Students share memories Historic 1903 school building demolished

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Demolition of the 1903 school building in Guttenberg was started on June 12 to make way for a new structure scheduled for completion in December of 2018. New construction is expected to begin very soon. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

The oldest school building on the Clayton Ridge Guttenberg campus was demolished last week to make way for new construction. In this two-part series, The Press looks back at the building’s beginnings with reflections from former students.

The historic structure was completed in 1903 at a cost of $6,000 following a census of school age children, which indicated that enlarging the school would be necessary. The school board leased the land for the building from the City of Guttenberg for 99 years at a cost of $1 per year. Construction wasn’t finished in time for school that fall, so the first and second grade students of Miss Blake and Miss Jacobs studied at Turner Hall until December. Plans for the building included provisions for future expansion, and in 1909 the rooms on the lower floor were divided to make additional classrooms and the second floor was equipped for high school assembly.

When Jan Hansel attended high school in the 1950s, the large windows were not yet boarded up and could be opened when needed – which was often, as the building didn’t have air conditioning. “This led to interesting objects being taken out the windows and placed outside. A spring ritual was that most teachers who had the front rooms would find their desks outside,” Hansel told The Press.   

Chemistry and physics classes were held in the old grade school, and the band room was behind the kitchen, Hansel recalled. “The girls bathrooms were in the basement of the old grade school when we were in junior high. Once one of the girls in my class sat on the sink that was attached to the wall and the sink came off with water shooting up. We thought it was great; the janitor was not happy. People attending school in the 50, 60, 70’s, will know who he was – his bark was worse than his bite.”

Shelia Tomkins, class of ’68, reflected, “By the time my generation — the first wave of Baby Boomers — was ready for school, a new elementary building awaited us, constructed in 1954 to the north of the 1903 building. As junior high kids, our classes were mainly in the 1886 building (later demolished in the 1970s). When we reached high school age, most of our classes were in the 1903 building, with its high ceilings, radiator heating and creaking wood floors. The four classrooms on the first floor were Mr. Kopecky's math room, Mrs. Shirley Schmelzer's social studies classroom, Mr. John McGeough's English class (also used for physics), and Mrs. Miriam Vorwald's language lab, equipped with state-of-the art earphones and microphone system that she used to lead us through French pronunciations and conjugations.”

Tomkins recalled a large room to the north in the underground level for vocal music, complete with painted concrete floor, folding metal chairs and an oak spinet piano, and to the south, industrial arts rooms – these primarily used by boys. “Taking the long flight of impressive terrazzo steps to the second floor, the principal's tiny office was on the south — one could often find a student serving detention there. Business classes, such as shorthand and typing, were on the north side of the second floor taught by Miss Meyer,” Tomkins told The Press. Home economics classrooms – specifically targeting female students – dominated the remainder of the second floor with four color-coded kitchens, sewing machines, and desks.  “The east side of the building housed the gymnasium, with one large wall of bleachers on the east and a balcony and lockers on the west side. Mr. Hanna's band room was just off the southeast corner of the gym,” she said.

Sharon Wittman, class of ’73, recalls a campus so crowded that the district allowed older students the privilege of open campus. “I had a 7:30 a.m. early bird class and I was done by noon for the day, then went home and slept so I could work nights,” she said. 

An anonymous member of the class of ‘74 wrote, “When I was in junior high, there was an even older building on the south end where the high school is now. We would climb up the fire escape of that building to the second or third story. There was a window lock that was broken... We would crawl through that window and then go to the boiler room in the basement. From there, there was a tunnel that went into the basement of the 1903 building. I believe the tunnel came into the art room. Then we would head up the steps to the gym balcony and we could see what color the mark was on the hands of the people attending the basketball game. Then back down to the art room to get the appropriate marker, and magic! We were able to attend the high school basketball games for free.”

For more student memories from 1975 to today, look for the second edition of this series in the July 4 issue of The Guttenberg Press.

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