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Despite preservation efforts, Shingle Creek school faces likely demolition

CC/Flickr/edkohler
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.

“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.

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.

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.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 09/28/2012 - 10:28 am.

    Typical

    When has Minneapolis ever been big on historic preservation? Well, the Schubert, which was not the brightest of ideas. Otherwise, it’s generally shove it aside, bulldoze it and replace with something that, like the dome, is pariah after 30 years. This is why St. Paul has a rep as a “warmer” city. What we need here on the north side, as everyone knows, are resident owners who reinvest. What we have is an excess of non resident owners who drain the assets and do not maintain properties. How about preserving some lawns that are actual grass rather than allowing the parks department to seed my neighborhood with milions of dandiloins every year?

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/28/2012 - 11:57 am.

    If I understand the design

    correctly, it sounds like a monument to inefficient energy use. An aerial view proves it.

    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=5034+Oliver+Ave+N,+Minneapolis,+MN&hl=en&ll=45.046973,-93.304825&spn=0.004524,0.006942&oq=5034+oliver+ave+n,+minn&t=h&hnear=5034+N+Oliver+Ave,+Minneapolis,+Minnesota+55430&z=18

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/28/2012 - 01:49 pm.

    Historic preservation

    Having worked on the periphery of historic preservation as a planning commissioner, it’s important to note that historic preservation only works to most people’s satisfaction when the structure has – or is given – a viable and energetic new use. Because it’s my neighborhood, I walk past this structure almost every day. It’s not built to work very well as a commercial property, and if it’s not going to be a school, for what would it be used? As Karen noted in her piece, a perfectly good community center is right across the creek, and even if those functions were moved to the school, there aren’t enough of them, or enough participants in them, to make use of the entire building.

    This sort of design is as common as the dandelions that Mark Wallek loathes if you move 700 miles south. The district where I taught had several “pod-type” elementary schools, and in the St. Louis metro area, there were probably dozens of them, but that is a MUCH milder winter climate, with nothing like the snow loads and heating demands that Minneapolis buildings have to deal with. The only real advantage of the design is that in warm weather – since we consistently refuse to air condition instructional space except in furnace-like conditions like Phoenix – at least what is energy INeffecient in the winter has something of a counterbalance in that it allows all those windows to be thrown open for ventilation in the spring and early fall.

    What’s more sad than the loss of the building is the loss of the NEED for the building. Obviously, when it was built, there was a substantial student population in the neighborhood that made use of the facility. I still see school-aged children in the immediate area who dutifully march to bus stops every morning to ride to… some other school. I don’t know the demographics of the neighborhood in enough detail to know whether there aren’t enough children to support the facility (apparently, the school district believes that’s the case). Maybe the population has increasingly leaned in my own direction – that is, increasing numbers are retirees, or at least “empty-nesters,” for whom an elementary school is largely superfluous.

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