The following article was originally published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette on June 24, 2018.
Standing in one of her old classrooms in Monroe Elementary School, Sue Serbousek still can envision where her kindergartners would play with blocks, page through books and make crafts.
The school where she taught for 22 years recently has been rehabilitated into apartment and loft units. For Serbousek, who remembers a school where staff felt like family, she looks forward to the building’s next life.
“It was our home, our second home, for a lot of us,” she said, looking around one of the building’s two-bedroom units. “ ... It’s still very school-like to me. It will be different when there are people actually living here.”
The building, which the Cedar Rapids school board voted to close in 2012, is set to open to its first tenants in July as Monroe Place.
Elected city and school representatives as well as historical preservationists say the renovated school, 3200 Pioneer Ave SE, could be a model for other Cedar Rapids schools slated to close over the next 20 years.
Chances a vacant school would remain empty in Cedar Rapids are slim, said City Council member Scott Olson.
“Cedar Rapids has been very fortunate compared to the rural communities,” said Olson, an architect and Realtor. “That’s where the problems are — where the buildings sit there and deteriorate, they can’t get enough rent to make the numbers work, they become an eyesore and they’re torn down. Where here, most of our (former school) buildings are in areas that are doing really well.”
The 1961 Monroe school — with its large classroom spaces, wall-to-wall windows and tall ceilings — is “perfect for a great apartment,” Olson said.
Monroe is the first school building in Cedar Rapids to be converted into housing, said Mark Stoffer Hunter, a research historian for The History Center.
“As a historian, it’s groundbreaking for Cedar Rapids preservation on so many levels,” Stoffer Hunter said. “ ... I’m really anxious to see how successful this turns out, as it could be a great prototype for what could happen down the road.”
The Cedar Rapids Community School District, which used to own and operate the Monroe building, intends to shed eight elementary schools over the next two decades, though funding for the district’s extensive facilities plan has not been secured.
Plans for the schools slated to close under the plan — Garfield, Grant Wood, Kenwood, Madison, Nixon, Taylor, Truman and Van Buren elementary schools — will be set as the school district looks to space out closures over the next two decades.
Predicting what school buildings might become, or if the school closures will even more forward as planned, is so unclear it’s like “looking into a crystal ball,” said City Council member Susie Weinacht.
If the school facilities plan goes forward, Weinacht said she hopes residents will have ample time to discuss the future of their community’s school building.
In discussions thus far, school board President John Laverty said he’s heard interest in adapting vacant schools into senior centers, day cares, health care centers and housing.
“There are a lot of people talking about things, and there have been things talked about in our community for quite some time,” said Weinacht, who is a member of a joint city-school committee tasked with reviewing the community impact of closures. “The No. 1 thing is these schools should not, would not — and we don’t want them to — sit empty. Monroe is great example of what a community can do with the building.”
None of the post-World War II school buildings once owned by the Cedar Rapids district have been abandoned or left vacant, Stoffer Hunter said. Former schools have gone on to become churches, privately-owned schools and office space.
The level of preservation in Monroe — which is owned by the Affordable Housing Network, an affiliate of Four Oaks — has been encouraging for the historian.
The multicolored, glazed tiles and cubby spaces in the hallway are valuable markers of a baby boom-era school, Stoffer Hunter said.
“A building like Monroe here really details the feel of that incredible period of American history, when we had so many kids coming up in American society and we needed to build so many schools,” he said, noting Monroe was one of seven schools opened in 1961 in Cedar Rapids.
Nearly 60 years later, the district is facing the opposite problem as enrollment declines and it weighs closing eight schools.
“If we do go forward and close some of our Cedar Rapids school buildings, this is a great option,” said Stoffer Hunter, standing in one of Monroe’s long hallways. “It’s a great fit.”