Monroe School May Be History

The Gazette, Sat., Dec. 10, 1994
By Lonnle Zingula Gazette staff writer

School may be history
Project architect: Old Monroe School beyond restoration

The final lesson to be learned from Cedar Rapids‘ old Monroe School may be the hardest.

A dozen people interested in historic preservation in general, or the school in particular, toured the rapidly deteriorating brick building Friday and concluded it cannot be saved.

Instead, they said, salvageable features of the school should be retained in tribute to the past and as a reminder to the community of the importance of history and its preservation.

The opinion was sought by officials with the Metro Area Housing Program, who had independently reached the same conclusion.

“It was a great building at one time,” said project architect Herb Stone. “I wish we had started this eight or nine years ago, instead of today.”

Perhaps then, the historic structure could have been saved. But preservation would now cost upwards of $3 million, and there are signs that deterioration has progressed “geometrically” since the estimate was made just this summer, Stone said.

“You can restore this building if money is no object,” he said. “We haven’t found a mystery donor yet.”

THE BUILDING, constructed in 1873 for $12,500, was Cedar Rapids‘ third permanent school. An addition built in 1899 gave it 10 classrooms.

The school, at 10th Avenue and Third Street SE, was the first to hold adult evening classes, and English was taught as a second language to Czech residents. Eighty-five percent of the school’s students were Czech.

Ultimately, the school was abandoned in 1923 after growth of the downtown business district reduced the number of students in the area. The building was sold for $43,500 to the Witwer Grocer Co., which used it for years as a warehouse.

The Metro Area Housing Program — a private, non-profit community housing agency — explored renovating the building after it was donated to MAHP this year. It was hoped the building could be restored as a community center and be part of a companion MAHP project to turn neighboring warehouse space into low-cost apartments.

MAHP has received a $1 million federal grant to apply toward the $5 million renovation of the former Witwer Grocer Co. warehouse at Ninth Avenue and Third Street SE. It will also receive tax breaks through an urban renewal district established for the property.

But no funds have been found to restore the school, which Friday’s visitors concluded was not feasible anyway.

“This is not preservation; it’s reconstruction,” said Peggy Whitworth of Brucemore.

Because of concerns about the stability of the upper floor and basement, the tour was confined to the first floor. People on the tour were able to view other parts of the building, however, through holes in floors, ceilings and walls.

They saw enough to decide the chance to save the school building had passed. It was a difficult admission for those who saw it as another example that a historic preservation ethic is missing in Cedar Rapids.

“No one gets all the blame, but we all share some,” said Whitworth.