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Despite preservation efforts, Shingle Creek school faces likely demolition

The Minneapolis School District calls the empty structure a burden that costs about $50,000 a year to maintain.

Shingle Creek Elementary School in North Minneapolis has "a rare design but one that didn’t work well in Minneapolis."

Shingle Creek Elementary School in North Minneapolis has a spring date with a wrecking ball, despite a July decision by the Heritage Preservation Commission that it has the potential for historic designation.

At that time, the commission denied the Minneapolis Public Schools’ request for a demolition permit.

“It has been a burden on the district since the school was closed [in 2007] because we have constant vandalism,” said Clyde Kane, its interim director of facilities, who said that maintaining the empty structure costs about $50,000 a year.

Demolition was approved by the Zoning and Planning Committee, which stayed that actual teardown for 180 days to give the school district another chance to sell the property.

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“This is the only school in Minneapolis with the cluster design,” said Aaron Hanaver, senior city planner for Minneapolis, who argued against demolition based on the design of the building and the role it played in desegregating the city schools in the 1960s. At that time, 27 black and Indian children were transferred to the then-all-white Shingle Creek facility.

The 23-classroom school, completed in 1958, is made up of three-room clusters connected by enclosed hallways. At the time of construction, the design was thought ideal for harsh climates, allowed the grouping of students by grade level and was easy to expand.

The idea got started in 1955, when Minneapolis Assistant Superintendent Frederick Hill contacted Connecticut architect Eliot Noyes about his “bubble” designs for a possible elementary school, according to a study of Minneapolis Public Schools by Landscape Research of St. Paul.

Noyes was working on balloon-formed concrete bubble classrooms and homes, which had been featured in Life magazine the year before.

Two years later, the school board chose a local firm instead but was still interested in the cluster plan.

“I’d be more impressed if they had hired the person with the original idea,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill after listening to the district’s building-maintenance troubles.

“It was a very expensive school to run,” said Amy Lucas of Landscape Research, one of the authors of a 2011 study of historical preservation designations prepared for the district.

The building required five separate furnaces, one for each cluster. Its water pipes, which run through the hallway floors, froze in the winter, and each classroom’s exit doors to the outside were seen as a safety hazard. Also, the low roof attracted bike riders.

“It is a rare design but one that didn’t work well in Minneapolis,” said Lucas.

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She also countered the argument that the school be spared because of its role in desegregation.  “Every school had a role in desegregation in Minneapolis,” she said.

The elementary school was originally planned for Northeast Minneapolis but was moved across the river to accommodate families who had moved to the far north end of the city after World War II.

Bungalows and ramblers were built on land that had been truck farms. Many of the new residents worked for the city, which, at the time, required workers to live in Minneapolis.

City Council President Barb Johnson was one of seven children in the Rainsville family living nearby in a one-and-a half-story bungalow with one bathroom.

“Far more historic in this neighborhood is the actual neighborhood itself,” said Johnson, who disagreed with the idea that the school’s design is historic.

Neighborhood residents interested in saving the school have suggested it become a community center or home to Park and Recreation Board activities. But Creekview Park and Shingle Creek Park are both nearby.

“There have been some discussions with the Park Board,” said Kane, but nothing that lead to any agreement on a partnership or sale of the property. “I don’t foresee a public entity coming forward.”

The school was on the market for nearly two years. The market value for the building and land is estimated at $6.9 million, but it would need about $5 million in repairs.

Only two groups — a charter school and a nonprofit organization — came to check it out during that time, according to Kane. Neither made an offer.

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In 2010, the district started preparing the building for demolition by removing asbestos, mechanics, ductwork and ceilings. 

“Taxpayers want to see their money used wisely,” said Johnson. “The time has come to fish or cut bait,” she said.

If there are no buyers, the district is allowed to move ahead next spring to tear down the structure without further action by the City Council or Heritage Preservation Commission.