Families fight to keep a Cedar Rapids fortress standing

Adrianna Patterson/Little Village

A rare example of Egyptian Revival architecture stands strong on a sloping hillside in northeast Cedar Rapids.

Imposing stone columns loom tall at the entrance of Garfield Elementary School, 1201 Maplewood Dr NE, while hardwood floors and natural woodwork add a sense of warmth inside.

Built in 1914, the style reflected a growing interest in Egypt during the era, according to Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter. Garfield was one of four schools built that year in Cedar Rapids, a time when the city’s economy and population were booming with expanding industries and job opportunities.

“It was the largest school boom in Cedar Rapids’ history before the Baby Boom era,” Stoffer Hunter said, adding that four architects were hired to design the four different schools, each with a singular architectural style.

Of the four schools built that year, Garfield and Arthur Elementary, situated just one mile apart, have been used continuously for more than a century by the Cedar Rapids Community School District—but both are at risk.

Under the district’s facilities master plan, Arthur, built in an uncommon “fortress” style at 2630 B Ave NE, would be demolished and replaced by a 600-student “mega-school.” And Garfield would be closed, with no plans for its future use.

Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids is among the 13 being considered for replacement. — Lauren Shotwell/Little Village

The closures and demolitions — decided by the school board in 2018 with no vote from district residents — will affect the entire city. Eight neighborhood elementary schools are scheduled to close and 10 to be demolished and replaced. Three newer schools would be retained.

Dexter Merschbrock, elected last year to the school board as District 4 director, said he cannot speak for the board as a whole, “but my personal opinion is we need to listen to the people of the neighborhood and really consider the negative effects of closing neighborhood schools.”

“Garfield is unique,” Merschbrock said. “It’s in a core neighborhood; it is close to our two urban college campuses. My view is the [school] is a benefit to the neighborhood and the district sees a big benefit by being in that neighborhood.”

Mount Mercy University sits just blocks away from Garfield—both were constructed in park-like settings — while Coe College bookends the other side of the neighborhood, closer to downtown Cedar Rapids.

Tree-lined streets twist through the area, with modest homes reflecting the 1920s and ’30s architectural eras in which they were built. Students living in the neighborhood can walk to Garfield and Arthur schools, but more busing will be needed under the district’s plans.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, schools on the closure list have served core neighborhoods, with some designated as hubs for to-go meals for neighborhood children.

“If you think of a neighborhood as a small community of itself, the neighborhood school can become the hub of that community,” said Carol Sindelar, president of the Mound View Neighborhood Association, which borders Garfield Elementary. “It is about relationships being built like a giant web, starting among the children, then entwining parents and even the extended family and retired neighbors.”

Sindelar noted that when a school is within walking distance, children can walk together with their neighbors, school friends come over to play and parents more easily get to know their child’s friends. Parents also get to know other parents as they accompany their children to school or gather outside after school, waiting for class to get out, she said, in contrast to riding a bus.

“Events are easy to attend,” Sindelar added. “A spirit of being together enhances school pride as well as neighborhood pride. Neighborhood schools like Garfield have value way beyond the obvious educational value.”

CRCSD Superintendent Noreen Bush said Phase 1 of the multi-year facilities master plan is underway, with two new schools on the west side of town, at the sites of Coolidge and Jackson Elementary.

Garfield Elementary School is among the eight Cedar Rapids schools that would be closed under the Facilities Master Plan. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“We have a ‘pause’ after that first phase in order to assess our best next steps forward,” Bush said in an email, adding that due to the pandemic, the “pause” has not been implemented yet. “Our big picture goal of equity and supporting our community remains our focus in our FMP planning. Garfield’s building has some unique architectural features that have surfaced some great conversations about historic preservation. Beyond the physical aspects of any of our buildings, we will need to continue to assess our population and enrollment trends to make [the] best decisions for our community.”

Stoffer Hunter said the century-old Arthur and Garfield were built to last and could easily stand another 100 years, even if it comes down to taking them out of use as schools.

“We have a good track record in Cedar Rapids of repurposing old school buildings,” he said, citing the former Monroe Elementary, among others.

A mid-century modern school, Monroe was closed several years ago, and has since been turned into a mix of apartments in southeast Cedar Rapids, an undertaking that was named a preservation project of merit during this summer’s Preserve Iowa Summit by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

“These outstanding properties give communities a unique sense of pride and place,” Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said of the award winners in a statement. The department oversees the State Historic Preservation Office. “The adaptive reuse of these iconic buildings is a creative and economic way to revitalize an entire neighborhood.”

Cindy Hadish is a freelance journalist and volunteer board member for Save CR Heritage, which raises awareness about historic buildings in Cedar Rapids. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 285.

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