Preservation

School renovation

At first I thought everybody went to elementary schools that looked like castles, with red brick trimmed in white, slate roofs, copper gutters, and wooded yards kept well groomed. The arched wooden entry doors carried on the castle theme. (They were heavy! They were also replaced several years ago with modern glass and steel doors, but at least they kept the arched entries.) Inside, doorways were arched and trimmed in wood. One Kindergarten room even had a fireplace. I was proud to go to such a beautiful school.

Growing up, I noticed that anonymous one-story, flat-roofed schools were actually more common. I used to feel sorry for the kids who went to those bland school buildings! What I didn’t know was that their schools were air conditioned. My school wasn’t, so we sweltered in September and June! The newer schools also had parking lots for teachers, bus loading zones, and adequate space for administration. My school had none of these things. Teachers parked on side streets. Buses (the few there were then) lined up at the curb where children thronged; we didn’t think about the safety risk. And the principal and the school secretary were crammed into two tiny offices. I guess that was the state of the art in 1931 when James Monroe School was built.

Since the 1970s, when I was a student there, the building has fallen even farther behind the times. Busing has increased. Communication systems have become more sophisticated and modern classrooms need to be wired for Internet. In addition, much routine maintenance was left undone in the name of cost savings. Children on South Bend’s south side were overdue for a school building that better met modern needs.

I understand that urban school systems have tight budgets, and conventional wisdom says it’s usually cheaper to demolish and rebuild. It would have been a shame to tear down that great building, though, and so I was excited when I learned that the decision was made to renovate.

I stopped by while I was in town the other day and peered in a few windows and doors. Some of the windows in my old Kindergarten room are low enough for me to see in, so I started there. It looked like they were using this room as a headquarters of sorts. The room was vacant except for a big book of blueprints on a table, and a big page of renderings taped to the fireplace:

Monroe School renovation

I started to become concerned as I squinted at that page. It looked like they were going to build rooms out into the building’s front yard, obscuring most of the building’s lovely main entrance. Here’s a photo I took of the entrance last year:

James Monroe School

Here’s the main entrance now. I have recently read a news story that says the front yard will become a parking lot, and found a court document on the Internet that says that a 20,000 square-foot addition will be built somewhere on the property, so I’m not sure what the real plans are.

Monroe School renovation

Some classrooms on the building’s west side had low windows, so I peeked inside. I was amused to find that blackboards were installed before the walls were painted:

Monroe School renovation

I was very troubled to see this:

Monroe School renovation

Entire doorways are being ripped out. Remember how I said that the interior doorways are arched? I do have a dim memory of unarched doorways in some of the building’s early additions, which were otherwise sympathetic to the original building. The above photo is from one of those additions. Arches are still intact in the building’s oldest portion, the main hallway, shown in the photo below. (That’s Miss Seidler’s music classroom there, the first door on the left!) I hope the arches stay.

Monroe School renovation

Based on what I see, I am very concerned that this renovation will change this building’s character. I would think that the whole point of renovating the building is to preserve that character! I know I’m an old sentimental softy, but I love this old building and want to see its key elements remain so that other children can experience similar pride and wonder at attending a castle school.

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7 thoughts on “School renovation

  1. Of course, there were some of us who went to ugly, boxy schools that didn’t have air conditioning, either.

    The thing that bothers me the most about school building design is that they seem to really try to make them as bland as possible, even when making them a bit brighter and more cheerful would cost no more. I recall the first time I walked down the flooring aisle at my local big box store and saw that Armstrong made their commercial linoleum in a wide range of bright colors, at the same price as the boring stuff that they used in the schools. Would a bit of bright paint hurt so much, too?

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    • The 1985 school my sons went to was pretty blah. Lots of beige, sprawling floorplan, no character. It had “open concept” classrooms, vast spaces really with no doors — in which partitions had been placed when they figured out the open concept stunk.

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      • Lone Primate says:

        Just as I started university, I went to visit one of my high school English teachers, who’d moved on to an older school mid-town. It had been built in the 50s and I remember being fascinated by the aesthetics as I wandered the halls. There were no sharp corners. Even where the walls met the ceilings, they did so in these smooth, soothing, futuristic curves. Everything just merged into everything else. It was sort of faux-futuristic, and being from that future, I had to laugh. Funny how conservative we really turn out to be in some matters.

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  2. kurt garner says:

    We had a tower at the LaPaz school-now demolished-we believed that that’s where they kept the crazy teachers.

    Well, I do certainly feel your pain-at least something will be left, eh?

    Kurt

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  3. Justin Otto says:

    Hey Jim, i don’t know if you still get on here but i’m actually helping my wifes grandpa with the cleanup on the renovation to the school this week, i have to say that it is an awesome school and they still have the fireplaces on the first and second floor, i actually have a pic of what is under those construction plans on the fireplace, and why they are there. anyway i wish i could find some older pics or something, i can’t find a thing online about the history of this place

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    • Justin, thanks for chiming in. I’m relieved to hear that they’ve done a nice job on the restoration. I’m especially glad the fireplaces survived.

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