Nearly half of Cedar Rapids School Board skips meeting on fate of Harrison Elementary; majority of others ignore potential savings, affirm decision compared to demolition of historic Union Station
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Ignoring the pleas of residents who asked the Cedar Rapids School Board to reverse its decision on demolishing the most architecturally significant elementary school in the city, three of four board members who attended the Oct. 19 special meeting reaffirmed their opinion that they should decide the fate of Harrison Elementary School, rather than letting the community decide.
School board president David Tominsky and members Cindy Garlock and Nancy Humbles refused to second the motion by board member Dexter Merschbrock to overturn the vote to demolish Harrison, thus avoiding an actual vote on the measure that came to the board as a result of a petition.
Empty chairs where School Board members typically sit are seen during the Cedar Rapids School Board meeting on Oct. 19, 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
School board members Jennifer Neumann, Marcy Roundtree and Jennifer Borcherding skipped the meeting entirely. All three, along with Tominsky, Garlock and Humbles, had previously voted to disregard a committee’s recommendation to upgrade Harrison, instead voting to spend nearly $30 million to demolish it and build a new school on the site.
Only Merschbrock voted against demolishing Harrison earlier this year.
“I just hope everyone’s watching,” he said during the meeting, in which 10 people spoke against the demolition and none in favor.
Others in the crowd of more than 40 people thought they signed up to speak — required by the School Board — but inadvertently signed the wrong form left in front of the meeting room. Another man, who tried to turn in his form, wasn’t allowed to speak by School Board secretary Ryan Rydstrom, who said it was after 5:30 p.m., even though the proceedings had not yet started.
“I’m glad that at least half of the board valued our time today,” said Ashley Vanorny, a Cedar Rapids City Council member who was not speaking on behalf of the city, but as a member of the task force that examined building a new school on the Madison Elementary site or updating Harrison.
She noted that the demolition of Harrison had not even been an option during the eight months the committee examined data and ultimately recommended keeping Harrison as a school.
“If the city had a chance to go back and keep the Greene Square train depot, we would,” Vanorny said, referring to the demolition of the downtown Union Station decades ago. “It is one of the things that we regret the most.”
More than 30 people attended a demonstration supporting Harrison Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Oct. 17, 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Mary Tresnak of Cedar Rapids reiterated the lament over the Union Station decision, adding that businesses often seek to locate in older buildings, such as in the New Bohemia district where Tominsky and Neumann both work.
“Older buildings have an intrinsic value,” she said. “They’re built with higher quality materials such as rare hardwoods and wood from old growth forests that don’t even exist anymore.”
Lisa Kindred, whose children attended Cedar Rapids schools, noted that Harrison was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under a different school board, in 2014.
“Harrison remains one of very few historic buildings with character and heritage in the Northwest Area Neighborhood, following the devastating flood of 2008,” she said. “The building possesses structurally sound construction even by today’s standards, including steel frame-reinforced walls and floors.”
A sign in front of Harrison Elementary School notes the building’s historic value. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Kindred noted the following:
Harrison was designed in the rare English Tudor Gothic style by architect Harry Hunter, a prominent architect who also designed the historic Commonwealth Apartment Building on Second Avenue SE; and the mural in Harrison was painted by artist William Henning, who was advised by renowned artist Grant Wood on the painting.
“Much newer construction is built to last around 30 years, so this practice of discarding buildings that can be rehabilitated is truly not sustainable and does not show much consideration for the future,” she said. “This current demolition plan seems to consider only the upfront costs of today, and not all the hidden or future costs.”
Eryn Cronbaugh of Cedar Rapids echoed the message of the demolition’s environmental impact.
“The greenest building is the one already built,and it feels extremely short-sighted at best to tear down Harrison,” she said. “New and shiny isn’t going to solve the issue of losing students to other districts.”
Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter was unable to attend, but wrote a letter to the board, read on his behalf.
“If you haven’t yet, go to Iowa City and see in person both the Longfellow and Horace Mann elementary school facilities,” he said. “Both have restored their historic original exteriors, created a new modern and functional interior and built large new additions that are very compatible with both the historic structure and the character of the neighborhoods they exist in. This works in Iowa City. It can work in Cedar Rapids.”
Audience members listen to speakers during the special School Board meeting. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Stoffer Hunter noted that the Harrison architecture is of the same structural integrity and classic architectural beauty as the Veterans Memorial Building, the Paramount Theatre and Theatre Cedar Rapids, among other historic buildings in Cedar Rapids.
“It will be terribly missed and never forgotten if it is destroyed,” he said.
Two speakers mentioned that the Northwest Recreation Center, built by the city next to Harrison, was intended to be used by Harrison students, but has not in recent years.
“To me, it doesn’t make economic sense. It doesn’t make cultural sense,” said Larry Hagerman of Cedar Rapids, who attended Harrison.
Stacie Johnson, who is challenging Tominsky for a seat on the school board, noted that the School District had paid $500,000 toward building the recreation center to look similar to Harrison, and before the amount was even paid off, the school stopped using the gyms in the rec center.
Donald Tyne of Cedar Rapids said demolishing Harrison would “take away the history and the soul of the Northwest Neighborhood.”
Save CR Heritage submitted a letter to the School Board prior to the meeting, detailing the historic significance of Harrison and noting that the building qualifies for grants, and potentially, historic tax credits that could save taxpayers money, compared to the costs of demolition and new construction.
“While the documents detail the historical significance of Harrison, that isn’t the end of the story, as the architect’s report and committee’s recommendation demonstrate Harrison can serve students for generations to come, and keeping the building in use as a school combines the best of both worlds,” the letter from Save CR Heritage stated. “Updating the school and building an addition, as recommended by the task force, would use local labor, keep our taxpayer dollars circulating locally and serve as an incredibly positive piece of news.”
Rather than providing taxpayers savings, however, Tominsky suggested that the School District pay for moving the school, which, given the solid brick structure, could cost millions of dollars.
The meeting was scheduled after more than 500 petition signatures of Cedar Rapids Community School District residents were submitted, which required the request to be included on the agenda of the next regular agenda, or within 30 days. The School Board opted to schedule a special meeting.