In May 2020, voters on the Iron Range approved a school consolidation plan that had been under discussion and negotiation since 2017, merging the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts. The consolidation includes the planned construction of three new schools. This plan has made six current schools and two vacant school buildings available for either demolition or reuse.
At the urging of some Range-area citizens who wished to see how the remaining school buildings could be reused, Rethos Policy Institute director Erin Hanafin Berg presented options for potential reuse to the Rock Ridge School Board and Gilbert City Council in early January. Numerous schools have been adaptively reused in Minnesota as housing, including projects in Cloquet, New Ulm, and Winona that were completed within the past couple years. Other schools have been repurposed to provide community spaces, public libraries, city offices, community organizations, and a multi-purpose reception and performance venues.
Like many single purpose structures, school buildings can sometimes seem like challenging candidates for adaptive reuse. Surprisingly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Although not suited for every reuse, former schools have quite a few enduring design and construction characteristics that make them great for repurposing. With sturdy brick construction, spacious hallways, plumbing and electrical hookups, and ample classroom space, schools can be converted to community centers, offices, and apartments – and more. Whether still owned by the community or taken on by a local developer, these schools have the right features to continue to welcome community members long after students have left the building.
Central Square and Madison Place (Winona)
The Central Grade School in Winona originally opened its doors in 1930, operating for over 80 years before its closure in 2012. Its storied career of contributing to the local community didn’t end there though. Although small in size, the building’s quality Gothic Revival design and interior tile and carved stone features were too great to destroy. Using Minnesota’s State Historic Tax Credit, developers were able to renovate the school into 15 units of housing, which opened in 2021. A similar project nearby, undertaken by a different developer, turned the historic Madison School into 21 apartments. Both buildings are fully leased and have waiting lists for new tenants.