Approximately 60 Iowa schools are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places; many more are listed as contributing features to historic districts. Their National Register-significance lies primarily in their association with public education in Iowa and their architectural style. But in the hearts of many Iowans, the true significance of Iowa’s historic schools lies in the shared history, community identity, and architectural legacy they represent. The Iowa Historic Preservation Office is working to increase public awareness of Iowa’s historic schools and the need to preserve them.
During the mid-1990s, a one-room country schools survey was conducted using an HRDP (Historic Resource Development Program) grant. The survey found that of the approximately 12,000 one-room country schools in existence in 1901, just over 2,900 remained standing in 1998. At that time, approximately 350 stood vacant, over 100 had been converted into museums, and roughly 1,500 had been converted into houses or outbuildings. The survey resulted in the compilation of a book (Iowa’s Country Schools: Landmarks of Learning, edited by William L. Sherman) and the nomination of several one-room schools to the National Register of Historic Places.
The most recent statewide survey of Iowa’s public schools included photography of over 800 pre-1940 public school buildings in use across the state, full National Register-evaluation of 50 buildings, and 28 properties forwarded for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Of those, 15 were listed on the National Register in 2002 and 13 are pending listing in 2005, along with the historic context “Public Schools for Iowa: Growth and Change, 1848 – 1955.” Three booklets on the significance of Iowa’s public schools were also produced as part of the survey: Country Schools for Iowa, Town Schools for Iowa, and City Schools for Iowa. These booklets are available online at the Statewide Inventory and Collections.
The shared history represented by Iowa’s extant historic schools is palpable. William H. Drier, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, speculates that as much as 75% of Iowa’s population in the late 1800s and early 1900s was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. In the 20th century, these rural schools fell into disuse as Iowa’s Consolidation Movement grew and several rural school districts were consolidated into one with a centrally-located school. Whether vacant or being reused today, these schools are instantly recognizable artifacts of earlier times.
In the 1930s and 1940s, an untold number of Iowa’s schools were renovated, added onto, or constructed using Public Works Administration (PWA) funding or Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor. Today, these buildings present a tangible link to the history of the New Deal programs put in place during the Great Depression.
Other examples of buildings representing a shared educational history in Iowa include “normal” schools, “modern” schools and “platoon” schools. These schools each represent key educational movements or theories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The history and design embodied in remaining examples of the buildings built during these movements provide insight into how they affected the way Iowans were taught.
In addition to a shared history, historic schools have given many Iowans a shared “identity” through both the architecture of the buildings themselves and the sense of community fostered inside their walls. One-room schoolhouses were the heart of rural neighborhoods, serving as gathering places for social events and governmental functions, as well as centers for education. Larger schools were often the most prominent buildings in their communities. Designed in the highest styles by local, regional, or national architects, schools epitomized the importance society placed on educating children and became an important symbol of the community as a whole.
Ultimately, though, the community identity represented in Iowa’s historic schools comes from the long-lasting relationships that formed inside the buildings. For many Iowans, memories of childhood friends and special events come rushing back with a mere glimpse of the places where they spent so many of their formative years.
Architecturally, Iowa’s historic schools illustrate what were the latest in educational trends and technological advances of the time. Most one-room schoolhouses had standard sizes and designs. Although we think of many as simple, gable-roofed rectangular forms, schools in more prosperous districts were often embellished with additional architectural details, such as cupolas and round-arched doorways and windows.
Larger schools were designed to fit needs that went beyond the basic education offered in country schools. They responded to new demands for workforce training in commercial/industrial trades and to the development of specialty schools, such as “opportunity schools,” where students with special needs required unique architectural solutions. They also incorporated the latest construction technologies of the times, such as the use of glue-laminated beams to span large open spaces in the 1940s and 50s. While these trends affected the layout and design of the buildings, schools were often built in the prominent styles of their day, representing the ever-changing architectural tastes of the last century and a half.
Iowa’s historic schools represent our shared history, community identity, and architectural legacy. But the story isn’t complete. Much more needs to be done to truly understand the significance of these important buildings. Associated features, such as playgrounds, outbuildings (privies, sheds, stables), and teachers’ housing, need to be identified and researched. Private schools and institutions have yet to be investigated. Archeological investigations on our earliest school sites still need to be done. The lives of significant educators and school architects should be researched, as well. All of this will help us understand the true legacy of our historic schools.
On these pages we provide information on how to preserve Iowa’s historic schools and the significance that lies within them. If you’d like to know more or have information to share, please contact:
State Historic Preservation Office
600 East Locust
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0290