The city of East Bethel has taken pains to try to preserve a 19th century one-room schoolhouse, with the hope of turning it into a history center.
The building was moved by flatbed truck from a private residence to Booster East Park in September of 2010. Around the same time, volunteers started fundraising for the renovation project and gathered artifacts to re-create a period classroom.
But a recent inspection found the schoolhouse was “beyond repair.” After weighing the facts at its April 3 meeting, the City Council designated the building a “surplus property,” to be sold within 30 days or to be torn down.
City administrator Jack Davis said it’s not a decision that was made lightly: “It’s a real difficult situation to be in. We’ve tried to emphasize that we understand the attachment to the building and the local historical significance.”
That said, the city doesn’t have the funds for a major renovation of the schoolhouse, he said.
East Bethel is just one of many communities trying to weigh the costs of preserving historic sites against other budgetary pressures. In Anoka, for instance, the city has been considering its options for a structure known as the stone house on the Rum River. In Ramsey, it’s unclear how another old schoolhouse might be used in the future.
In East Bethel, in a memo to city officials, building official Nick Schmitz wrote that renovating the schoolhouse would mean “most of the structure would have to be replaced to repair the building, leaving very little of the existing building intact.”
At this point, the building once known as the Brown School and as District No. 37 could be a liability to the city, he said.
Besides having long sat vacant, it has been uprooted several times. The Booster East Park location is its fourth, and moving the building likely caused structural damage. It also made it ineligible for federal historic status, meaning the city can’t get certain types of federal funding to preserve it, Schmitz said.
If the schoolhouse is demolished, the city plans to reuse parts of it for commemorative purposes, he said.
Ken Langmade, chairman of the city’s park commission, which raised $2,850 for repairs, said it’s disappointing to lose this piece of history, especially something that’s meaningful to many community members. However, he understands that “it would cost a fortune to bring it back into shape where we could use it,” he said.
His daughter, Linda Mundle, a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society who had been collecting materials to go into the history center, echoed that: “You hate to see something go but you also have to face the facts.”
Now, she’s trying to “move on and see what else can be done with the rest of it,” For starters, she’d like to use her research to put together a book about the schoolhouse, which last housed students in the early 1950s. “We would like to have the story told,” she said.
Uncertain future for other sites
In Anoka, the City Council decided last year to stabilize the stone house that had been in decline on the river. The city hopes to restore the structure to its former glory — a far more extensive and expensive undertaking — although how and when that might happen isn’t known, said city administrator Tim Cruikshank.
At the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, a one-room schoolhouse was shuttered a few years ago after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service condemned the site because of mold and other problems.
The schoolhouse probably will be removed at some point, but when or how has yet to be determined, said Steve Karel, a spokesman for the refuge.
Similarly, the future of a vintage schoolhouse in Ramsey, which was used for a while as a city hall, is up in the air.
Late last year, the City Council discussed the possibility of moving it to near the city’s new Northstar commuter rail station, as a way to showcase the historic building, said City Administrator Patrick Brama. The council considered using the schoolhouse to store electrical units for the rail, or rail information. But the proposals didn’t get far. “The cost to do it is a lot and it was too much for us to stomach at this point,” Brama said.
That said, many people are fond of the schoolhouse. “There’s a lot of interest. No one wants to see it go away.”
Preservation as community engagement
Erin Hanafin Berg, a field representative with the St. Paul-based nonprofit Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, said examples like this are all too familiar.
When it comes to historic sites that need work, “Local government officials struggle with what’s the right thing,” she said, adding that they don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars.
But in some cases, restoration costs can get overblown, while many buildings last longer than people realize, she said.
In considering the possibilities for historic properties, she encourages communities to do their due diligence and to look at “what are the true costs and what are the opportunities that it might present,” especially in terms of community-building.
In the case of the East Bethel schoolhouse, community members had a “nice vision for how the structure would continue to play a role in the community,” she said.
The cause brought people together in a strong way. “A lot of people were passionate about seeing it preserved. That’s a level of engagement that you don’t see too often,” she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.