The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 8, 2013

To revive or raze: Sandstone grapples with empty icon


Big dreams and wrong turns

The Sandstone school was built in 1901 and then rebuilt and doubled in size after lightning struck it in 1910. It was designed to accommodate a growing city and constructed with the best materials the area had to offer. At the time, Sandstone's very reason for being was to dig, cut and deliver sandstone to cities all over the Midwest. The high quality stone went to build the Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis, torn down in the 1970s, and libraries in St. Paul and Hibbing and on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.

In fact, 1910 turned out to be the peak of Sandstone's growth (excluding a later influx of federal prisoners), when it reached just over 1,800 people. After that, especially after the quarry closed, the city's population stagnated. Eventually, the school district built the new building along Highway 23, which serves four cities, and "the rock" was left empty.

A version of this scenario has played out in many small cities in Minnesota -- from Milan to Kasson -- where shrinking and aging populations have led to school consolidation. When two or more towns put their kids together in one place, at least one building is typically left without a purpose.

In Morris, in western Minnesota, the city is tearing down its elementary school after years of heated debate. But other communities have had more success in saving and reusing their obsolete schools.

In Chatfield, a city near Rochester that's roughly the same size as Sandstone but wealthier, the city is gradually making an arts center from its former high school, built in 1916, and the attached auditorium, built in 1936. The building isn't as ornate as the one in Sandstone--it's made of brick -- but it has its strong points. It's in the center of town, is structurally sound and has never been unheated, so the paint is firmly stuck to the walls and the wooden floors haven't buckled. And like the school in Sandstone, it's an icon that for many residents helps define the identity of the town.

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