Written by Sonjia Weinstein
Back in 1936, first grader Harvey Brannon sat on the windowsill of Lander, Wyoming’s one room schoolhouse during lunchtime and watched the new Lander Grade School being built, brick by brick. Watching the artistry and pride with which Lander Grade School was constructed inspired Harvey to become a union bricklayer for 30 years of his adult life. Now, 75 years later, Harvey may witness the demolition of that school building, which is now called South Elementary School. On May 27, South Elementary is scheduled to close its doors - not just for the summer - but forever. Demolition is scheduled to begin at the end of May.
South Elementary is a rare example of Art Deco architecture in Fremont County. The original structure was completed in 1937 as part of the Public Works Administration, a program designed to create employment opportunities during the Great Depression. South Elementary is one of only three New Deal schools remaining in Wyoming. Distinctive features include mosaic brickwork of children reading and terra cotta bas-relief sculptures on the facade. The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office has declared that South Elementary is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2003, the Wyoming School Facilities Commission (SFC), the state agency in charge of ensuring that communities across the state are provided equal resources for educational facilities, declared that North Elementary and South Elementary in Lander needed to be replaced. At the time a cost benefit analysis system used by the SFC determined that the cost to renovate the schools was more than 60% of the cost to build new, which provided reason for the schools to be replaced.
Two years later, the local school board voted to reconfigure its schools, combining the three small elementary schools into a K-3 school, a 4th-5th grade school and moving 6th grade into middle school. As part of this decision, it was determined that South Elementary would be demolished to reuse the site for a new K-3 school. People within the community immediately raised concerns for the historic value of South Elementary, but were told that the SFC would not pay for renovation. Since then, the SFC has changed its policies, purportedly taking historic value into account in the current matrix system.
Over the past year, efforts to save South Elementary intensified and culminated with a petition to the school board to support actions to preserve the original 1937 portion of the building. More than 450 community members, including Harvey Brannon, signed the petition and submitted it to the school board in November 2010. And a citizen group called Save South Elementary was created.
Despite this show of public support, the school board voted unanimously to proceed with plans to demolish South Elementary. They refused to allow a condition assessment and rehabilitation cost estimate of the original 1937 structure even though the study could have been done at little to no cost to the school district through grant funding. The school board based the decision to continue with demolition on the 2005 decision to reconfigure schools, without regard to changes in the SFC policy or the concerns of the community for the historic value of the 1937 New Deal school.
Although the school board and superintendent are set on their demolition decision, a demolition permit has yet to be issued and SFC funds yet to be allocated. There is still time to reach out to the SFC and City of Lander asking that a study be conducted on the feasibility of preserving and using the original 1937 South Elementary School. Please join Save South Elementary in speaking out for preservation of this part of our nation’s history by signing our petition.
Wyoming’s Historic Schools have been nominated as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places in 2011. South Elementary School was part of the impetus for this nomination. The 2011 11 Most Endangered List will be announced on June 15. See the National Trust’s Historic Neighborhood Schools Initiative website for tips and information about protecting these important community assets.
Sonjia Weinstein lives in Lander, Wyoming and leads the advocacy efforts of Save South Elementary.
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