"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pondering history as we weigh old school

What's to become of all this? (B.W. photo)

We rarely have a sense of history as it happens. On rare occasions we do, as with the assassination of JFK or 9/11.
Many important changes happen at such a slow rate we hardly have a sense of what's happening - its import.
When we think of "history" in connection to Morris we're likely to think of the very earliest days. As a particular phase becomes more remote in time, we're more likely to feel fascinated in that detached sense where we call it "history." We call on the museum to do something.
A book was finally published on the WWII era in Morris. It encapsulates the "home front" along with all the dangerous far-flung pursuits. We say "hats off" to all those intrepid young people. It might be too easy to forget the ones who didn't make it.
I would guess the printer of the WWII book cut some corners. The pages of mine are coming out constantly as I page through it. It's still a treasure even though it's ending up as a "pile of pages."
It's a treasure partly because it helps me remember some unique people of the Morris area who have passed on or succumbed to the ravages of age. The stories they tell encapsulate a challenging era.
It's a given that the '40s were distinct. History remembers periods of war so much better than periods of peace.
Whole libraries can be filled with books about the Civil War. What if that war could have been avoided? That would be preferable, of course. But a placid decade doesn't make for shelves full of books.
We feel a sense of history in Morris now as we face the inevitable razing of the old school.
Around Christmas I wrote that the school has been a fixture of our "skyline." The stately building stands out from a number of directions. Imagine looking east along 6th Street and not seeing it there. Wouldn't that blow your mind? For long-time "Morrissites," it surely would.
The 1914 building is the anchor of the complex. It was seen as having potential for restoration and reuse. The elements to the north, ironically newer, were written off.
What's especially ironic is that the old elementary media center, really quite new, is the most susceptible to condemnation. There are issues about how it was built.
The grand 1914 edifice was built when masonry was done with greater skill than today.
The Welcome Center at UMM was built inside the old shell of a building. I'm not sure why a similar revival couldn't have been planned for the grand old school.
The art deco auditorium is attached to the south. Countless special events were held there through the years. It's odd that we should now just discard it.
It's especially sad, unforgivable really, that the whole complex has been allowed to fall into serious decay. The demolition will be quite belated. The City of Morris is going to have to deal with these issues.
We are reminded of changes in economic geography here. The old school and the immediate area had an atmosphere of vitality for a long time.
Kids dashed downhill, barely even able to contain their momentum, hungry for a sack of chips at the neighborhood grocery store. That store is a monument business now, as in gravestones, which is probably symbolic.
You're a "Morrissite" through and through if you remember the "Pylin" eating/snacking establishment. This was another East 7th Street fixture along with the Dairy Queen. The "large" DQ cones were a dime, the small ones a nickel. It wasn't a sit-down restaurant then.
The playground next to the school seemed larger than it needed to be, but that was a blessing. The landscaping for the football field seemed totally perfect.
East 7th Street was once the main entrance to Morris from the east. All in all the area around the school was a real focal point.
Then things slowly started shifting to the south. Little by little the old school lost its standing.
The new high school brought a badly needed new home for high school basketball. A true Morrissite can remember varsity basketball being played at the - well, what do we call it? - the "old elementary auditorium." Thing is, it wasn't "elementary" when I was a kid, it was just the "school auditorium," where in 1970 the grand all-school musical "Oliver" was presented.
It's hard for someone like me to accept that the old structures had to be totally abandoned as if there was no hope for them.
UMM certainly hasn't taken this attitude. The Welcome Center is the best example of how UMM has blended current needs with old structures. UMM hasn't turned its back on the WCSA era. The eras embrace each other.
We were ecstatic about the 1968 gym. I might have been there for the first basketball game but I can't be sure. There was a concession stand hand who always knew I wanted "orange pop" when I showed up.
The new school and its gym represented a shift in the town. We got an auditorium attached to the new school. No longer would concerts and Homecoming coronations have to be held in the 1968 gym. I always thought the gym was a nice place for a lot of that stuff. It certainly was less confining.
I guess the auditorium was a little controversial in how it was funded. It's amazing how these "new" school attributes seem to lose their "new" shine rather quickly. We go from a time where we're positively gleeful about the new (1968) gym, to where we're told it isn't even good enough anymore. It almost seems like a racket.
We need (?) new generations of school resources all the time. Today I frankly think the whole school campus here is overbuilt.
The concert hall is a great idea if it had been built with the idea of fully sharing with UMM. We accomplished this with the football field, so I don't see why arts couldn't mirror.
An arts or humanities facility doesn't sit cold, empty and godforsaken all winter.
Much of our present-day school campus was designed when large "commons" areas were considered desirable. I might translate "desirable" to "trendy." Education is notorious for trends, which is fine but, watch you wallet.
Someday the practicality of intimate school settings, where the real business of education can be conducted, might be impressed on us. Forget the "cavernous" atmosphere. Perhaps these were designed to "wow" the public at times where their wallets got pried open. "Look what you got for your money."
You could shout in these and get an echo, maybe. I think it's a charade.
We have discarded the past too fast. The old school needn't have been discarded like a dirty shirt. It's a rebuff to the long-ago visionaries of this community.
Wouldn't it be great to see that expansive playground alive with the exuberance of youth again? We maybe could have preserved that, even if we couldn't preserve the five-cent or ten-cent cones at the Dairy Queen, or the "American Graffiti" atmosphere at the Pylin.

Invitation to read further
Click on the link below to read my "Elwood Dowd" essay on the old school property, posted in April of 2010. Note: Some of my skepticism about Big Cat Stadium has tempered since then. But I still miss the unique "town square" atmosphere that Coombe Field gave us. Have the attendance concerns faded at Big Cat? I can't be sure but I haven't heard the question raised in a while. I have also covered Tiger football there for two falls since I wrote this.

Click on the link below to read about my "adventure" of looking around inside our old school in August of 2010. This was legal.

- Brian Williams - Morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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