After my brother, his best friend Mike, and I had soaked in the nostalgia of visiting our old neighborhood, we walked to our elementary school just as we used to 35 years ago. The school had undergone extensive renovations and expansion and was open to the public to tour. We made a special trip to South Bend for it, because as my brother observed on the drive up, this would probably be the the last time we had a chance to walk those halls.
You have to understand that we feel fortunate to have been a part of James Monroe School. It was the backdrop of so many excellent childhood times, and we benefited from a few truly excellent teachers. We had hoped for a post-renovation open house just to revel in the memories.
The tour began at the main entrance. The principal and the school secretary had always shared a tiny suite. The renovation expanded it to take over that space plus the two rooms next to it (the nurse’s office and the music classroom) to create spacious offices for administration. This is the new principal’s office.
The building is a mix of original and modern. The preservationist in me would have liked to see a little less modern, but at least the building wasn’t razed, something I heard was considered. This is the main hallway, a new dropped ceiling overhead. The main staircase is at left, its original railings intact.
I attended Kindergarten in this room. It’s a first grade classroom today. I’m so glad they saved the fireplace. The new dropped ceilings in all the classrooms slant upward toward the windows to let in more light. The building is finally air conditioned, but the windows all open and are fitted with screens. In my day there were no screens, so on hot open-window days classrooms filled with flies.
This was the other Kindergarten classroom. It’s a teacher’s lounge now. Kindergarten is now taught in the building’s new wing.
The gymnasium seemed utterly unchanged.
The building was expanded twice before, in 1947 and 1959. This classroom is the first in the 1947 addition. Notice the brick wall, which used to be the building’s exterior wall. (And check out this photo, which shows this classroom and its across-the-hallway twin during the demolition phase.)
This is where the 1959 addition begins. In my day, the cafeteria was just around the corner and we’d line up for lunch on this ramp.
The cafeteria has been relocated to the new addition; the 1959 addition is all classrooms now. This was the most transformed part of the building. The 1947 addition was sympathetic to the original 1930 building, but the 1959 addition was in the plain mid-century vernacular. The arched doorways were added to match the rest of the building, and even the exterior has been significantly reworked so that blends into the building’s style.
It wasn’t until after we left that I realized that I hadn’t seen much of the newest addition. I guess I was more interested in the building I knew! I did pop briefly into the new library, however.
The second floor was much like the first, but I did want to show this photo of Room 209. It is a hallowed room, for Ruth Brown taught here. My brother and I both passed through her fourth grade class and are better people for it.
We also took a walk up to the third floor, which contains just two rooms, one larger and one smaller. The school’s cafeteria was originally up here, so the smaller room was probably the kitchen. Later, this became the band room, and I hear that the smell of lunches past never quite left it. In our time, it was largely used for storage, and students were not allowed up here unless accompanied by a teacher. I had only been up here once before. Today, it is the only part of the school not renovated. I was tickled to find an old chalkboard and intercom box still in place, making a typical old-time Monroe School scene.
My photographs make it seem like the open house was sparsely attended, but the place was actually quite packed. I saw several old friends and even spoke to a few former teachers who came to visit. One even gave me a great big hug and said I had been a favorite, which was touching but puzzling since she had never been my teacher.
I could have hung out in Monroe’s hallways all afternoon, but the open house lasted just two hours and our tour had consumed almost all of that time. Still, I left feeling supremely satisfied. It was great to connect with my childhood in a building ready to welcome several more generations of children.