there meant that new space was opened up for a hair salon, the Outdoor Learning Center, and other peer group and counseling services.

With growing enrollment in the late '90s, construction began on Vincent Court Apartments (the multicolored buildings on the bottom of hte picture). 8 of the 9 buildings were completed, but a 1970s era cheap "temporary" housing building stood in the way of the 9th 'house' (the court furthest left). Seidenbusch apartments were burnt down in the summer of 2006 and the last building was completed in December of 2006.

Growth in the natural sciences departments brought an addition to the science building.

Also, St. Placid house and St. Maur house were completed in 2001 on the north side of the tundra for senior housing. These apartments consist of a common living place on the main floor with a bathroom, kitchen, dining, and living area and laundry facilities. The upper 3 floors consist of 2 single bedrooms with private bathrooms each.

A large addition was also completed on the Palaestra athletic facility, creating a large indoor fieldhouse for basketball games and other competitive sports. At this time, the football field was fitted with new bleachers and the natural grass was replaced with turf.

Since the picture was snapped, a new guest house to the left of the Abbey Church was completed on the hill near the lake. It includes conference space, lodging facilities for university guests, and monastic areas. It was completed in the fall of 2006.

Other unique campus features:

The Stella Maris Chapel, located on the east shore of Lake Sagatagan, was completed in the 1940s. A bell was never put in the chapel because the boat in which the monk was transporting the bell across the lake capsized and he and the bell were lost to the lake. Plenty of ghost stories surround these events.

There are several monastic gardens, open only to the monastic community. They are very elaborate and they are maintained exclusively by the monks. They also have a small, private swimming beach on the lake. The public beach is behind the Abbey church and includes canoe/kayak rentals and a large dock and swimming platform.

There are also soccer, baseball, and rugby pitches/fields outside of the picture.

Another interesting part of the story has been the story of the roads to campus.

Originally, you took Highway 52 out of St. Joseph for a few miles and then turned left onto St. John's Entrance Road, which wound through the woods from east to west until you came onto the church grounds with the original church being right in front of you. The "back" entrance, still in use goes out along the west shore of Lake Sagatagan past the cemetery and winds along the lake shore and through beautiful mature oak and maple forest before coming out onto the old highway that served as a way for people living west of town to get into St. Joseph.

With the new church built, and facing north, a new entrance was built coming in from the north going out to highway 52. When first built, people complained that it was unnecessary because there was already a route just a mile and half away from the same highway, but the monks insisted upon having an approach right up to the new abbey to impress visitors. This new entrance also meant better access for farmers and residents who lived out that way and had only a small rural road to drive on before. During this time, the old pastures on that end of campus were removed and plans were made to remake the landscape there.

With the extension of Interstate 94 past St. John's came a big debate. The government would not build two bridges to serve both entrances coming from Highway 52 as the new highway would parallel U.S 52.

After much debate, the university closed the old entrance to car traffic (except for events and games at the soccer/rugby pitches).

A new bridge and ramps were constructed just to the south of 52 and this became the main entrance into St. John's. Old highway 52 was renamed to "Old Collegeville Rd." since it follows the old route through St. Joseph and St. Cloud and now terminates at the main road into St. John's. A new 4 lane high was built that cut through the main route in St. Cloud and bypassed the main business district of St. Joseph, merging with I-94 which bypassed St. Cloud completely about 2 miles NW of St. Joseph.

After years of fund raising, a foot bridge was constructed over the freeway at the site where the old entrance road crossed where I-94 now lies. This was meant to encourage walkers/runners/bikers/rollerbladers to use the non-used road to avoid accidents along the main entrance. The path was completed and now intersects with the "Lake Wobegon Trail", a paved trail that follows the old railroad bed from St. Cloud to Albany, Minnesota (It got his name because it is thought that Lake Wobegon, a fictional Minnesota town, comes from a small town in Stearns County).

Also of environmental note:

The new entrance road (bottom left) now serves as the dam to Stumpf Lake, which was originally the Stumpf River. The river below the dam had been re-channeled into a straight, narrow channel rather than the marshy, winding channel so that cows had a more stable water source.

With the completion of I-94, there was worry that high water levels could actually flood the freeway, as it was constructed only a few feet higher than the water and water was channeled through a simple culvert.

In the 1980s, Saint John's built an earthen dam in the river about 100 feet to the south of the freeway, and another earthen dam about half way between there and the Stumpf Lake dam. The first lake filled in and another smaller lake was built on the other side of the entrance road. These are now called the Gemini Lakes.

The smaller, shallower pond that formed beyond the Gemini Lakes and I-94 was allowed to flood in order to replace some of the wetlands that were destroyed earlier. It now serves as a rich marine marsh habitat for many birds and other species. A boardwalk was built across the pond for science students and other area students as part of the new "Arboretum project".

The rest of the land not flooded that was cow pasture was dug up and tilled in the early '90s and 100% native prairie species were seeded. The area is burned frequently to ensure that it does not become re-forested.

Also, a large section of forest along the SE side of the east Gemini Lake was thinned out of plants except for the larger Bur Oak trees and was seeded with prairie grasses. This section is also frequently burned and represents a new portion of "Oak Savannah", one of the most endangered habitats in the U.S, as only 1% of Oak Savannahs still exist today.

St. John's also takes part in 100% sustainable forestry practices. Vast sections of forest are burned to mimic natural processes to stop oak forests from being taken over by Ironwood and shade loving maples.

Oaks need fire to do well. Acorns get smothered often by faster growing shade tolerant trees and don't germinate. Fire does not, however, destroy the acorn, and the acorn can get rooted soon after a fire when other shade loving trees have been completely killed off.

St. John's practice is to rotate through oak forests, burning them, making sure they are seeded, and then removing the most mature trees for woodworking purposes. They also maintain large sections of maple forest to make maple syrup each spring. The Maple Syrup Festival is famous and it serves as a great way to educated area children not only in maple syrup production, but responsible forestry and traditional Native American culture.

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Some other historical high schools in Minnesota that districts are wary to vacate at the expense of other schools.

Hibbing High School: Built in 1920 during a boom in the town. It served as a high school from its opening until 2005 when the 7th and 8th grades were moved into the school due to declining enrollment.


Owatonna High School


Duluth-Denfeld High School

(sorry for the size)


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In Alabama we don't worry too much about it, lol. Mainly because we inhabit the buildings until they can't be used anymore. Of course, some school systems aren't like that in cities like Huntsville, Hoover, Decatur, Auburn, etc... The cities that support their systems more than others. Cities like those keep their buildings in pretty good condition.

In Decatur, the old "Riverside Highschool" built in 1921 is now used as an assisted living community, and is still in good condition. Riversides predicessor, "Gordon-Bibb" (the old Magnet school) completed in 1913, was torn down and a new ommunity elementary school was built on the propert. The magnet school was then moved to a remodeled "Leon Sheffield", which used to be the black high school during the segregation era.

So, the city of Decatur has done a good job with using old buildings for new things.

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