Nomination to the National Historic Registry
The South Square Building was officially added to the National Historic Registry in 2019!
(Jennifer Price, Price Preservation, Historian)
The Saint Ansgar Public School building (South Square) is located in a residential neighborhood of late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses about two blocks southwest of the historic commercial district of St. Ansgar, a small town located in the northwest quadrant of Mitchell County just south of Iowa’s border with Minnesota.
Saint Ansgar Public School is a well preserved example of a “Modern School,” a historic school building type that dominated public school architecture in the 1920s and 1930s. Designed by school architect Oren R. Thomas and completed in 1929, Saint Ansgar Public School included many features of the Modern School movement, including:
1) a single school building that housed all grades from kindergarten through high school
2) an architecturally impressive façade and front entrance
3) a modified L-shaped open plan
4) many of the Modern School’s combined-use innovations, in particular the gymnasium/auditorium.
Saint Ansgar Public School retains most of its original Modern School features including its historic exterior architecture and focal point façade with Colonial Revival style details, as well as many original interior features and finishes, including interior wood entryway with multi-light transom and sidelights; hardwood floors in most classrooms and gymnasium; terrazzo hallway floors; brick veneer wainscoting in the gymnasium; and gymnasium/auditorium entrance doorways with arched decorative plaster transoms.
Saint Ansgar Public School represents the history of education in St. Ansgar from 1929 to 1966, particularly the school’s importance to the town of St. Ansgar and its surrounding rural community as a publically funded educational institution and community center.
Although not a consolidated school, Saint Ansgar Public School nevertheless educated rural students on a tuition basis, and the ever increasing enrollment of rural children from 1929 through the 1950s reflects the growing importance of this educational facility to area farm families as well as townspeople.
Along with its importance as a community school, the Saint Ansgar Public School gymnasium/auditorium played a significant role in the building’s importance to the community of St. Ansgar. In addition to school sporting events, commencements, and student plays, the gymnasium/auditorium facilities were often used for wider community events, such as 4-H Club meetings, cooking demonstrations, public entertainments, even one local broadcast radio quiz show.
The social history of the Saint Ansgar Public School as an important community gathering place will be a focal point of the research for the National Register nomination.
Saint Ansgar Public School retains sufficient integrity under all seven aspects of integrity and is locally significant for the National Register. In general Saint Ansgar Public School retains its original materials and workmanship in its exterior architecture, including decorative brickwork, stone trim, name blocks, cornerstone, pilasters, and fenestration pattern.
The school presents a sense of time and place, specifically the Modern School era of public education in the late 1920s. In addition to its mostly intact exterior architecture, Saint Ansgar Public School’s location and setting surrounded by a mostly late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century residential neighborhood is intact.
The original school building has had some modern modifications, as have most historic public school buildings in Iowa, including replacement and partial infill of windows as well as replacement of exterior and most interior doors.
A 1960 interior remodel that reconfigured classroom partitions and added a new cafeteria kitchen in the north side of the gymnasium reflects the later history of the building’s transformation into an elementary school. The minimal physical alteration of this remodel has allowed the 1929 Saint Ansgar Public School to retain the historic identity and architectural character for which it is significant.
The nomination project will enhance community pride in St. Ansgar's beloved historic school and provide the means for its long-term preservation and rehabilitation as a community center.
St. Ansgar, a small rural community of about 1100, has no other structure that compares to this building. Built at a cost of $100,000, the school was a large expense and considered the most modern in the area at the time.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, numerous community activities were held in the gymnasium/auditorium, from the usual school sporting events to county fairs, radio contests, and cooking demonstrations. The nomination project will give St. Ansgar Historic School Project Inc., a local non-profit formed to save the building from demolition, the means to preserve this irreplaceable piece of St. Ansgar's history and continue the school's historic function as the educational and social center of the community.
Already, the historic school is fulfilling its legacy as a center of community pride through the consistent involvement of the people this place touches, including the young and old, local residents, and visiting alumni.
Citizens in all walks of life have come together to do rehabilitation projects like fixing walls and painting. The school, renamed South Square, is once again becoming the heart of the St. Ansgar community, a busy hub of coffee groups, art classes, dance lessons, music, theater, and more.
The nomination project and the historic rehabilitation that the school's listing on the National Register will make possible will serve to encourage more preservation projects in St. Ansgar, and the school itself can serve as a model for the preservation and rehabilitation of historic school buildings in communities across Iowa.