Since it is likely that it won’t be long before the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School building is reduced to rubble by a demolition company, I’ve brought back an earlier “Scrapbook” about the structure (pages 4 and 5 of this week’s print and online edition) to share some memories. During the more than half century that I’ve been editor of this newspaper, a lot of school buildings in Decatur have disappeared into the city’s history.
One of our sons attended Woodrow Wilson and was in the last class at the school before its closing in 1979. With the closure he attended the following year at Johns Hill in the structure that has also been demolished. Another son attended Mound Middle School which was demolished to make way for the shopping complex that now occupies the site. Another son attended Roosevelt Middle School on Grand Avenue. I also attended Roosevelt (not at the same time as our son) and it ceased being a school nearly a quarter century ago. However, Roosevelt was repurposed into apartments so I can still see it standing whenever I drive by but it is not the same as when students were there.
• IT DOESN’T seem that many school buildings in our nation last very long. For example, we have people living in our community who were residents here before Woodrow Wilson opened in 1932. Woodrow Wilson is “bricks and mortar” which should be longer lasting that the human body, but residents are outliving the school buildings. In Europe, buildings last 100s of years. In Decatur and Central Illinois — and across the nation — school buildings that are only decades old are deemed “unfit” for student/teacher occupancy.
• THERE IS NOT a single school building left that I attended except for Roosevelt on Grand Avenue that has been, as I mentioned earlier, repurposed into apartments. I don’t think my attendance in the schools was the reason they closed and were demolished. A lot of you reading this column have witnessed your school building(s) disappearing through demolition which eliminated any opportunity to go back and walk the hallways one more time, On the last day of Roosevelt’s school useage, I went back to shoot some photos for this newspaper. When I arrived late in the afternoon about all of the students and staff had left the building. I walked the halls one last time and went into my home room where Mrs. Fanti had once taught. I spent some time thinking back and connecting to a special time in my life and some childhood friendships formed that remain today. That was 23 years ago on the final day Roosevelt held its last students.
• MANY OF you reading today’s column graduated from downtown’s Decatur High School (Stephen Decatur High School after 1957) and aren’t able to go back and walk those halls, or enjoy a basketball game in Kintner Gym as both were demolished in the 1970s. The new Stephen Decatur High School built on the city’s northside to replace the downtown high school was very nice, but I never had the same feeling walking into that building that I had walking into the downtown structure. (Now that “new” building is no longer a high school, but a middle school.) There’s just something about school buildings where we were students that has special meaning all through the rest of our lives.
• I AM a preservationist but I don’t believe in saving every building simply because it is old — and this column should not be interpreted as a plea to save Woodrow Wilson. The salvation of that building should have taken place many years ago before it became a blight on the neighborhood. Times change and as our community attempts to move forward with the rest of the nation there will be structures that no longer serve an intended purpose. However, our community has been hard on preserving structures that were, or are, valuable and can be repurposed instead of demolished.
I fought unsuccessfully to save the Carnegie Library at Main & Eldorado, the Michl Cigar Store in the 100 block of North Water Street, which had a direct link to Decatur’s Civil War recruitment and involvement, and other structures that should have been preserved — at least in my opinion. Leaders have taken a wrecking ball to many sound structures in the past so that we can create parking lots and there has been a lot of Decatur schools that have disappeared into history thanks to demolition, decay and loss of population.
• SERVICE STATIONS — Last week’s “Scrapbook” feature drew a reaction from faithful reader Tom Hanks, who sent a photo and this message: “Paul. I enjoyed your article about the Marathon service station located on Broadway St. here in Decatur. The old service stations from long ago have always caught my eye because they, unlike most of those today, were truly service stations where you could get most any kind of repair service performed on your automobile.
“These icons from another era had a special look and personality that you rarely see today . As a result of my fascination with most all things of the past I have a collection of photos of old service stations and below is such an outstanding one that was shot in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1940. The whole atmosphere of it especially, with all of the advertising, speaks of another age that has almost disappeared in the successive years. “Everything was so personalized and service was king back then. I, knowing your appreciation of what is endearingly called ‘The Good Old Days’, was certain that you would enjoy seeing this vision of what once was”.
• I JOIN Brian Byers on WSOY’s Byers & Co. every Thursday morning at 7:00 for the City Hall Insider to discuss the issues confronting Decatur and Central Illinois.