Celebrating National Preservation Month: 3 Things You Might Not Know About Central SchoolIn a world that often seems turbulent at best, isn’t it comforting to have touchpoints in life that provide the continuity we need to stay grounded? Historic buildings like Central School do just that, and they are worth celebrating, especially during May, which is National Preservation Month.
Old buildings stand as witnesses to the heritage of a community, giving people a sense of place. They also tell us stories about the potential to enrich the community, now and in the future.
There was a time not that long ago, however, when few Americans were familiar with the term “historic preservation.” The post-World War II zeitgeist (spirit of the age) was relentlessly future-oriented, especially during the Space Age. If something was old and obsolete, the logical move was to get rid of it.
This attitude of “new is always best” started to change only when enough people realized that irreplaceable historic structures were being torn down routinely. The most high-profile champion for saving America’s historic structures was First Lady Jackie Kennedy. One of her first actions after her husband was inaugurated as America’s 35th president was to give prominence to the White House, America’s most famous historic home.
The First Lady’s preservation of the White House took center stage in 1962 when she invited the public inside of the mansion for a guided tour on CBS, which attracted 80 million viewers. Years later when Jackie lived in New York City, she helped save Grand Central Terminal from demolition.
“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?” she asked. “If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”
More Americans embraced this spirit. The National Trust for Historic Preservation established National Historic Preservation week in 1973. First Lady Patricia Nixon, read the Presidential proclamation: “As the pace of change accelerates in the world around us, Americans more than ever need a lively awareness of our roots and origins in the past on which to base our sense of identity in the present and our directions for the future.”
Saved from the wrecking ball
As we celebrate National Preservation Month this May, the 2022 theme of “People Saving Places” shines the spotlight on those who a pour their time, energy and resources into preserving priceless pieces of our history, including Central School. Here are 3 things you may not know about Central School:
- Central School served the community for nearly 100 years. Central School grew up with Lake City in the 1880s when the community was booming, thanks to the jobs connected with the Chicago and North Western Railroad and roundhouse. More students prompted the community to invest in modern school buildings. Des Moines-based architects Foster and Liebbe designed Central School. When it opened in 1884, the two-story brick schoolhouse contained four classrooms. The west wing, built in 1897, added four more rooms to Central School, which housed grades 1-12 by the early 1900s. After Lake City High School was built on a separate campus in 1904, Central School remained a grade school until the building closed permanently in May 1980. Declining school enrollment prompted the Lake City School District to reevaluate the future of Central School, since the aging building needed major, costly repairs.
- Central School almost fell to the wrecking ball. The school district used Central School for storage for the next two years. Then the school board began talking about demolishing the building. As this news began to spread, the Lake City Historical Society called a special meeting of its members. Not everyone felt Central School was worth saving. “Why would you want to save that old place?” was their general sentiment. But some local preservationists like Martha Sorenson of Lake City saw the value of restoring this time-worn building. By February 1983, the newly-formed Central School Preservation (CSP) presented a bid of $500 (roughly $1,500 in today’s dollars) to purchase Central School. After the school board accepted the bid, the real work began.
- Central School Preservation is a non-profit, and volunteers are vital. From the start, CSP has been a non-profit organization that relies on donations, grants and volunteers to keep the museum going. We tip our hat to those original volunteers who devoted so many hours of hard work to save Central School. The building required a new roof and new mechanical systems. Broken windows needed to be repaired. Floors needed to be refinished. Undaunted, the CSP team forged ahead. They received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to Pioneer Seed Corn. A number of families also purchased naming rights to various rooms in Central School to honor their ancestors. By 1985, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The restoration of Central School was nothing short of remarkable. The March 24, 1985, Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register carried the front-page headline “100-Year-Old School Evades Wrecking Ball.” “If buildings have personalities, Central School would be a grand dame,” CSP member Martha Sorenson told the Register. “A dignified lady, gracefully aged, still carrying the flair of former beauty.”
Central School is still carrying that flair as our volunteer board members and other supporters find more ways to serve the community. (Follow Central School Preservation on Facebook for the latest updates). We host open houses during Western Days and the Christmas season, plus we’re open for tours (Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., or by appointment). We maintain an extensive collection of Lake City Graphic and Graphic-Advocate newspapers, along with many local history books, to help people find obituaries and other information related to their family’s heritage.
We’re currently raising money to “bring the museum to the people” by digitizing this priceless newspaper collection so it’s available in a searchable, online database, free of charge to the public. If you’d like to help, go to www.historiccentralschool.com and click on the yellow “Donate” button on the homepage, or mail your check to Central School Preservation, 211 S. Center St., Lake City, IA 51449. We’d like to complete this critical project this year, and we’re grateful to everyone who has donated so far!
While preserving history is essential to building a healthy community, so are recreational opportunities. We were thrilled to receive a 2022 Grow Greene County grant, which allowed us to pave a basketball court this April on Central School’s playground. It’s great to see kids playing there.
All this is part of historic preservation and is making Central School a place that sparks imagination to help people find their place in history, live more enriching lives today, and inspire hope for our community’s shared future.
written by Darcy Maulsby
published Wednesday, May 25, 2022