The castle-like brownstone building is one of those landmarks many Duluthians couldn’t imagine their city without.
For more than a century, the Historic Old Central High School has been a part of the city’s streetscape, with its pointy clock tower poking up from its spot on the hillside. For decades, it was a bustling hub for Duluth students, thousands of whom traipsed across the grassy lawn and beneath the arched entryways on their way to class each day.
“On one of the TV stations, you’ll see it in the background at the beginning of the Duluth news,” said Nancy Mehrman, a member of the Historic Old Central High School Museum Committee that gives tours of the building.
“It’s an iconic building,” said Bill Gronseth, superintendent of the Duluth Public Schools.
Estimates presented to Duluth’s school board in June revealed the beloved structure is in need of some serious repair. Assessments made by contractors this year put the cost of rehabilitation at $48.5 million.
The school board, which owns the building, hasn’t decided how to address the problems. The old high school, built in 1892, is on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it’s not an option to demolish it and construct something new in its place.
“Preserving the building is important to the whole community,” Gronseth said.
It could, however, mean selling Historic Old Central. Gronseth said in coming weeks and months the school board will launch discussions about whether to find a way to fund repairs or put the building on the market.
He doesn’t know when the school board will reach a decision but said the matter will need to be settled within the next three years at the latest so repairs could begin, if that’s the route chosen. Contractors said the building’s steam heating system would need to be replaced in the next seven years, before pipes begin to fail.
The building currently houses the school district’s administrative offices, as well as its area learning center and adult education programs. Some additional space is leased out.
Historic Old Central wrapped up its tenure as a regular public high school in 1971, when the school board built a new Central High School, which has since closed. Shirley Evensen, who graduated from the old building in 1954, said she was sad to see her former high school stop holding classes. She and some other alumni had the idea to create a museum in the old school years later.
“We just love our history and want to keep Central alive,” she said.
Historic Old Central was the first high school in town, built around the time when Duluth’s access to natural resources and unique status as a large Midwestern port made it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
“It was built to show that our community is one that values education,” said Gronseth, who added that tourists frequently stop to get a glimpse of the interior and, if they’re lucky, a chance to climb the clock tower.
Because of the building’s historical significance, the school board plans to engage the community in conversations about its future, Gronseth said.
Mehrman hopes they’ll find a way to raise the money for repairs instead of selling it. There are a lot of memories preserved in the building, she said — some currently kept alive in the little museum, which features old trophies, science lab equipment and other artifacts from years gone by.
“That’s a fear that I would have that they would turn the building into something else,” she said. “It’s still maintaining some of the school feeling of it right now.”